Monday, 21 March 2016

Place

What draws us to certain places? Why do we end up birding/walking where we do? Is it purely convenience, or is there more to it than that?

My first locality that actually meant something to me was Beddington SF. I've posted about my early allegience plenty of times before. Even though the old place has gone forever (currently masquerading as a landfill site being systematically raped of its wildlife value), it does exist in my memory and I frequently go there still, via the power of recall. On the surface why would anybody want to keep returning to a place covered in liquid shit, but return I did. To my mid-teen self I felt as if I was being allowed access into a magical place, entrance by permit, ornithological history already in place and welcoming me to continue in building it further. The old brick outhouses, dyke system, elm-lined lanes, hedgerows and meadows were already being removed when I first visited, but the feeling of being present in the past was very strong and most comforting.

Epsom Common was another early bolthole, adopted at the same time as Beddington but very different, being largely broad-leaved woodland with scrubby common land, that still boasted breeding Grasshopper Warblers (I would regularly hear 3-5 reeling birds each summer). Again, the reek of nostalgia was strong here, with old ponds, cottages and commoner's greens strewn throughout the area - I could imagine the horses and geese pottering about, poaching the water's edge where rare aquatic flora grew. I spent many happy days here and could not ever see a time when I would stop doing so. But the scrubby areas scrubbed up into woodland, the Grasshopper Warblers left and so did I. My returns are infrequent and although it is a fine place for natural history, it isn't the place that I remember.

And now we get to Dungeness. A fortuitous RSPB holiday at the bird observatory got me there in the first place. My first impressions were not good. But within a week I had fallen for the shingle. Much has changed over the intervening 40 years. The point has become gentrified, weekends during the summer see the roads clogged up with day-trippers, the RSPB reserve has been utterly transformed, there are areas that I could wander across back then that I no longer can, and others that I couldn't wander across that I can do now. All this change (much of it detrimental with my loathing of crowds) has not affected my affection for the place. The shingle possesses spirit. My own past is buried in it. It always will be.

Another mid-late 1970s place of pilgrimage was Pagham Harbour. It took effort to get there pre-car. Train to Chichester. Bus to Sidlesham Ferry. Then a very long walk, to Church Norton, Pagham Lagoon, even Selsey Bill (and sometimes all three in a day!) But boy did I have fun. I saw so many species for the first time at Pagham, it really was my finishing school as far as birding goes (although we never ever stop learning). I don't think I ever had a duff day there. Parts of it became totemic - the churchyard at Church Norton, the Severals reed bed, the harbour mouth. I can recall particular birds with a clarity that jolts me back to the very time and place. Not many places have such a hold. And yet I've not been back for over six years. Something to remedy.

The North Downs. Not all of them, just my bit, that runs from Ranmore to Gatton. Open sloped, wooded topped. Not brilliant for birds but some of the best botanical stations in the UK and the same goes for the butterflies as well. Haunted by Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen with hand-lenses and butterfly nets, and if you listen closely to the breeze, the words of authors and poets, who have been moved by the landscape, ride upon it. The paths and byways have been trodden for centuries by pilgrims, back-packing escapees and those who want to commune with nature. It would be hard not to feel at one with such a place.

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