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Bonzer Words!: Whinchat

In this delightful account of idyllic childhood holidays in Cumbria, Phillip J Mather tells how he became an enthusiastic bird-watcher.

Phillip has written for Bonzer! magazine. For more enjoyable articles and poems visit www.bonzer.org.au

As a child we regularly took family holidays on the Cumberland coast. Initially, my parents rented an elderly static caravan sited on a farm. It was a working farm; reached via a long dusty track (the summers were far hotter for far longer in those days).

The caravan had an outside toilet, housed in a draughty old stone byre and must have dated back for centuries. The 'loo' itself was simply a hole in a plank positioned over a drop into a stream. There was no light and the building was full of cobwebs and vaguely discernible scratchings and rustlings. It was not a place in which to linger long.

The Romans used to have communal lavataria with many positions, allowing conversational discourse during the morning's ablutions, and I recall a friend's farm having a two-station affair, but our holiday facilities were not as sociable, just a dirty smelly hole-in-the ground with a draughty, ill-fitting door.

The farm was home to a number of largely untamed collie dogs that were sometimes attached by lengths of rusty heavy-duty chain to buildings or to various bits of farm machinery. Sometimes they were not attached, or had become dis-attached and would take great delight in chasing small boys!

Each evening at dusk a great white barn owl would perch atop the telegraph pole and survey its realm as I peered out from behind caravan curtains, marveling at its ability to seemingly rotate its head through a full 360 degrees.

In subsequent years we took a cottage a little closer to the sea and on the outskirts of a small village. The cottage was remarkable because serving to hold up one corner of the veranda was a fully carved and gaudily painted ship's figurehead in the form of a mermaid: brassy, buxom and thoroughly mesmerizing to a small boy.

Each morning we would pack sufficient rations for the day: soggy ham & tomato sandwiches; hard-boiled eggs (with a screw of salt); meat pies and sausage rolls and gallons of coffee in flasks and bottles of pop. All were packed safely into duffel bags with towels, groundsheets, windbreaks, cricket gear, water and bowl for the dog all of life's necessities for a day-at-the-beach.

Then we would follow the track, over the level crossing, calling hello to the signalman. If we were especially fortunate there would be a train in the offing and we would wait for it to thunder frighteningly through belching fire and brimstone and scattering small stones in its monstrous wake. On then, past Tommy the cow, wishing him (her!) a good morning too and continue to process through general heathland to the dunes and finally, the beach.

What a beach it was absolutely devoid of any other living soul for miles in any direction. We became quite proprietorial over OUR beach and would jealously resent anybody else who dared to invade it.

My father, never one to over-exert himself, especially when holidaying, devised a system to entertain the children and exercise the dog at the same time, without any physical involvement of his own. He launched the kite (easily done in the updraft of the dunes), tied it to the dog's collar, paid out sufficient line for it to fly and sat back with his pipe.
Result: happy children, happy parents, somewhat confused but not unhappy dog. The dog, an Elkhound, was in fact very pleased with itself and would promenade around the family group, head held erect by the up-draught of the kite and with an expression of sublime self-importance on its face for hours at a time.

In the early stages of one of these flights I was looking up at the kite and not down into a rock pool when a flying creature about as large as a barn door showed itself briefly above the near horizon of the dunes on its quest for rabbits.

Shock! Terror! Excitement! - A GOLDEN EAGLE!

Did such wondrous birds really live in England? I thought they were confined to rocky crags in the distant Scottish highlands but later in the week we were to hear on the wireless that indeed there was a resident golden eagle and that holidaymakers were reporting sightings from all over the Lakes. Indeed a few days later a further, longer sighting through binoculars was made possible from "The Ratty" that marvelous narrow gauge railway that still runs from the ancient Roman port of Ravenglass up through the hills to Eskdale.

The long days passed. Few, if any people intruded upon our tranquility and often we would have sole use of the baking sands all day until a herd of cows would amble down, late afternoon, to drink from a fresh water outlet that cut its way through the foreshore to the distant sea. Cows, albeit gentle creatures, are also extremely curious and the sight of a large hairy dog flying a kite would offend their sensibilities to such a degree that they would quicken their pace and canter towards us en masse in order to get a closer view of the phenomenon.

This was generally our cue to pack up and begin the homeward trek.

Three or four decades on, I can still visualize that road with its dusty meanderings and the ever present, bubbling calls of skylarks high above the sandy scrub.

Upon either side of, and intruding onto, the road were gorse bushes, in full bright yellow blossom. Flitting with rapid wing beats and a jerky flight between and amongst them was a small, largely brown bird searching for insects or spiders. It perched perkily on the top of one of the bushes and as it did so, allowed sight of its black cheeks, striking white eye-stripe and white sides to its short tail. It had warm buff underparts and was calling in a persistent, strident, fashion.

"What's that?" I asked of my father.

"A whinchat"

"Why?" (What an annoying child I must have been.)

"Because it is sitting on top of a whin bush, which is what they call gorse up here and it is making a chatting noise".

Well, that seemed to be eminently sensible. Whin bush plus chatting equals Whinchat.

Thus, I was hooked on birdwatching. I still am.


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