The Birds at Midnight

March 21st 2010

Walking home from work at around half past midnight, I take the usual cut through from the University, passing the place where Claudia Lawrence was last seen a year previously. It takes me through the grounds of a hospital along a badly lit path, which at this time of night (and after the Friday that was the final day of term) is populated by no-one. To my left, someone has scrawled a slogan that I have forgotten, though the memory of its being there remains. The path opens out at the hospital entrance, where perhaps 25 geese are picking at the grass. They make almost no sound as I pass. I turn out on to Thief Lane, where the usual stumbling-drunk students are absent, as are the convoy of speeding taxis. I take the pavement alongside St.Lawrence School, and stop just short of the entrance when I hear the tell tale call-reply of two owls in the trees opposite. I stand and listen, the distant rumble of the east road to my back, the hidden grounds of the hospital behind the old wall in front. I don’t see the owls moving through the air, the bedroom lights of the hospital residences means my eyes are unable to adjust to the dark as much as I would have liked. Their calls criss-cross the leafless branches, they fly silently between them. Despite the time of night, as I head onward through Daysfoot, a blackbird is singing in the hedgerow which marks the path.

January 30th 2010

On my way to work, walking the reverse of the route mentioned above. Of the four street lamps that light the path, one is not working. As I approach it, a barn owl flies in front of me, perhaps a metre from my head, crossing from an oak in the field to my right to the wide tall trees at the rear of the hospital. It is the only time I have seen a owl in the wild, despite hearing them almost nightly in my garden. My next door neighbour in Luton used to keep them in a cage in his back garden, and fly them on a tether. I remember waking one night to the sound of scratching on the tiles of the roof above my room; the owl had escaped and was cleaning its claws. The neighbour knocked on the door and asked for help. As I was already awake, and with a box of dead mice that he provided, we (me/Dad/neighbour) managed to coax the owl back down. A few years later the neighbour and his kids moved to Brighton, and were replaced by a new family, the father of which died from a heart attack in his work van whilst driving down the Dunstable Road (I remember asking if he had crashed, and being reassured that he managed to pull over in to a side road). They too moved away, shortly after the funeral. I think I was perhaps fourteen at the time.

Nov 26th 2002

Two days after my birthday, I woke up from some semi-slumber to find the world disguised beneath thick fog. My University halls were a ziggurat, my room a panoramic double at the top with two of the four walls made entirely of windows. Across from me, bleeding out across the dense grey, the muted gleam of the opposite residence. I opened my windows to better see the spectacle, perhaps even to touch it in that way you sometimes imagine you can with a thing that appears so solid and thick. The halls of residence were built on a gentle slope (in fact the whole University was) with the ‘ground floor’ being forty feet higher than the ground and passage between buildings conducted on thin concrete walkways. At the bottom of this slope, perhaps two hundred metres from my room, a man made lake. Fog was apparently a regular occurrence, but I was yet to experience it. Looking out of the open window, it remained sadly intangible, as clouds do. I changed my clothes, grabbed my minidisc recorder and the awful gooseneck microphone I had at the time (not a field recordists best friend) and wandered down the internal staircase five floors to the bottom. Nobody was around and through the half light, cast by the street lamps on the service road, shapes grew, merged, dispersed. I walked out on to the grass in front of Halls, where I could just make out the glow from my own room. Voices ricocheted across the concrete gully between the opposing pyramids. I walked for maybe thirty minutes, still partially asleep, periodically checking the levels on the recorder.

What I wanted was to capture the environment I was walking through, the odd mood I was in, the time of day, the way the fog and the architecture was funnelling sounds in a way that reminded me of Mitchell’s description of the weather bouncing off telephone wires out on the Canadian prairies; ‘the night wind had two voices…one that keened along pulsing wires, [and] one that throated long and deep …the swarming hum…’*. It was a sound so unnatural it troubled me for days afterwards. It was a kind of quiet I found terrifying. I rediscovered the minidisc this week, whilst rearranging some furniture upstairs, and after reacquainting myself with what is now archaic technology (which I still prefer to mp3) I transferred the one 30 minute audio file to my computer. The wave form was a line with sporadic peaks and long unknowable silences that, despite the absence of any real aural markers, still transported me to the place I had recorded it. Whilst listening back to it I thought that to the ears of anyone else it would simply be some vague crackle that begins and ends with uncertain footsteps on a flight of stairs.

February 13th 2010

Again on my way back from work, this time after some brief snowfall which had frozen hard to the ground. I’m still getting used to wearing glasses, and try and stay on my feet in crappy workshoes by spending the entire journey staring at my feet to make sure I don’t slip on the ice. I am, as ever, distracted from this. The walk along the usual cut-through is tricky, as rather than concentrate on the ground, I look through the wire fence to the field where three horses live. I can hear them moving in the dark. At the end of the path, I emerge on to Heslington Road. The beams cast by passing cars and alike throw the light across the ‘anti-glare’ surface of my glasses at unexpected angles. I take the short cut at Daysfoot Court again, where a single bright white bulb in a lamp post illuminates the path. As I pass underneath it, the air becomes full of ice crystals. I am surprised enough by this that I stop still and watch. In every direction I turn, ice crystals spin end over blue tinted end, brought in to being by the combination of this particular lamp light, the glasses and the cold frost-filled air. As I slowly move off, the glittering twirling shards change colour, prism-like, hurtling across the light spectrum before disappearing in to darkness. I make my way home tentatively, briefly looking up at the stars above the church tower. When I get in, I climb the stairs and write down the following on the post-it notes next to the bed: Street lamp, ice crystals in the air. I stick it to my glasses so that I find it when I wake up, though I doubt I am likely to forget the strange experience.

March 18th 2010

My parents had been visiting since Monday. On the Thursday, with rain forecast to push in from west to east, we decide to risk visiting the coast at Flamborough Head (which I mistakenly confused with Spurn Point, a fair way to the south on the Humber). On the approach road, we pass the old lighthouse, the top missing after a violent storm and subsequent fire a long while ago. Its replacement stands a little back from the headland, part of the Trinity Research Station. There’s also a café that is closed and a toilet which has no working sink. The car park is quite busy with minibus and coach groups who take the well trodden paths out along the cliffs. A park bench part way to the headland is covered in flowers and cards. I see an old couple walk over and read some of the messages that have been left behind. Dangerously close (as my Mum mentions and I ignore) to the edge of the cliff, we peer down to the sea. The cliffs have fallen in to the water at various points, and large boulders protrude from the surf. Colonies of gulls and guillemots take to the sea, diving out of sight for fish, and returning. On the whitewashed wall of the research station, a kestrel lands, and sits watching us until we move away. Around the far side of the research station, we see where the falling limestone cliffs have created columns of rock where birds gather. Later in the year, May or June time, puffins nest here in great numbers. There is still one limestone arch remaining, not dissimilar to Durdle Door. The whole area is being pulled apart by salt water, water that near the shoreline is an amazing turquoise blue. As we are about to leave to return to the car, Zoe points out a strange bobbing rock a little way out in the water. There are birds circling about it, those already sitting on the water move away from it or take flight; a seal, its huge black liquid eyes blinking in the grey afternoon. It stays for a moment, looking up at us, and then dips under a wave.

We move up the coast to Bempton. It is a truly extraordinary place. Farmers fields extend away from us to the end of the land, a fence the only indication that the earth falls away to the sea. We walk down a narrow track alongside the field, the wind biting, the clouds massing to our left. I am slightly unsure as to whether or not the trip is going to be worth it; there is no sign of any birds. I am not a bird fan especially, but I feed them and watch them in my garden, and I try to maintain an interest in the natural as much as I can**. As the path comes to an end at the fence, an alcove is cut as a viewing platform, along with three more further along. It is at the point of entering the alcove that the sound hits you: the combined calls of thousands of sea birds perched on the cliffs slightly below the viewing area, wheeling, diving, fighting, fucking, feeding. I have never heard sound like it. The cliffs are 400 feet high, considerably more stable than those at Flamborough, and populated by kittiwakes, guillemots and razor bills. It is one of only two places on the British mainland where you can see nesting gannets. They are bizarre and slightly frightening creatures; their wingspan is huge, their eyes are decorated with a menacing black streak, and they glide effortlessly on the winds buffeting the coast line. It is both natural and unnatural, though the latter is probably the result of having not seen them before. The sea is relatively shallow down below, so they don’t dive in that way so beloved of nature documentaries. Thirty or forty guillemots bob out on the coming waves. I watch them for a while. A volunteer at the reserve arrives with some kind of binoculars that resemble a telescope. He is here to look for puffins (which Zoe is also dying to see). It is too early for nesting, as I mentioned, but they come in at the end of March/start of April, to scope out potential sites. The man points one out to me in surprise, but I am unable to spot it amongst the guillemots and it has flown around the rugged promontory before I am even looking in vaguely the right area. As compensation for missing this, I spot four harbour porpoises heading out to sea.

We move up toward the next alcove, the sound from the birds disappearing as soon as we step back from the edge. To the left (the sea to the right) is the eerie monolith of the decommissioned RAF Bempton. It was a radar triangulation station during WWII. Concrete pillars, arranged in a triangle, stand totem-like in the field. I assume they are part of the original listening equipment; they remind me of a considerably more advanced version of the concrete sound mirrors on the south coast (Dungeness), which fell out of use with the development of radar***. The buildings of the compound are overgrown and broken in to large crumbling pieces, concrete huts with roofs caved in, vacant spaces where doors and windows should be. The wind, another keen one conjured from the sea, creates the illusion of a distant steam train moving through a valley as it passes through the gaping holes in the structures. The landowner allows people to explore the site with prior arrangement and on the proviso that it is entirely at their own risk. From the photos of the inside of the site that I have subsequently discovered, it is something I would really like to do, though it is quite a challenge to reach from York, mainly because of the lack of car. As I walk along the cliff, I think about the building sites I used to visit with Chris when we both moved back to Luton after University. We were partially nocturnal then I suppose, and almost always drunk, clambering through scaffolding, wandering the outlines of rooms and later, when nearing completion, the formal structure of an actual functioning building. All these spaces are out of bounds now they have taken on their intended roles, but we have walked through the transitions, their developmental stages, their constructive adolescence. A jumper, perhaps left behind by a contractor, was thrown (by us [probably me]) into a miscellaneous pipe when we first visited the site. It fell impossibly slowly, the sound of the impact at the bottom twisting up the pipe, a sort of hollow tubular ringing.

At the last viewing point, the cliff is at its highest and I feel briefly uncomfortable at my proximity to the drop. There are thousand of birds here, hanging to the edge of the country, riding the wind out on to the water. Looking down from the viewpoint, I again see a seal, out in the brawling surf. I wonder if it is the same seal from further along the coast. Slightly to its left, a gannet skims the surface of the water for a rising fish, and the seal dives away. The rain has arrived by this point, and up the coast Filey is submerged beneath it. We turn to head back. A shotgun sounds somewhere behind the derelict military base, echoing amongst the empty shells of buildings. In front of me, a startled skylark darts out from the tangle of last years crops and leaf mulch on the field. It flies an erratic path toward me, eventually landing on a fence post nearby, flustered, looking about itself for tell tale signs of danger. I watch it for a moment, this bird joining the growing list of wildlife I have seen for the first time in the wild. After a minute or so it takes off again, in to the sky-wide approaching rain clouds, towards the now silent concrete installation.

* Mitchell, W.O. (1947) Who Has Seen The Wind, Toronto, pg. 191
** York is not as good as Luton in terms of the birds it attracts…where here my garden sees dunnocks and robins, there you get Sparrowhawks and woodpeckers. The Dales fared slightly better though, the still snow capped hilltops featuring grouse and snipe.
*** Yorkshire has its own sound parabolas at Redcar, Kilnsea and Boulby.

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One Response to “The Birds at Midnight”

  1. Imaginary Landscape | T.I.S.A.R's blog Says:

    […] campus, and the other following the school route past St.Leonards (via a cut-through I mentioned here) and then a shortcut between hospital buildings at The Retreat, the mental health centre […]

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