The House on the Bank of the Maiden’s Pool. A night in an abandoned hamlet.

Gwen's House

High in Southern Snowdonia lies a forgotten plateau. It’s a beautiful, wild place. It rains hard and often. The wind bends trees. There are footpaths shown on the map but in reality they are lost, covered in heather or swallowed by bog.

Throughout the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century people lived and work here; in the slate mine and in a nearby hamlet comprised of three small farms.

In the first few years of the 1900s Gwen Jones was born in this hamlet, one of six children. Her family rented their cottage because they could not afford to live anywhere better. They farmed sheep as best they could in such marginal land.

It was tough living so remotely, her great-nephew tells me she attended school in a village half a day’s walk away, walking in on Monday, staying there during the week before returning on Friday evening to help on the farm.

By the end of the first world war her family and the others had left – pushed by hardships of a life little changed for over two centuries, pulled by the modern world in the valleys below, with its electricity and light and drains and warmth.

Then come the Second World War, man on the moon, civil rights, mobile phones and the internet.

And now I am stood in the doorway of what remains of her home watching the sun setting behind the ridge of hills to the west, an orange glow pouring through the space between two of the peaks. A little of this glow illuminates the few slates still resting on the remaining roof beams.

Roof beams

Walking through the shell of her childhood; I pat the walls, they are solid, half a metre thick maybe and I notice the size of the fireplace – almost two metres wide. It’s easy to picture the family sheltering within – safe from the cold winter nights, the storms and snow.

Suddenly a noise behind me, I turn to see a fox bounding past the back window. I go outside but it has disappeared.

Through foxgloves and bluebells to the river that flows past the houses. There would have been connecting paths once, smoothed by years of children’s feet and grown up shoes but now there are just sheep tracks.
One track leads to another house, marked “glan-llyn-y-forwyn,” on the map – the “bank of the maiden’s pool.” The pool lies in the river below, looking dark and cool. The air is still warm and i’m dirty and hot from hiking across moorland. So I walk to it, take my clothes off and swim. I’m soon out of my depth, treading the peaty water, gasping from the cold water.

The Maiden's Pool

Above me fly a few swallows, feasting on the midges rising from the surrounding marsh.

When this pool was last swum in? So long ago. No splashing now, no laughter, just the sound of my breathing and the water burbling over the rocks at its entrance.

After drying myself, I set up camp near the house on the bank.

I try to imagine the final night spent by the family in this place, in their home. There must have been one. After the arguments, after the tearful decision to leave was reached, after the children informed, after the arrangements made. The possessions would have been packed, the cart set to arrive the next morning. Then one final meal perhaps.

A century later I follow the course of this last night. I too make a fire. I too collect water from the river. I too prepare a meal. I think of my actions as a memorial to the people who lived here.

It must have been hard to leave. This place was not simply a location at which to live but their life. These stone shells, these ruins, speak of hard, modest lives lived as part of the landscape. The houses were made from it – rock, wood and slate refashioned to make a home. Their fuel and water were collected from it. And the sheep fed on it.

I drink a brandy toast, wishing them good luck through time. I hope things were better wherever they went.

It’s a week after the solstice and it gets dark slowly and late, but eventually the first stars to appear above the hills.

There are no lights in view, I feel alone. But i’m not – bats appear from the woods and begin circling around me. The people left but they stayed. Perhaps they moved into the deserted houses, the new tenants.

Before I get into my tent I look at the house “on the bank of the maiden pool” again, at the damage.

For years the seasons turned. The roof, weakened by harsh winter after harsh winter eventually caved in. One year the the chimney must have collapsed. Little by little the stones of the walls became covered in vegetation. The place fell back into the arms of nature, embraced by fern, moss and grass.

As a hamlet, the place is dead, just a shadow of human hopes and effort. But life goes on here.

The sun still rises where the river falls – down the valley. In the day swallows, warblers, pippits and larks fly amongst the sheep barns. Ring ouzels pass by on their way to the rockier slopes. Wildflowers bloom and attract bees.

The sun still sets over the hills. At night the barn owls and pipistrelles take flight. In the marsh, frogs call. Around the old buildings foxes prowl.

Yes, life will go on even when the place is erased from human history completely. When the beams have all rotted and the walls have collapsed into the undergrowth, hidden from view. When the memory of those that lived here has been lost, when the place might never have existed, even then it will still be “living”.

Next day I’m woken shortly after 5 by the dawn chorus. I sleep a little more before getting up and strolling around in the morning light.

My fire has gone out so I make tea on my stove. I drink it and watch the clouds gather on the hills, the weather has changed, it’s time to leave.

Just as Gwen’s family did all those years ago, I pack and walk away.

The grid reference for the hamlet is SH69 25 on Ordinance Survey OL18.

This piece first appeared on Caught By The River

Advertisements
Posted in Night, Walks, Wild Places | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Midnight in the reeds.

June 15th, Minsmere, Suffolk.

2013stuff 118

 

Walking through Minsmere nature reserve, I found myself alone amongst the reeds at midnight, watching the moon’s reflection sit in the still waters of Island Mere. A light breeze, a few rustles but otherwise complete peace.

On the horizon lay the great dome of Sizewell power station, a sleepless giant, busy producing electricity from atoms.

The reserve produces life. Here sun, water, earth and wildlife combine to create new generations.

***

Earlier I’d been on a moth and bat night run by the RSPB.

We’d been introduced to some of the 1000 or so moths that are found on the reserve. Some were brown and drab. Some, such as the Brimstone, as beautiful as their day cousins. And others, such as the Lobster, were, frankly, a little ugly.

But to a bat they simply look tasty. We watched a Common Pipistrelle (identified by the frequency of its calls – 45 kHz,) show off its hunting skills. The tiny grey ghost streaked through the trees and around us in pursuit of the moths lured by the light.

Moth trapping

 

We listened to a Nightingale sang it’s beautiful, liquid song into the dark. Above us, in the starry black, we made out the international space station, a small point of moving light. A natural marvel and a man made marvel, both heavenly.

***

I camped just off an old drover’s road near near Westleton. There is a row of fine oaks that runs along side some of its length, gnarled and ancient, they feel a little enchanted. These old, old trees have seen horse and cart give way to 4x4s. Smock and linen to gor-tex. Farmer to tourist. I imagine they don’t mind though, certainly that night, walking through the dark tunnel of foliage, I felt protected and welcome.

***

The next morning I returned to the Island Mere.

Just after dawn, in the perfect early light, thousands of swifts circled and dived above me, calling all the while. Swifts eat, sleep and mate on the wing, not touching the ground for years at a time. They are true masters of the air and watching them hurtle through the blue always makes me a little jealous.

***

Later a Bittern “boomed” obligingly in front of the hide I was in. The strangest of sights to accompany the stragest of sounds, the gold/brown streaked heron ducked down like a rugby prop ready to engage before emitting his low “boom.” I’d always imagined it to be a neck out straight and high type move but I was way off the mark. Once close to extinction, these birds have been saved by reserves such as Minsmere. They join other local stars such as Marsh Harriers, Avocet and Stone Curlew on a journey back from the brink.

The same, sadly, cannot be said of the Cuckoo which are declining in number at a worrying rate. I saw a one in the afternoon, prowling along the horizon – the first in years. It seems incredible that the bird that flew past me in the Suffolk air could be sat on a branch overlooking a Gorilla in a few months time but recent research by the British Trust for Ornithology has found that some winter in the Congo.

***

Before I left I walked along the shingle towards Dunwich until I came to a Sand martin colony. These small, gregarious birds travel all the way from Africa to nest in holes in the soft Suffolk cliffs every year.

I had a nap, drifting off as they squeaked to each other in a way that was hard not to imagine as “friendly.”

I woke and walked away, it was time to go home.

Posted in Birdwatching, Night, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dawn Chorus, Stiffkey, Norfolk.

Stiffkey, Norfolk.

Just after dawn, May 19th.

I’m in my tent, woken by the first light glowing through the canvas, and I’m listening to the dawn chorus.

I am on the edge of the land, at a place where it meets salt marsh before giving way to sea. I am on the edge of night, at a time where it meets the day.

It feels a little uncanny, a little magical even, to be on all these edges at the same time.

Nearest, in the woods around us, two Tawny owls are hooting their dark calls back into the night. They are making the “two-oo” noise which means they are both males, the females make the “two-it” sound.

Furthest, over the marsh and next to the sea, are the Red Shank and Oystercatcher, trilling towards the approaching day, their high pitched calls carrying over the sounds of the waves they are near.

Around us are Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons, Goldfinches, Whitethroats, Blue Tits and warblers, each with their own voices and melodies.

I stay inside, picturing these birds, imagining the natural world waking up all around me.

I however, fall asleep again.

Later we walk to Blakeney, the dawn chorus seems to have been extended from the usual first few hours of light to the whole morning, the birds taking advantage of the first good weather for a while.

We briefly hear a Cuckoo “cuckoo-ing”, the classic summer bird call we all learn as children. We listen to the Brent Geese honking out on the marsh. We listen to Yellowhammers sing their “little-bit-of-bread-and-cheese” refrain from the tops of the fittingly yellow gorse bushes. We listen to Whitethroats, visitors from beyond the Sahara, small birds that will have lost perhaps half of their weight in migration but who seem to lose none of their desire to sing their hearts out as soon as they arrive here.

It’s tempting to hear joy in these songs but of course birds don’t sing because they enjoy it. They sing to maximise their chances of reproducing. Some of their songs are to attract mates – a loud song conveys health and vitality. Others help them establish territory, the best territories with the best nesting sites and best food supplies offer the greatest chance of breeding success.

Given the short lives of many of our songbirds they may only have sixty dawns in which to sing their way to passing on their genes. What sounds so pleasing to us is really the desperate, uncertain sound of one generation trying to ensure the creation of the next, of the present conjuring up the future through song.

This shouldn’t stop us from enjoying these reproductive imperitives though. The Dawn Chorus is a glorious reminder of the nature that surrounds us all. If you get the chance this month or next, get up early and take the time to listen to one of the highlights of the British natural calender.

 

This month saw international dawn chorus day.

Posted in Birdwatching, Walks | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A few thoughts on one of the Best Walks in Britain,

Harvest 021

Google “The Best Walks in Britain.”

Maybe you have, perhaps it was how you ended up here.

You’ll find planty of suggestions; there are edges to stride along, vallies to descend into and woods to explore. There are circuits, trails, ways and tracks – mile after mile of ramble-worthy loveliness to raise the spirits..

Chances are, you wont stumble across this one. It is just 1 1/2 miles long. It starts at the end of my parents’ garden, follows a ditch for a bit, joins a footpath near a stream, crosses 3 arable fields, crests a small hill and ends in the next village.

I see other people on it regularly. But for them it’s not one of the best walks in Britain, to them, I suspect, it’s just a pretty enough path over some fields.

To me, though, it’s a friend that I’ve cherished for nearly thirty years.

I have walked the route hundreds, if not thousands of times. Cumulatively, I must have spent days and days on it or by it.

I walked it as a child with my 8 year old tom-boy sister, Elizabeth, searching out copses to make hawthorn dens in.

I walked it as a youth, once, drunkenly, through the dead of a warm September harvest night with my first love.

I walked it as a man with my brother in law as he explained his worries about leaving that same tom-boy sister, now a thirty year old woman and new mother, whilst he served a tour of Afghanistan.

For me, the path passes memories as well as landmarks, my personal and family’s history have outposts along the route.

Some of these moments are captured for all time. There is a photo of Elizabeth and I just off the path – at the top of a hollow tree that we’d climbed up through, kings of the castle with 80‘s regulation romper suits and terrible hair cuts.

Some moments less clear, faded by time – who was there when the goats from the farm escaped and we chased around after them? Mum? Dad? All of us?

The walk has offered the comfort of the familiar in troubled times.

There have been some changes, such as the new wood at the top of the hill, but the route has remained the same. And much of the wildlife found along it are long term residents. For as long as I can remember there have been skylarks along the way, trilling high up in the blue on summer days. The red legged partridges, too, have always been there, hiding in the crops, ready to be flushed out – then flying away, flapping hard, keeping low. And the views over the fields from the top, though greener in summer and browner in winter are reliable. Not awesome. Not mind blowing. But pretty and reassuring.

At other times it has offered the joy of the new.

Gone for decades, the buzzards moved back into the area a little while ago. Before or after the hares decided they liked the place and settled, I can’t remember. But the fields and sky are fuller and the walk richer for the new arrivals.

Some days it’s just a quick jaunt to get the blood moving or do a spot of easy birding. A little fix of Yellowhammer, hedge and stream on a lunch time flying visit.

On others it’s a longer walk in which to think and watch the sun set over the Rhee valley, a sky not as big as those of the fens but big enough to let yout thoughts climb into.

That’s the beauty of this walk – I can extract from it what I need at any one time, (though, whatever my mood, it always makes me feel both “at home” and part of the wider natural world in a way that find immensely gratifiying.)

….

You probably know one of the “Best Walks in Britain” too, everyone with a favourite route does.  As Robert Macfarlane makes clear in his beautiful book, “The Old Ways,” the country is criss-crossed with paths linking our todays, yesterdays and tomorrows; our loves, losses and friendships; us and nature. They may be long or short, easy or difficult, spectacular or mundane, it doesn’t really matter. The best ones are often simply those we know most intimately and to which we return again and again, paths that are “in” us and which make our lives better.

Route: Part private, then onto the footpath between Fowlmere and Foxton in Cambridgeshire via West Hill.
Notable species: Common Blue Butterfly (see photo) Barn Owl, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Buzzard, Yellowhammer, Skylark, Fieldfare, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Green Woodpecker, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Bullfinch. Hare, Deer (Muntjac, Roe, Fallow,) Badger, Fox.

Posted in Birdwatching, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Spring Walk in Cambridgeshire

A Spring Walk in Cambridgeshire.

Barton to Shepreth: 6 miles.

It’s been the coldest Easter in a hundred years.

Signs of spring are few and far between, the natural world seems to have put things on hold as the weather pours in from Siberia, chilling things to a near standstill.

I went for a walk to see how rural Cambridgeshire looks at the moment. It was unplanned so I made fairly sparse notes on my telephone as I walked. Hopefully they give a flavour though..

M11 roundabout to Barton: Lying water in the corners of fields, the ground is saturated after nearly a year of above average rain. Around the pools, Black headed gulls sitting on the brown earth, still in their winter plumage. Many farmers have delayed planting crops it seems. Either that or the cereals just aren’t growing. The large flock of field fares in a paddock would normally have sensed the warmth returning to the land and set off on their journey back to their Northern breeding range – Finland and Scandinavia.

Barton to Haslingfield:
Brown verges, grass killed by months of salt. Cracks in the road from the cold.
Set against the grey sky, the radio telescopes looking up to the heavens. A wood pigeon flys up to perch at the top of one, revealing the metalwork’s grand scale.
Refuse in the hedges, it seems the average litter lout survives off a diet of Macdonalds and red bull. There is little birdsong in the air. A green woodpecker in the distance “yaffles,” other than that just the sound of the cars going past.

Haslingfield:
Up above the village on Chapel Hill the last traces of the snow drifts are still melting away.
But signs of life, primroses flowering in the cemetary. At last some bird song; robin, gold finch, blue tits. Some calls I recognise as territorial, they havent given up altogether. Here and there a few hawthorn leaf bursts and even some blossom on a blackthorn. Some of our tougher hedgerow plants, lords and ladies, dead nettles and some cow parsley growing, reminders that life is still there to be found.

Haslingfield to Barrington:
The old cement works at the bottom of Chapel Hill are being decomissioned. Through the security fence I can see nature reclaiming the complex, plants growing on the old service roads. A cock pheasant’s call echoes around the old buildings. A red kite soars high above.

Barrington:
It’s trying to snow. My sister drives past and stops. She’d just seen one of the white pheasants that live nearby. I’d photographed one (badly) just a few days ago.

March13 003

Down to the river. A couple of wrens skimming the surface of the water by the mill. They didn’t seem to be fighting, maybe they were paired up, waiting together for the sun and light to return. (I’d never seen the mill before, one of the benefits of walking, you notice new things in places you thought you knew.)

Barrington to Shepreth, across the fields:
The river Shep running fast and high. Then the song of sky larks somewhere in the distance. Eventually I see them, high in the air, chasing each other around. All three of them singing as they did so for mates and for space.

It seems to me that, amongst the mud and cold, spring is trying to emerge. You have to look closely but it is there, biding its time. The winter will have to let go soon, and when it does all that pent up energy, sex and growth will explode gloriously, as it always does.

You can keep up to date with Spring here.

 

 

Posted in Birdwatching, Walks | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Snow storm in a haunted wood

Yarn2

Iken, 654 AD: A holy man named Botolph has been busy constructing a mission in the pagan marshlands of Ikan-Hoo, on the banks of the River Alde. The locals have warned him against it, they know that amongst the mists, reeds and trees live spirits with longer and deeper claims to the land. But the works continue.

Tools break, building materials go missing and there are accidents.

Eventually there are bodies, found mutilated in the morning dew.

And so Botolph, in desperation, builds a great stone cross, inscribed with holy images of wolves to force the spirits to leave. They flee and, so the story goes, find refuge in the wood at the top of nearby Yarn Hill.

Iken, 2013 AD: We’re driving through the stormy night, the van struggling to grip the icy road. Snow flys horizontal in the headlights. Then a sign, half covered in white. “Yarn Hill Farm.”

We park and find the track that will take us up to the wood.

The world is out of sorts, spring has been beaten down by winds tearing through the darkness from the east. We are in the east of East Anglia, just a few miles from where the storm has hit the coast, and its as cold and furious as it gets.

It seems like a good night to see if the spirits are still haunting the wood.

We walk quickly, it’s too cold to hang about, away from the farm lights, up a half flooded track bounded by large, crooked oaks.

We turn a corner. A strange low hum beneath the high roar of the wind. We look through the hedge – just the wind vibrating on some farm machinery. Its ok.

The torches are turned off, they dont help on a night like tonight. The world reduced to the beam in front of you frees your imagination to ponder the shadows all around. Fears from our collective past can take over – the unknown at the cave mouth – the space beyond the fire’s glow.

Slowly our eyes adjust and we see Yarn Hill in the distance, the dark trees at the top rising from the white, a wooden island in a frozen sea.

We walk on, talking to remind ourselves that we are in company.

Up the final stretch, facing us is a gap in the trees, the mouth of the wood, swallowing the path.

We go in. We are under firs, the branches groaning and creaking above us, swaying wildly in the breeze. We can hear the trees.

The path makes a circuit of the wood which is a near perfect circle, we follow it round. As we walk we disturb roosting pigeons, their flapping just audible over the general din.

We don’t feel scared though. Creaks are creaks, groans are groans we remind ourselves, nothing unnatural. We can’t see much but we don’t have the sense of their being anything unseen.

And then through the trees the outline of wires and frames. We make out ruined cages. A little prickle on the backs of our necks. A sense of something not right.

Strange that, in a wood supposedly haunted by spirits from darker ages, it’s the modern and human that makes us feel afraid in the end. Even though we reasoned it was simply an old pheasant hatchery there’s something about the man-made that feels wrong here, something a little menacing about the decaying timber and metal.

We take photos and leave.

Yarn1

Now we are walking into the wind and, half blinded by the snow, it’s hard to see where we are going. But we make it back.

We sleep in the van, on the edge of an open field, in a howling wind so strong it rocks the vehicle. Near us lie hares, we’ll see them in the morning when they and the rest of the natural world shake the frost from their fur and raise their heads again to take stock of the changes brought by the storm. For some of the animals and bird it will be the first time they’ve experienced snow. Later we see a stoat and, though it’s risky to infer too much from animal behaviour, he seems to be enjoying running through the fallen ice crystals. Certainly his route – a random dash up and down a hedge – seems to have no obvious purpose.

We walk along the Alde to Iken village. On the edge of the wide brown estuary the Red Shank are hunched, heads tucked in, facing the wind. Though strong it has dropped enough that we can hear the Curlew making their sad calls.
On to St Botolph’s, the church that now lies on the land first chosen by the saint some 1350 years ago. It’s peaceful, on a beautiful promotory. With long, dramatic views over the water, alive with birds and home to the odd seal, it’s certainly a place fit for the young local men who died in the World Wars and came to rest there. Their names are written on a memorial. A few surnames are repeated – I thought of telegrams bringing the news of the deaths of the brothers and fathers, nephews and cousins who made up the village families. The little pieces paper, bearing their awful news, must have broken the heart of the place.

From the church we re-trace our steps to Yarn Hill. The tracks we left the previous night have gone, buried in drift or blown away, replaced by those of pheasant and crow recently passed.

Once back in the wood we walk to the centre. The wind cannot reach this far in and it’s calm. We pour some brandy onto the snow, a thanks for our safe passage, just in case. A muntjac breaks cover and runs past us, the only noise we can hear. We find the abandoned cages again, in the light they look mundane.

It’s time to leave – we walk down the hill and back to the van. We drive away.

Posted in Birdwatching, Walks, Wild Places | Leave a comment

Deer Stalking

Deer Stalking.

“Its still alive,” said Tommy. It was. As I approached the shot hind I could hear its heavy, wet breaths. It made a pitiful sight as it lay dying, blood at its mouth and a large wound in its chest.

The previous night I’d been drinking in the Old Forge in Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula, part of the “Rough Bounds” of NW Scotland. I was chatting to Tommy, the postman, (as well as mountain rescue and community ranger,) and he’d asked if i’d like to “ghillie” with him the next day.

I had jumped at the chance to join a deer stalk without really stopping to think about the stark realities of the day’s activities. To be honest I had no idea what “ghillying” entailed. What I was to learn is that it entails blood, guts and and awful lot of work. But also a genuine respect for the animals you kill and a feeling that you owe it to them to ensure they die well.

We’d met just after a spectacular west coast dawn, the sun’s pink rays colouring the snow and ice on the mountains surrounding us. It was February and it was cold. I was given instructions to supplement those from the previous night which had been “dont talk too much” and “dont bother with a flask, we drink from streams..”

Ghillie duties, it turned out, included carrying the rifle for the stalker and removing the deer from the hills once they had been gutted. Having collected the guns and a suitably tough looking small dog we jumped into a landrover and headed off to the deer.

The stalk I’d joined was part of a program run by the Knoydart Foundation. It has managed the Knoydart Estate since it was bought by the community in 1997 and much of its work revolves around improving the peninsula’s biodiversity. At the moment red deer numbers are too high to allow the forests regenerate naturally, hence the program, (which runs along side the commercial hunting which is so vital for the local economy. )

….

Walking through the heather we’d spent hours trying not to be seen or smelt or heard by animals who excel in seeing, smelling and hearing. As we moved carefully around the hills the warning barks of deer echoed of the rocks all around us. I felt as any predator must, straining my eyes and ears for prey whilst also being extremely aware my movements and of the noises they made. I felt far more in tune with the environment than I am used to,
I have to confess it was exhilirating.
Eventually we surprised a group of hinds. As Tommy and I lay flat under the ridge, Ian, the stalker, fired. I jumped – even with the silencer the cracks were surprisingly loud, with a sharpness that surprised me.

Four beasts had been shot. (I noticed that nobody called deer “deer” once we were hunting, they were “beasts.” I wondered aloud whether it was easier to kill a beast than a deer but the men didnt think it was anything but a traditional term. I’m unconvinved.)

And so our hind lay dying.

If I was a Hemingway type I’d try and extract some poetry from the fact that as she did so she could see the Black Cuillins on Skye, their jagged, snow capped, peaks looking beautifully menacing. I’d perhaps talk about the birdsong, stopped momentarily by the shots, restarting around her. But in truth, it was simply horrible to watch such a handsome creature fading away.

But I didnt have to watch long.

After Tommy’s shout Ian had bounded over looking concerned. I had expected another shot but instead he produced a knife and severed the top of its spinal cord. The result was instant, a shudder and it was over. I respect that reponse. To hold the animal and kill it as quickly as possible involves getting bloodied. It’s not a nice, clean, way to do it but it is honest and effective.

This encapsulates the attitude of those I stalked with: it is an absolute point of honour to them that none of the animals they shoot suffer unduly. During the stalk the deer’s well being comes second only to safety: injured deer are followed for as long as it takes to ensure they are finished off. The dying are helped on their way. If a stalker can’t reasonably expect a clean kill he wont proceed. This code of conduct reflects a love and respect for the animals who’s lives and deaths play such an important to Knoydart’s community.

Straight after the death came the gutting, or “gralloching” as it is known. I held the body in position as Tommy worked with his knife, deftly removing the guts, organs and windpipe. Although the body had felt cold to me the warmth from the insides lifted the smell to our nostrils. It was like a farmyard, but concentrated and with higher, metallic notes of blood as well. Despite washing it stayed on my hands and sleeves for the rest of the day – a reminder of the death at the heart of a successful stalk.

We left the innards where they lay – for the ravens, buzzards and golden eagles. I couldnt help but think of it as a blood sacrifice to the rough bounds themselves – to the life all around us.

Then came the hardest part, dragging the carcasses off the hills. We roped them up and  tied them to our hazel staffs which we pulled from behind our backs. I pulled two deer, about 12 stone, through the heather and rock and marsh for two hours. Their dead weight and the fact that they caught on bushes and between boulders made for heavy going. We stumbled and fell, heaved and strained. Showing my inexperience and general softness I would pull for as long as I could and then have stop to give my arms and back a break.

knoydart2 033

It seemed to take forever; as Tommy and I struggled on and on the day changed; dark clouds rolled in above us and a soft rain began to fall.

Eventually we made it to the foot of the hills and forded a river mouth, next to which we’d been told the hanging tree lay.

We rested for a while, hearts beating, the rain now falling harder.

Our final ghillie duty was to hang the animals. These deer were to be butchered the next day; left overnight until a boat could pick them up as we had walked miles from the landrover to a part of the coast without tracks or roads. We the tied their legs, threw the rope over a branch and hauled them out of the reach of foxes or pine martins.

We then walked back to the landrover and drove back to the village in the dark, the vehicle foggy with sweat, rain and the smell of the deer. It had taken ten hours.

I missed the butchery –  I had a ferry to catch – but I was happy in the knowledge that the venison would be sold and eaten locally, a delicious, sustainable meat with less than 8 food miles under its belt. You may be against hunting. That’s fine. But for me a wild animal dying quickly at the hands of people who care about their welfare is preferable beyond measure to the processes by which most of our meat is produced.

And having tried it, it I can assure you Knoydart Venison tastes fantastic.

Post Script:

Last week the University of East Anglia announced research showing Britain’s deer population is at its highest since the last ice age and that culling on a large scale will be necessary to protect the trees and vegetation they feed on.

http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2013/March/deer-cull-research

Posted in Hunting, Wild Places | 1 Comment