Sunday, 1 February 2015

Lords of the Dip

Been a lot of folk going to see the Great Grey Shrike at Harwood this winter which has been showing well judging by the photos on Twitter.
Reminded me of me an attempt to see the Shrike back in 2009 with Will and Bill Cook when the bleak habitat and weather made me think of middle-earth from the Tolkien novels. I didn't go out much in those days (even less than now) when the family was very young and I wrote up an account of the day in the spirit of a Tolkienesque adventure. The events all actually happened but basically it's written from the view of a hobbit in middle-age middle-earth. I posted it on Birdforum in three parts in keeping with Lord of the Rings and it raised a few laughs, but here it is all in one lump. Good luck if you have the time or inclination to read it all. 
This is me on the day in question, candidly 'papped' by Will
Lords of the Dip

Part I - The Fellowship of the Dip

Sunday, the bells ring out to signify a message, and a familiar voice beckons me, “tomorrow we seek either the Hawks of Goss at the forest of Hamsterley in the Shire, or the Great Shrike in the Dark Land of North Umber, will you join us?“
“Aye” I say, in much need of adventure, and a restless night follows in anticipation of the daring quest which lies ahead.

Daybreak comes almost too quickly and provisions are assembled for the arduous journey. A silver chariot pulls up outside my keep, a red-haired man arrives at my door bearing a gift of grain to feed my hungry minions for the coming months, his name is Wilbo, a small giant of a man, an adventurer and optimist. In the chariot sits his father Bilbo, the wise old sage. I join them and we set off on an epic journey, each armed only with a pair of looking glasses. As it‘s deemed too windy for the Hawks of Goss to appear at Hamsterley this day, our adventure will take us to the Dark Land of North Umber . . . . to seek the Great Shrike.

We cross the river to the north and before we know it we are in North Umber, the ill wind howls and rages against us, trying to discourage us and sow seeds of doubt on the wisdom of our journey, but (as we've nothing better to do) we drive on, deeper into the darklands, and soon hungry buzzards gather in the skies above us, watching our every move.
“How will we know where to find the Great Shrike?” I ask, already lost ’cos I don’t get out much.
“I overheard the directions in a game of Chinese Whispers” came the confident reply of Wilbo the Optimist.
“Have you a map?” I ask.
“No, my magic knowledge box would not spit forth the directions, (something to do with cut and paste problems) but no worries, I have memorised the instructions. We follow the trail towards Wrathbury, then take a small track to the north, I think called the road of 6341 bees, ‘til we come upon a country park about three miles along, of which I cannot remember the name but will know when I see it. We follow the trail on foot across the moors ‘til we come upon the Black Lake, here we shall find the Great Shrike. And to help us find this dark place I have in this silver box my spirit guide, known as Satnav.”

The end of civilization comes as we turn onto the road of bees which takes us up the eastern slope of a deep valley, we pass the ruins of a castle down below, long since deserted, the scene of many a battle between good and evil no doubt. Large sinister looking black birds are everywhere, we see no signs of the way to the Black Lake. Nervously we ask for guidance from Satnav, the spirit guide.
“You have lost satellite communication” came the voice from the small silver box at the front of the chariot, even our spirit guide had deserted us!
“We shall use the stars to guide us” I say.
“But it’s broad daylight” says Wilbo the Adventurer “anyway they’re not stars, it‘s mud on the windscreen“
“Then we must turn back” I cry, “I've remembered a vision of this place I saw on my oracle box, I‘m sure it is to the east of the ruinous castle we passed back there and we find it at a forest clearing just to the north of a village I can’t for the life of me remember the name of.”
“You’re a fine pair” says Bilbo the wise one.

We turn full circle and head back ‘til the castle comes into view, we park up the chariot in a suitable place where wandering orcs will not find it, (blind ones anyway) and prepare to continue our journey on foot.
“It must be somewhere over these hills” says Wilbo. We survey the scene ahead of us, desolate boggy moors one side, dark forest the other. The winds still howl in our faces, then suddenly Bilbo the wise one finds a secret path hidden behind a five-bar gate and our trek can begin......

Part II - The Two Dips

Tentatively we climb the gate and into unknown terrain, but keen as ever, Wilbo the Adventurer bounds up the path enthusiastically.
“ Come on, the Black Lake must be just over this hill” he says. It isn’t. “It must be over this hill then” It isn’t. “This one then” it isn’t.
Boggy underfoot, howling wind driving against us, and we’ve somehow managed to mislay the footpath. A gateway into the forest appears to our left, we make our way towards it and much needed shelter from the strengthening winds. But first we have to negotiate the sodden ground underfoot.

“There‘s a knack to this” says Bilbo the wise one. “Just step onto the high tufts and you don’t get bogged down” he says as he stumbles forward and almost ends up in a ditch, denting his wisdom slightly.
We soon reach the gate and take cover in the forest where a muddy trail takes us ever higher, the wind whistles through the treetops, the creaking of bending trees doesn’t really startle us, the feeling we were being watched didn’t occur to us, we didn‘t think we were being followed, and we weren‘t.
“Just around the next bend” says Wilbo, yards ahead, leaving a trail of bootprints in the mud for us to follow in his wake. It isn‘t. “No just around this next bend then”, it isn’t. “Must be this one then” and sure enough it isn’t.

My lack of fitness begins to tell, 'I really need to dust off my two-wheeled pedal chariot if I ever get out of this godforsaken place', I think to myself. I’m just about to ask if our mission is doomed when the next bend in the trail actually does take us somewhere; to another gateway back out onto the moors, but it‘s guarded by a piece of orange string.
The string is no match for Bilbo the wise one, who valiantly leaps into action and pulls it over the gatepost, he wrestles with it and holds it back for us to pass through the now unguarded gate, then swiftly loops it back over the post and rejoins us.

We stride out onto the exposed and barren land again, still higher we climb, yet still we don’t see even a dickybird never mind signs of the Great Shrike.
But suddenly the land all but levels out, the forest edge we have been following comes to an abrupt end, we look around to the left to reveal the murky, still waters of the Black Lake just a few hundred yards away.
“Telt ye it was just here” says Wilbo, proudly.
We make our way round towards it, scanning all directions for sign of the Great Shrike. The sun shines on us now but standing exposed, there is no escape from the bitter wind.

We are at the lake but none of us are any the wiser as to where the Great Shrike is likely to be. We stare into the black waters, nothing stirs. Far side is a ramshackle home next to a wooden jetty but no sign of the occupant who would have been the only man who could have told us how to find the Great Shrike. We can only imagine he’s become a victim of the evil slobbering half-man half-fish creature which probably lurks beneath the black waters, or maybe he just isn‘t home today.
Buzzards kite in the wind in the distance and an unseen skylark serenades us from above (or was it laughing at us). We check every likely perch again and again, but no sign of the Great Shrike. Exhausted by the uphill struggle and battered by the relentless weather, I’m all of a blether and at the end of my tether but then find a feather lying in the heather, a black and white primary and a sure sign that the Great Shrike has at least been here.
“You should keep that, it’s probably the only part of a shrike you’ll see today.” laughs Bilbo the wise one, and now self-proclaimed prophet.

We wander aimlessly ‘til suddenly a lone figure appears in the distance behind us.
“Look, a Wizard” I say “no mortal man could grow taller with every step.”
“That’s because he’s coming towards us” says Wilbo.
“But surely he will know of the Great Shrike, let us greet him” I say.
In a few moments the stranger reaches us, not a Wizard at all, just a man in a funny hat. He has as much knowledge of the Great Shrike as we do, but tells us of another in the Forest of Harwood.
“Ah, that’s the one I heard about” says I “the one in the forest clearing just north of said village I mentioned before, I didn‘t know there were two hidden in the dark lands!” as suddenly my crossed wires fell into place.
“Then we shall seek the Great Shrike of Harwood” yells Wilbo, with typical enthusiasm.

The stranger in the funny hat gives us directions to the last known place of the second Great Shrike and tells of the panoramic viewpoint of a Hangman’s Gibbet, which in the excitement of this new venture no-one really listens to, and we hastily retrace our tracks down the slopes to our chariot, encountering a wren and a kestrel as we do so, putting our daylist after some three and a half hours almost into double figures.
We reach the chariot and break out our much needed provisions, sustenance for the new, and perhaps more perilous journey which lies ahead........

Part III - The Return and the King (fisher)

Satnav the spirit guide is apparently still out to lunch, no-one is really sure of what the wizard/stranger in the funny hat we encountered by the Black Lake had told us beyond go to Wrathbury, over a bridge and then turn left.... or right, (this was probably where we went wrong) and the only available map is ancient text in the pages of Ye Olde Book of Where to Watch Birds in the North East of England by Sir Tainly Knott-Here. This ancient text contains crap diagrams which don’t show the village or the forest we need to find and the black lines on it turn out not to be roads. Needless to say we struggle to find the Forest of Harwood.

We find Wrathbury ok but the bridge over the river was well hidden, probably to confuse invaders. We trailed up and down the main street, trying not to draw attention to ourselves from the inhabitants, who luckily all seem to be in a zombie-like trance as they go about their daily business, bar a few youthful wraiths, gorging themselves on cans of red bulls blood and rancid meat pasties. They catch me looking at them and hex me with a sign of the V. Eventually, after passing it two or three times we find the bridge, cunningly hidden down Bridge Street of all places.

Taking the left (or was it right) track we pass many woodlands and keep our eyes peeled for Hawks of Goss for morale, but to no avail. We kept thinking we’d missed imaginary turn-offs and had to perform three fifty-point turns on roads no wider than a bandy-legged hobbit, (one of which was witnessed by a group of travellers who applauded the completion of this feat with a passionate sarcasm not often witnessed in these lands) but eventually we stumbled upon a gathering of chariots in a forest clearing.
We stop for more sustenance and a bit of head clearing (not difficult). A map etched in stone tells us we are not where we thought we were (no surprise there) but this map too proves to be as much use an ashtray on a motorchariot as it promises the Forest of Harwood is just further along the road past a small moorland range, but back on the road we go round a bend (or perhaps around the bend) and there are no trees to be seen anywhere. Only flat farmed land stretches for miles either side of the road, and it dawns on us that our quest to find the Great Shrike is ended, we reluctantly decide to return home, defeated.

But then Wilbo, ever the optimist, decides we should take a route which passes the legendary lake of the Big Waters, a magical place I’ve only heard of in tales of otters and kingfishers, or seen on the telly when that Orc lookalike fella off Buzzcocks dredged a path under the A1 chariot way so the otters wouldn’t have to cross the roadway to a certain death.
We make good speed and reach this enchanted land where the skies are brighter and are greeted by more birds than you can shake Gandalf’s staff at, an oasis in the barren dark lands we have travelled this day. Tree sparrows in abundance, a plethora of finches and tits and buntings and woodpeckers. The water is inhabited by goldeneye, wigeon and teal, herons, gulls, cormorants and waders, and we are treated to a magical audience with the Fisher King himself (actually herself in this case).

Our daylist then (if we were keeping one) easily tops a score an England cricket team would be satisfied with these days (though they would have more ducks), and we travel back to the Shire in an infinitely more buoyant mood than we could have imagined just as hour or so before. Now only the bridge spanning the river which separates the two shires stands between us and home, but having travelled the land of North Umber undetected by the forces of evil (and by most of the birds come to think of it) for almost six hours I suddenly have a chilling thought.
“What if there’s a troll at the bridge?” I ask nervously.
“I drive straight past it” says Wilbo in determined fashion, “I’m certainly not paying just to go across a bridge.”

As it happens there is no troll, and no toll even, and as the evening light begins to fade we are back in the Shire, happy with the adventure we’ve had, and in the knowledge that we live to fight another quest, another day.
I say my goodbyes to Wilbo and Bilbo, and they ride off in the silver chariot into the sunset. I expect a heroes welcome after a day of daring deeds, but as I enter my Keep am greeted by the usual, “Daddy, do this” “Daddy do that” “Change that nappy” “Waaah!” and my venture into the darklands already seems a million miles away.

Later that evening after sending the little ones to bed with tales of the day’s adventures, and before retiring for much needed rest myself, I consult the oracle, the founts of all knowledge known as the birdforum and birdguides, to find that sightings of the Great Shrike of the Black Lake have ceased since the weather turned 'iffy', and not only that, but yet another Great Shrike had appeared in our very own Shire at the Forest of Hamsterley this very day, while we were 'oop north' looking for one which wasn’t there, and another one which may have been there but we weren’t (?)........ but wait a minute, the Forest of Hamsterley? wasn’t that where we were originally going to try for the Hawks of Goss this morning?
“Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!”


What they said about this sorry tale of middle-earth woe ;

“If I were alive today I’d still be spinning in my grave” J R R Tolkien

“That lake sounds good for fly fishing” J R Hartley

“Hey, this would make a great film” J R Thurank

“ Oil drink to that” J R Ewing


  1. Brilliant, even my wife found it funny. Oh and as you might have seen you were right I logged in again and my blog was back to normal.

    1. Cheers Ron, glad it hits the spot.
      And just follow the golden rules of the technophobe when things go wrong 1. log out and log in again 2. switch off and on again 3. give it a kick 4. Buy a new one :-)