...the sight of a large hairy dog flying a kite would offend their sensibilities
Phillip J Mather
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 loo, 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 loos with many positions, allowing conversational
discourse during the mornings ablutions and I recall a friends
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
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
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,
marvelling at its ability to seemingly rotate its head through a full
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
ships figurehead in the form of a mermaid: brassy, buxom and thoroughly
mesmerising 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 lifes 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,
What a beach it was absolutely devoid of any other living sole
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 dogs 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 marvellous 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, later in the week a further, longer sighting through
binoculars was made possible from "The Ratty" that marvellous
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 tranquillity
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 visualise that road with its
dusty meanderings and the ever present, bubbling calls of skylarks high
above the sandy scrub.
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.
"Whats that?" I asked of my father.
"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
Thus, I was hooked on birdwatching.
I still am.
© Phillip J Mather 2002 email:
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