When I was ten years old I cycled to Dartmoor on a bike with three gears. It was a perfect day of late spring and I had all the time in the world.
If I had got really tired I would have slept in a barn but I had more energy than a box of fireworks.
The moor wasn’t National Park in the last years of the 1940s but for me trespass was a way of life. Hiding the bike at Two Bridges I followed the West Dart up to Wistman’s Wood and sat on the slope under the Devonport Leat for a picnic of corned beef sandwiches.
Moments later I had a grandstand view of a vixen leading her three cubs out of the gnarled and stunted oaks to play the hunting game among the sunlit whortleberry bushes and heather. The young foxes gambolled about then something disturbed them and they darted back under the trees.
There was no repeat performance and in any case I was restless and headed for home. I wrote about a similar encounter with cubs in a recent Going Places.
Many springs later I was on the Hebridean Island of Mull. After a day wandering beside a sea loch watching ospreys I ended up in the local pub. At twilight that May evening I brought my pint outside and stood on the shore. The surrounding mountains had created a gigantic bowl that began to ring with the cries of hundreds of curlews at their nesting grounds.
It was the music of estuary dawns and dusks throughout Britain, melodious, sad and uplifting, one of nature’s most memorable sounds. Hearing it now I’m on Mull again watching the moon rise.
Back in my childhood I remember standing on Goodrington South Sands with Mam the autumn after the allied fleet had sailed for France. Big white gannets were climbing high above Tor Bay and diving into shoals of fish.
”Look, Bri,” Mam whispered, ”The baby angels are entertaining God while he eats his breakfast.”
I grinned and shook my head while the Celtic princess rambled on and the birds continued to plunge into the sea. The vision of God chuckling as he dipped his fried bread into his fried egg eclipsed what the gannets were doing.
Over forty years ago I saw my first golden eagle on Mull. Sitting on top of a mountain called Creach Bheinn I watched it gliding about over the glen below.
The close-ups were incredible and I could see the eagle’s head turning from side to side as it searched for ptarmigan and mountain hares on the slopes under the summit crags.
Then there were the times back in the 1980s when I spent several springs and autumns in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-West Wales. Those rare, fork-tailed birds of prey, the red kites, were on the wing near Tregaron. But one morning I saw about 20 doing an astonishing aerial ‘dance’ low over a frosty field at the end of my hill walk.
In more recent times I recall a warm July night at the back of Cockington Court on a nature walk. The pale yellowish green light of the female glow-worm shone from the hedgebank. Its brightness startled me but it must have the desired effect on the amorous males.
The magic continues to reach out. The white shell sands and machair of Iona by moonlight; a Dartmoor sunrise with skylarks singing; the aurora borealis from a Hebridean dusk; and gran’daughter Belle watching wild geese cross the autumn stars at Dawlish Warren — as Robert Louis Stevenson put it at the end of one of his poems, ‘My heart remembers how.’
Re-printed by kind permission of the Herald Express newspaper, Torquay Devon.