Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sunset at Home Farm

I SET MY CHAIR on the corner of my cottage flat, sit and sip at my final cup of tea of the day. The last of the dog walkers are making their way back to the car park at the visitor centre and heading for home.

The loud and lyrical song of a blackbird perched above his nest in a tree on the cliff edge tells all the others that this is his home and that they cannot come here. The chaffs and the robins become quiet, so too the tits and finches – high above, the occasional ka from a rosy gull heading back to roost on Arran.

As the sun slowly sizzles into Campbeltown Loch, an incandescent glow radiates from clouds high in the troposphere – a cooling breeze whispers through the budding branches of the trees – birds coorie deeper into their nests.

The quietness is soothing, the soft fizz of rippling tide on the shore below the cliff is soft on the ear; my tea is becoming cold, but I will drink it all as I normally do.

From the gloaming a flitter of silver becomes a moth caught in the blush of light from my window. In the wood behind me another blackbird has become raucous – it is likely something threatening is nearby – wood pigeons flap their wings forcefully. I remember a young cat a few days ago walking up the path, it is possible he is after a nocturnal nibble from a nest. Sudden and silent two pipistrelle bats whiz by my head, their masterful aeronautics so low to the ground takes me by surprise. My eyes try to follow them, but lose them against the dark of the wood. I find them once more above the trees silhouetted against the clear and darkening sky. Now there are others up there – hoovering up small insects taken to the night air. There must be a roost nearby, maybe in the loft space above the bookshop behind my cottage. Two more pipistrelles fly around my head and follow the same flight path to the trees; maybe these are the same two as the first? In a similar time span two pipistrelles come again swishing and swooping around the corner, surely the same ones? I watch the bats until it is too dark to see.

The last drops of my tea are sipped, and the air is now cold. I pick up my chair to go inside; a hundred or so yards away, the hoo of the tawny owl – it roosts near the shore above the Gas House. In the deep dark of the night, when I sometimes wake, I can hear it singing its one note song, a sound that softly reassures – everything in its place – sends me back to sleep.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Home Farm to Port Carrick Bay – The Cliff Walk

I SET OUT FROM my lower cottage flat, walk through the wooden gate onto the Castle path in front of the bookshop and follow it round and along the tree-lined path to Robert Adam’s Ruined Arch, the entrance to Culzean Castle. On the way, Chaffinches gush their song to all who will listen as the Robin and Blue Tit fight to be heard – a Blackbird darts to the undergrowth, cocks his head and watches me pass; the Song Thrush loudly aims to confuse. At my feet walking along the path: Campion, Alkanet, Mayflower and some late blooming Daffodils dance in the sun – Daisies, Speedwell and Dandelions make themselves known, but their scents are overpowered by the omni-present Wild Garlic, now a flowering blanket of white.
I arrive at the old Ranger Station, now a sweetie shop, a nice building in the wrong place – too close to the Ruined Arch. The Arch appears to be an older ruin, but it was designed in that manner and though it may seem to some a Folly, it is not. The Ruined Arch is a deliberate Adam design, fashioned for a specific purpose – to suggest to all who viewed it that it was much older than the new buildings he was creating and to lend a sense of history to Culzean Castle – his last, and arguably his finest, work in a long and distinguished career. The Arch also gave the Kennedy family, at the time headed by David, the 10th Earl of Cassillis, the look of “old money”. It was a great idea and fools people even today.
Culzean Castle is not actually a castle at all, it is a beautiful example of a Georgian Castilian mansion, built of Kirkoswald stone, and incorporating the remnants of the tower-house which had stood on the site for over 200 years before it – itself built of sandstone from nearby Segganwell. Adam’s design of Culzean Castle and its surrounding woodland and gardens is a tour de force. Planned and built in the last ten years of his life, Adam did not live to see its completion, but he knew his vision was manifest.
Passing over the serpentine entrance, designed so that visitors would get their first real view of the castle through the side window of their carriage (a sudden and inspiring sight), I come to the entrance to the Fountain Garden once a deep gully between the hill and the basalt outcrop on which the original tower-house was situated. Adam had the gully filled in to create the garden which is still well below the castle. Descending the stairs I come to the terrace above the lawn which has a subtropical feel to it with palms and exotic flowers. Looking down from the terrace, the fountain inhabits the very centre of the garden lawn – once fed by the fire-pond above the deer park, it is now plumbed to the watermain. Descending onto the lowest level I walk past the glass house that is the Orangery and out through the portal to the West Green, a simple lawn area, and on towards the West Green Battery. The Battery has nine cannon behind earth fortifications and was built in the early 19th century by the 12th Earl who was fearful that Napoleon might invade Britain through Scotland. The views across the Clyde from this point are spectacular.
Walking along the path from the Battery I look down on Dolphin House with its huge Tipi tent on the lawn. This building which was once the laundry, became derelict and was restored in the 1940s as a dwelling house, is now an outdoor centre mainly for young people. I leave Dolphin House behind and walk on along the path now enveloped in the branches of Sycamore and Beech, hardies planted to shelter the park from the oceanic elements of salt and wind. The Snowdrops which earlier carpeted these woodland floors are a faint memory, and the Daffodils and Dog Violets which replaced them are now also beginning to fade, giving way to Lady’s Smock/Cuckoo Flower, Cowslip, Bluebells, Campion, and Green Alkanet.

The deciduous trees have begun pulling on their crochet’d sun-hats and the paths are now becoming more shaded, dappled light dances from leaf to petal; photons absorbed into chlorophyll, becoming sucrose to feed insects and the element-fixing bacteria in the ground and on the roots of the trees surrounding me. I pass the Powder House on my right. There is a nice pathway to it, but I am not going there, I head for the next path which, turning right, will take me along the cliff.
The Finches and Tits are in good voice. The Chiff Chaff’s monotonous song is out-competed by the Great Tit’s squeaky wheelbarrow call. The Willow Warbler’s pretty, but slightly subdued, song echoes through the trees. Further away, a Treecreeper calls out, warning of danger – somewhere, deep in the wood, a cuckoo.
I am now on the Cliff Path with views north to Bute and Argyll. Arran and Kintyre rise out of the sea to the west and south where, I am told, on very clear days you can see Ireland beyond the imposing basalt rock that is Ailsa Craig. A short way along this path, before turning south, I stop at an outcrop on top of the cliff. A chaffinch above me calls out: "pink, pink", to warn others that I am around. I look back towards the castle; the sky is becoming leaden; reaching down it begins to swallow Arran. The sea is a herd of white tailed, slate-grey, mares galloping landwards, carrying gifts for a grumpy old shore – the rock pools below the castle will soon be seething and teaming again with life in all its beauty and savagery.
Above me the sky remains clear and blue as I turn to go on. Suddenly, there among the Bluebells next to the path is a nicely carved bench (though it is now rotting slightly); a memorial to “Rocky” – Lou’s lost love. I have no idea who Rocky was, but he was younger than me when he died – at my age it is sobering when those younger pass away. Rocky must have been a Pink Floyd fan because his epitaph signifies that he has gone: “…to the great gig in the sky”. He obviously enjoyed the view from this spot where the bench now sits. I think fancifully of a fellow rocker reclining here on a summer’s evening sooking on a spliff, earplugs in and listening to … ah yes … Echoes, while watching the sun slip to bed behind Arran. I salute a fellow Floydy (shine on you crazy diamond!) and move on.
The path twists and undulates on its way towards Port Carrick. The monotonous green at the path edge is broken by yellow leopard’s bane and cowslip, the cerise of Campion blazes the trail. On the left the woodland floor shimmers in a blue, or more correctly purple, haze as the Bluebells dance on the wisp of a breeze. Below me, to the right, on the rocky shore the Cormorants stand embracing the incoming tide. Two Swans take off with an awkward grace towards Maidens, heading for home in a looping flight which will bring them back to Swan Pond just over the hill from where I stand – so too the Shell Ducks, though, with a more direct flightpath. The Gulls and Fulmars remain, bouncing on the air like paper in the wind. Suddenly, among the white flashes, black as polished mudstone, Raven hunts a juicy morsel.
Further on the path edges a gully which runs out from the cliff to the sea. There is another smaller path which goes a short way out to the right from where I look down into the gully. I can see the Otter trail running from beneath the rock face to the shore. You need to be here late in the evening or very early in the morning to see the otters come down to the sea to hunt and play. I walk back to the main path and head onwards.
Soon after leaving the “otter” path, the main path rises then turns left and runs downhill. At the bottom of the hill the pathway opens out on to Swan Pond. Turning left would take me to the kiosk and aviary (which is now empty). I turn right back along the path towards the stepped boardwalk down to Port Carrick beach. Above me on another pathway is the refurbished Pagoda which used to, but no longer, house apes. Arriving above Port Carrick, at the top of the steps, the path continues on to the conifer woodland and then down on to Maidens Beach. My destination is Carrick so I descend the steps onto a small, but beautiful, sandy strip. The beach is approximately a hundred metres long, and sits between two rocky outcrops. It is arguably the prettiest beach in all of Ayrshire.

The sky above me is still blue though the distant clouds have now devoured Arran completely. The grey sea rumbles onto the sand as I stumble off the wooden steps on the landward side of the beach. I sit on the bottom step, open my bag, extract my lunch and relax.
Overhead, a gull lets out an excited cry – keee-yah, keee-yah, keee-yah!
I find it difficult to disagree.

Monday, May 11, 2009

IT HAS BEEN SIX WEEKS SINCE I arrived to work as a seasonal Ranger at Culzean Country Park (for those of you who may not know Culzean is pronounced cull-ane). I had all these great plans to write every day about my experiences here; maybe some poetry; keep my blog up to date – nah – just didn’t happen. First of all, there was so much to do and so much to learn about the job. This is a huge place with lots of daily practical duties for Rangers to do, like patrolling, moving stuff around the park, setting up for events, opening up and closing the public facilities every day, cleaning toilets and, my pet hate, picking up all of the rubbish that some folk can’t be bothered taking away or putting in the bins. When we are out and about we have to always carry a bag and a litter stick to pick up plastic bottles that some ignoramus has dropped at their arse or tossed out of a car window – thankfully, in the park, this is not an overwhelming occurrence, however, on the beaches … ? It seems that what attracts some people here is the very same thing they feel free to spoil for other folk.
We go out on patrol every day and check all the different areas of the park including the shore; usually we are given a different area to check each time. This is the most difficult task of the whole job, having to walk through this most beautiful of places on your own for a couple of hours listening to what birds are nesting where, looking for herons’ nests, checking the fence is unbroken on the deer park, or for fallen trees or branches likely to cause problems, or checking if pathways need repaired – I get paid to do that. I remember my primary school teacher telling my mum: “Joe is quite intelligent, but get distracted easily and he can be a wee bit slow to catch up, but he always gets there in the end”. It has only taken me forty-bloody-years to finally find a real and worthwhile job. Boy, Miss Prior wasn’t kidding was she?
The physical work as a Ranger can be quite heavy at times. I am in my fifties now and having spent the last twenty-odd years behind a desk has left me a bit flabby and unfit. As it is, I have lost a fair bit of weight these last few weeks and I do feel fitter every day, but it has been very tiring sometimes and that is the main reason my plans to write have gone to the wall.
I mentioned the learning we need to do; this is because one of the main elements of the job here is taking groups on educational walks. This means learning how to deal with different groups and how to deliver the walks and talks effectively. I have much knowledge and understanding of how natural systems work and how they relate to each other in the greater biome, but I do have gaps in my knowledge when it comes to identifying some of the individual creatures that we come across in the Park, and Culzean has a rich biological diversity. The Park is, therefore, a great place for me to further my own learning. Most of what we need to know is to hand and there is plenty of support from the permanent Rangers who are an excellent and knowledgeable bunch.
Working with the groups here at Culzean is not the same as being in a class with a group of university students, the dynamic is very different. When out with a group it is in an open classroom, there is so much more going on around the group and you have to use different skills to keep the focus on what you are trying to get across. In general, I think the kids love the freedom of the open green spaces – it is also a change from their normal enclosed classroom activities and they respond to that, mostly positively. I suppose I should make a request that all schools participate in such outdoor learning practices. Even in cities there are parks and local green spaces that could be used. Most Councils have Ranger Services, maybe they could be used more in local educational walks – lots of schools now have wildlife gardens and those who don’t should think seriously about creating one..
Culzean has two environmental education groups of their own, the Young Naturalist Club (6-11) and the E.C.Os (12-16). There are about 80-90 local kids combined and they are all enthusiastic and keen to learn while having fun. The E.C.Os do a lot of volunteering in the Park and help with some of the work that requires a lot of hands – they are invaluable to the Park.
Mid-April to Mid-June there are the primary and secondary school groups who come to Culzean for educational walks and talks. There are a lot of these every week and many different walks to learn (I have seven of these walks to do between Wednesday and Friday this week). We need to deliver the walks in a way that keeps young people interested and at the same time add extra knowledge and understanding to their school learning. Some of the walks consist of: mini-beast hunts in the woodland, pond dipping for younger children and pond ecology for older ones; general woodland walks for primaries to search and identify, and more advanced woodland ecology walks with practical work for secondary schools. There are some great sandy beaches and rocky shoreline here at Culzean. Rock-pooling is very popular among all age groups and the pools at Culzean are rich in marine life. Most times we can catch a selection of different species of starfish (we have three different types here); shore crabs; velvet crabs; hermit crabs; goby fish, butterfish; leafworms; bootlace worms; pipefish (related to sea horses); urchins; sea hares and slugs; sea anemones, shrimps; prawns. We don’t take the very young children onto the rocky shore, just on the flat sandy beach and do shells, stones and seaweeds; maybe play the seagull game and, or, read them the Lizzie the Limpet story. I finished off the Limpet story last week by asking the children: “now, what does Lizzie need to watch out for?”
No reply.
“Could it be the tide?” I asked, hopefully, pointing to the sea.
“What’s the tide?” asked a six year old.
Jimmy Cliff’s excellent reggae song: there are more questions than answers, sprang right to mind.
Oh well, it is taxing, but very enjoyable work here at Culzean Country Park.

Speak again soon.