Hill forts, islands & leavings.
When we booked our recent holiday, reading out the description instigated a family fit of giggles. Our holiday destination nestled below a 298m hill and its Iron Age hill fort. It was the gateway to a National Park under official dark night skies and a historic, bloody battle was fought on its slopes. Our house sits below a hill just 1m lower with its own impressive Iron Age hill fort. It is within the North Wessex Downs AONB (perhaps 1m down from a National Park?) under designated dark night skies. If you were stretching the comparison, practice for the Merville Battery assault during D-Day was enacted here, on the slopes, with real ammunition and bloody consequences, albeit later.
But of course: Northumberland was wilder, more remote, more rugged. The house was bigger, nicer and there was a brilliant chef (in the form of my lovely Father-in-law). And the dark night skies were infinitely darker.
We took the causeway out to Lindisfarne where the sea glittered like shook foil off expansive white sands. There were eider ducks and flocks of knot and dunlin out on the spits and sand bars, and between the bottling, bobbing heads of hundreds of seals, an otter, porpoising.
We took Billy Shiel’s boat from Seahouses to Inner Farne on choppy seas under louring cloud. We were soon out among the birds: gannets forming huge yellow-and-white ‘W’s in spectacular dives and puffins whirring past like bright bees. The seabird colonies here are globally important and I inhaled the famous scent of guano from the ice-creamed cliffs and declared it a mix of wet sheep and otter poo, a subtle nuancy no-one else on the boat recognised.
It poured. On the island, puffins ran down turf burrows and razorbills with white ribbon bridles jostled with chocolate-brown guillemots. We spotted cormorant and shag nests and the blue enamel pears of guillemot eggs. On the boat home, soaked to our underwear, a pod of six dolphins broke the surface, rolling like the smooth submerged cogs of something working below the surface we couldn’t fathom.
On our last evening, we climbed Humbleton hill again, huddling in strong winds in the 17thC summit cairn and looked out to Scotland, the oxbow of the ottery River Till and Wooler Water below us, with views towards Yeavering Bell and its ancient herd of wild goats. Squared plantations and garrisoned woods darkened into ranks, bristling with pike-pines as we thought of the 800 Scots who died here fighting Hotspur in 1402.
The dark night sky darkened. There are stars in our hair and on the shoulder of the hill. The lights from a distant car sideswipe the hill like a searchlight, we shy away from it instinctively, fugitives from the light and the rest of the world.
The last bird I hear is a grey partridge calling me home and the ‘go back, go back’ cries of red grouse. We take an emotional leaving and pack off back to our own hill fort and its dark night skies. 1 metre lower and a whole country distant.