Ghosts of the Winter Marsh- Part Two

 

‘I saw my world again through your eyes
As I would see it again through your children’s eyes’

From ‘The Owl’ by Ted Hughes

 

Ghosts of the Winter Marsh

Part Two: The Lady of the Marsh

 

 

Moon approaching winter solstice
Moon over the marsh, one week before the winter solstice

 

 

Nothing could have prepared me for the Lady. After that first beautiful haunting, I was to experience a series of séances with her, usually at twilight but sometimes during dusk. Over the course of the past fortnight, her visitations have grown earlier still. As I’m writing this, the solstice beckons. Today is the twenty-first day of December. A creature as lunar as she knows this better than all the other spirits of the marsh. Her hunts have intensified and I have seen her more often and for longer. Two days ago, she landed on a well-used kingfisher perch, just yards from where I was fishing, and stared right at me. It’s safe to say I’m enchanted, at the least. At the worst, infatuated. And that’s the worst situation for any chap to get himself into.

 

Last Thursday afternoon I joined my brother, Jordan, for a few ales in our cliff-top local. We’re obsessed men. Myself with angling and birding, my brother with surfing. As evening drew on, we took our pints outside where we could see the whole of the estuary. The moon hung low at this stage and we started talking about how important it was to our respective sports. My brother is half-crazy. He once surfed his way up the east coast of Australia on his own; he has some terrifying stories of shark encounters and of being held under by the current to just within the limits of his breath.  He still surfs now; he’s spent four months of this year making his way down the west coast of France. He lives like a gypsy during these trips; his only master is the moon, telling him when to surf and when to wax his board. Looking beyond the estuary, I pointed out the distant marshes and began to talk about my owl. By now she’d be at large over the darkening levels.

 

 

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The darkening levels, over which the White Lady hunts.

 

 

At some point the ale got the better of us. I know this because my brother’s stories became increasingly sharkier. Mine, given the season, were becoming pikier. By the end of the evening, Jordan had promised to teach me to surf and I’d sworn to guide him to his first barn owl. When I woke up on the Friday morning (appallingly late, at about eleven-ish) I was surprised to find several text messages. My brother was due an operation on the Monday which would put him out of action for over a month, so he was really keen to live his next few days to the full. He lives on a yacht but his recuperation requires that he temporarily move back in with our parents in Pegwell. A Romany-spirit, he was getting a little twitchy at thought of leaving his boat for so long. Naturally, I told him I’d forgotten the whole previous night’s conversation and didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. An hour later, we were both in the car and on the way to the marshes.

 

 

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Slightly worse for wear. But an oath is an oath. We were heading into barn owl country.

 

 

Being a frequent visitor to the wilds, I dressed appropriately. All apart from my jeans would make me near invisible to rising owls and swooping harriers. Well, perhaps not invisible but the get-up could give me a few more seconds of viewing time. Jordan let the side down a little by donning skinny jeans and a pair of white canvas trainers.

 

 

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Jordan. The budding first time barn-owler bounds forth in white plimsolls. It just wouldn’t do.

 

 

We corrected Jordan’s wardrobe mistake by delving into the Sarlaac Pit that is my car boot. I’ll take a photo of it at some point. I’ve had this car for just less than a year but you wouldn’t believe the detritus that builds up after a couple of seasons’ coarse fishing and bird-watching. Three camouflage nets, tench rakes (two), various pigeon decoys and my second favourite pike float that I’d thought I’d lost. After finding three left-foot wellingtons, we finally found a right boot.

 

 

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My brother blending in near seamlessly with the marshscape.

 

 

Forewarned about ‘Wurzel’, my nickname for the farmer’s elderly (and quite vicious) father, we trudged out onto the marsh. I had bought my piking gear with me; I intended to try three spots where I’d seen the barn owl. Jordan carried the binoculars and I stalked alongside with the rod. The first creatures we came upon were a pair of stonechats, so called for their remarkable chirping which sounds exactly like two pebbles being snapped together. Sound travels twice as far on the marsh and as always, these birds were heard before seen.

 

 

Female Stonechat, Marshes
Lady stonechat…
Male Stonechat, Marshes
And her fella.

 

 

The barn owl doesn’t give itself up like this. It can scream if it wishes; its alternate name is ‘Screech Owl’ on account of its terrifying cry. But usually it lives up to its more common epithet of ‘ghost’. And so it was today. Initially, I saw the Lady at range, silently stalking a distant hedgerow. Jordan missed her and wouldn’t believe that I’d seen her. We bickered for some time before coming to the second of the three marks- a deep hole half a mile south of the Black Dyke. Over the water from us, the drain’s eastern flank was bordered by a bund comprised mainly of long grass- perfect voling ground for a hungry, winter owl.

 

I flicked the pike bait out and poured a coffee. An argument then ensued over whose coffee it was; we were taking turns and this was definitely mine. In between name-calling, I was becoming increasingly aware of the growing silence shrouding the surrounding landscape.  It was just gone three in the afternoon and the marsh was slowing down for dusk. We were the only ones making any noise; across the levels, both predator and prey had good reason to fall silent. I’m quite sure that moments like these rely on more than just hearing. It didn’t stop me arguing but it was distracting me. We needed to be quiet, too. I can remember that my brother relented and conceded the coffee was mine. Finally, we both fell silent and I started to sip at my drink. Then, from the eastern bund, she rose.

 

 

Barn owl o' the copse, north marsh
She is risen…

 

 

She must have got there just after we finished squawking. Our saving grace was the bankside reeds and rushes that covered our position. But we still needed to duck; I looked over at Jordan, who’d already seen her and was standing open-mouthed. I tapped him on the shoulder and beckoned him to get down out of sight. As we lowered, she rose further. Higher and higher still until she began to hover over the long grass.

 

 

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The Lady of the Marsh

 

 

We said nothing but looked on, frozen to the marsh. At one point, I was tempted to close Jordan’s mouth for him but I was too bewitched to move. The owl hovered and moved slowly about, occasionally craning her neck this way and that for some poor vole or shrew. At this point, it was imperative that we remained motionless and maintained absolute silence. This wouldn’t be a problem. Our hiding place was pretty sound and our clothing gave us fair cover. It helped that we were both also fairly cowed by this point. The Lady hadn’t quite made mice of us but we weren’t far off. This was her domain and we wouldn’t be popping our heads up until she moved on. Which came as abruptly as she had arrived. After casting the briefest glance back at her hunting grounds, perhaps at an escaping vole, she was gone.

 

 

Barn owl hunting, northern marsh
In the wake of a departing Queen

 

 

It was some time before we spoke. And later still before we moved. They say that nothing prepares you for seeing a ghost. This was my brother’s first time; mine had come a week or so earlier but just as with me, Jordan later agreed that he saw the marshes in a different light. It’s very hard not to. It’s a wonderful thing to watch a barn owl flying in the dusk sky. But if you are able to watch one hunt, there is no doubt that it sharpens one’s older instincts. To a barn owl, with its radar-shaped face and huge eyes (much of which are hidden underneath their skull) the marshes must look a very strange place. In the silence of their hovering, one can feel a quantum of this strangeness- and is forever affected by it. In this case, the only thing to rouse us was the prospect of witnessing that other great predator of the English countryside- the pike. I’d been keeping half an eye on my float and a few minutes after the owl departed, it began to dip. I struck and battled home a fine looking nine-pounder. Jordan took the photos. This was the first pike he ever saw so lightning struck twice for him this afternoon. He’s fairly reserved by nature- when he’s not arguing over coffee- but this second apparition rendered him even more quiet than usual.

 

 

Pike on the northern levels
Nine pound pike caught with the Lady’s blessing

 

 

This was a good thing. I was quiet, too. That’s what I’m used to out here. I’m a louder soul than my brother so it could be argued that these places are more precious to me than him.

 

But there was no more arguing to be done this afternoon. About anything. We packed up quietly and departed. No human should stay on the marsh after dark and I certainly never fish here past dusk. As we neared the hedges where I’d stashed my car, Jordan pointed south. The owl was flying away from us, past the copse where I originally saw her and out into the open country.

 

The rest, as they say, is silence.

 

 

Barn Owl leaving

Owl departing

 

 

17 thoughts on “Ghosts of the Winter Marsh- Part Two

  1. Reading this holed up on the 27th floor of a Manhattan apartment block.We are babysitting a 4 month old grand-daughter.
    I greatly needed a marsh story today, you did not disappoint. Pleased your traveler brother saw that owl. Great pictures, too, by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear, Tim- Thanks so much for reading. Manhattan, you say?!.. Wow, that’s fascinating… Merry Christmas from old England to you and your family, Gazza

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    1. Hello Derek, Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it, mate- Have a smashing Christmas- and all my best for the New Year, Gazza

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    1. Hello Paul- How kind! So glad you enjoyed it. A book?! Well, I keep talking about a book on Mill Pool perch fishing but perhaps I could write something on the marsh at some point… Merry Christmas, mate- Gazza

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  2. Gareth, I’m getting through them so get writing! Another lovely piece and two firsts in a day for your brother. I remember taking our son and daughter piking in a Hampshire pond one winter. They were probably six and nine respectively and I thought this’ll be a short session or expedition as Mike called it. They stuck it out until dark, we caught four pike, the biggest about nine pounds and they still remember it and they’re now late thirties and early forties with kids of their own. The strange thing is when when they reminisce about that afternoon they remember the little pike bung being towed through the ice that was forming with the ice snapping and cracking. Memories you can’t beat them, treasure that one with your brother. A jewel among memories. It’s bloody freezing here and hardly any wind, barometer falling rapidly. Worrying.

    All the best ,

    John

    PS Still archiving and cataloguing the prints on the new site.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve done well, John!

      That sounds like a great pike fishing trip. It always seems better when there’s ice and snow. Magic. I’m afraid I’ve not been able to convert my brother into an angler but he’ll definitely remember the day fondly. An introduction to two of the English countryside’s greatest characters- the pike and the barn owl.

      What more could he want?!

      The latter has been amazing. I’ve actually had the bird land on a stump less about six yards away and stare right at me. Just an incredible, magical bird. I’m looking into putting up some owls boxes with the school over the next few months, so who knows- perhaps another barn owl story? You never know. I’ve been very lucky to see this one so often. On the fishing front, I’d like another good sized perch before the season is out. And I want it from the lowlands, so there’ll no doubt be a story to go with it…

      I’ve just been looking at your prints again. They’re powerful works of art. As a wannabe Arcadian, I tend towards country scenes and love your Fenland prints. But I’ve just looked at the industrial-inspired collections and wow, they’re powerful.

      My grandfather used to mine at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent, near Deal. It came down in the late 80’s and the land has since been converted into a cycle park and nature reserve. There’s a commercial fishery on the edges of the site and one of their ponds is about 90 years old- it used to be one of the settling pools for my grandfather’s colliery. It’s very little fished and they have a policy of keeping it ‘old school’; there are some lovely tench and crucians in there. When the commercial site opened, they electro-farmed all the fish for this particular pond from out of a dyke that runs past. The tench are very dark; I don’t have a clue if it’s to do with the coal, but I like the idea. I remember how it all used to look when the colliery was still there… The cardinal colours in your prints seem to evoke the spirit of such places. I don’t know why but I can’t help but remember the colliery with purple, reddening skies as a backdrop. Stirs up a lot of feelings. Great stuff.

      Best Regards, Gazza

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  3. Thank you.

    Obviously a kindred soul, there’s as much inspiration in atmosphere and the unspoken word. It’s peeing down now and freezing, a great time to be in front of the fire and not in the car.

    Kind regards, John

    PS I’ll tell you about the Little Owls later on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Dave! Glad you enjoyed the entry- isn’t that barn owl a beauty? I’ve been so inspired by her that I’ve joined the Barn Owl Trust and am looking into putting up nest boxes with a local farmer.

      I’ve been much busier than I’d like to be this past winter but I’ve been trying to fit small trips in, either owl spotting or pike hunting. I had some success during those few days of unseasonably nice weather we had in mid-February; the pike began to move and the owl hunted in the day again… Beauty and the beast…

      I recorded some of that warm spell trip and am toying with releasing some of it as a film on YouTube. But I may just insert the footage as clips into a future blog… Hey, I hope you’re well and still in fine carp catching form! I’m currently looking at 8-weight fly rods for bass fishing the surf this summer. I’ll be in touch soon and you can give me some advice- Best Regards, Gazza

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant! Cheers Gareth. I’m hoping to get down in June or thereabouts, so we can compare notes. and yes, in fine carp catching form……! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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