Little Gods of the Field

Jo Gerrard writes about her search for the elusive corncrake on the tiny island of Iona.


I sit at the long wooden table: highly polished, sticky circular residue soiling the shine, a bowl of imitation iron fillings – I investigate with taste; it was locally sourced seaweed, dried and crushed into sprinkle sized portions. As I pick out the remnants of the sea vegetable from my molars I am asked the usual conversation starter question: ‘What brings you to Iona?’

I pause. I inhale a long deep breath. I hesitantly reply, aware of the mawkish response: ‘I just woke up one day with it on my mind.’ There is a nod of recognition. Most people seem to have had the same experience; the same answer to the same question. It’s like a phone ringing and ringing waiting for someone to answer the call. I picked it up. So did the middle-aged man opposite me, and the woman sat on the sofa whilst reading a book about migrant birds. The only one who didn’t is the elderly man I shared a room with. He had been dumped here by his family who were on holiday in Scotland. The conversation had been soundtracked by a long-haired man sat crossed legged in the corner strumming a guitar. I called him ‘two chords’ as that appeared to be all he knew. It was apt; the same repetitive revelation spoken to the same repetitive C and G chords.

The small talk ends abruptly. The door swings open. A woman in her 40s bounds in with the respiratory effort of someone crossing the finish line of a marathon.

‘I’ve … seen … one!’ she wheezed in-between words. ‘I’ve … seen … a … corncrake!’

The scattering of people in the communal room make coos of congratulations and awe. Even Two-chords downs the guitar for a brief moment to acknowledge her great feat of observation. The woman pulls at a tube hanging out from her rucksack that was still laden on her shoulders. She sucks on it like her life depended on it. It probably does; the tube was connected to an oxygen canister. This woman had hiked over the island for days seeking out this bird – with a heavy gaseous bottle on her back which was her lifeline – yet I was lolling about dreamily. I’d achieved little other than a ‘Celtic tan’ (my skin was beginning to match the hue of the red ensign flag), and a few pictures of oystercatchers. And now I am brimming with curiosity: what was this corncrake? And what made it so special?

Corncrakes are not much bigger than a blackbird, and are related to coots and moorhens – however, unlike them, corncrakes live on dry-land. Their scientific name crex crex is onomatopoeic; their call is rasping like two wooden combs being rubbed together. I’d heard it many times on the island. I knew it was a corncrake, yet I was never really compelled to seek it out. I wanted to see whales, dolphins, eagles – I wanted the full tourist experience! The big hitters! I wasn’t interested in small ground-nesting birds. When I was back at home I looked into this troubled bird. Changes in farming habits has meant the population has declined dramatically in recent years, with up to 60% of chicks being killed by usual mowing practices. What also prods my intrigue is how, up until relatively recently, people believed they went underground, or turned into moorhens in the winter. When so much mystery has been uncovered, the corncrake clings onto an air of myth. It has been found as far as the Congo, and Kathleen Jamie called them ‘Little Gods of the Field’ in her book, ‘Findings’. That is what they are: mysterious, elusive, and if we listen we can hear their call, but we rarely see them. I now have an unquenchable thirst. I must see a corncrake.

The next three visits to Iona I made attempts to spot one. I camped out in tent-breaking gales, torrential rain, a brief spell of unseasonal snow, and blazing heat. I heard corncrakes everywhere. They teased and taunted me with their crex crex that seemed to be coming from every direction. I visited the puffins on Staffa again, I saw dolphins, whales, a black otter, seals, oystercatchers, sandlings, dunlins, plovers … a whole array of wildlife … but no corncrake. I give-up. I admit defeat. Perhaps it is just the thought of them that is magical. Maybe it is like Christmas Day, when after all the presents have been opened there is a slight pang of disappointment – the anticipation has been dissolved into empty boxes and torn paper. The myth of the corncrake is the charm. I don’t want to see one. I don’t want the magic to go.

On the next visit I relax. I sit on the beach reading and watching the ring-necked plovers run in and out with the tide. I look for green stone, witnessed spectacular sunsets, and hike across the little island to the most inaccessible parts – envious of the buzzards above cruising the thermals as I wearily wish I was fitter. As part of my tradition formed by a solitary mind, I run up Dun I and wash my face in the Font of Youth (still awaiting results), and then slowly descend the hill which seemed to be getting more perilous after each trip. I stroll back along the road heading to the White Strands beach (allegedly where monks had been repeatedly slaughtered by Vikings) when … what was that? In my periphery I spot something small and brown. I turn my head. A downy looking bird stares back at me. We both freeze for a split second, both shocked by the existence of one another.  Then it bolts across the field into the undergrowth: gawkish, inelegant, much like Sesame Street’s Beaker in a panic.

I am annoyed, but the rush of adrenaline betrayed my outward peevishness. I saw a corncrake. There was no one around to share my joy. I grab my phone and searched for someone to text – no one I knew would be interested, but I am. I care. I’d seen this bird and someone was going to hear about it. Then I remembered: there is no phone reception on this island.

The next day is my last on Iona. I do the usual as my tradition dictates: wander the shops, light a candle in the chapel, have a Windswept beer, and panic a little about weather vs ferry. I stroll up towards the Machair and spot a small crowd at the foot of a private garden. They hold up cameras and phones all pointing at this patch of long grass. I hear a nearby crex crex. My pace unconsciously increases in speed like an inner desire has overtaken my legs and now marched them to stand beside a camo-clad man holding a long lens that probably cost more than my car. I sidle up beside him; he appears to be the best to befriend at this moment.

‘It’s just there,’ he says, pointing at the grass. His grey beard doesn’t conceal the satisfied warm smile. ‘Just up from that rock.’

I see it. Between the blades of lush green grass and pink wild flowers is a Little God of the Field calling out to the females. It is so close I can see its beak opening as it crex crex. I’ve now seen two corncrakes in as many days, and this time it has been shared with equally as surprised spectators, and equally as in awe of this bird.

I don’t stick around for long. I don’t want to take the moment for granted. I’ve stepped into this magical world of the corncrake long enough and do not want to impose like an over-staying guest. I thank the birder and go on my way. I meander up onto the beach with a contented step and watch the plovers running in and out with the ebb tide. I while away the hours as I wait for my ferry just finding joy in being part of the landscape: quiet, still, observing, alone. Slowly I begin to understand the call from this little Isle in the West. Iona.


Jo Gerrard is currently studying the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex after completing her undergraduate in Creative Writing at Greenwich. Her main interests lie in faeries and folklore, however she is a keen birder and often loiters in the shadows with binoculars seeking out those feathered friends.

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Helford Side

Caroline Woodburn, inspired by a summer-time visit to Helford in Cornwall, reflects upon the closed and stubborn nature of adults in contrast to the playful, inquisitive minds of children.

Finding ourselves among the crowds of mussels
that cling,
awaiting a tide to kiss them back to life.
Tiny, clustered, grey with want of love.
Such hard shells withstanding even
the tread and tramp of children’s feet.
Little fingers grasp at them, at us,
and prise us from our rocks – discarded.

Limpets too.
A vast field of eyes it seems
that spy on us unshaken in their sturdy grip.
Push, pull, try to fool the foot to slip away
and give itself entirely to our grasp.
But they are stubborn, strong.
Little fingers have no luck,
twisting their ridgéd bodies from the rock.

Within pools a creature lurks.
Disguised as flower or jellied sweet
it sits and waits;
tiny fingers of its own dancing, swaying,
luring in the curious hands of ours.
And as we reach to touch red fingers,
baby suckers grab at us
and pull us deeper into shallow depths.

These creatures crowd and cling
and pull,
stubbornly unmoving, rigidly stuck,
waiting for the tide like we
alone did wait on Helford side.
The children crawled and plucked and dipped,
whilst we stayed stubbornly stuck.
Finding ourselves – creatures on the rock.

Caroline Woodburn is currently studying the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Essex, after having been an English and Media Teacher for 14 years, as well as an Assistant Head Teacher. Her writing often takes the form of human portraits, explored through both poetry and prose.

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Beachcombing Wild Writing

To the Beach and Beyond – six writers respond to a Beachcombing Wild Writing Workshop


As part of the finale for Essex Book Festival 2018, on 31st March at Jaywick Martello Tower, Judith Wolton and Wendy Constance (commencing the last term of their Wild Writing MA) hosted a Beachcombing Wild Writing Workshop. Starting with a walk along the beach, the participants were encouraged to note any responses to the five senses, absorbing the coastal atmosphere whilst looking for something interesting to bring back. Returning to the Tower they took part in a variety of writing exercises, starting with flow writing as many words as they could think of about the sea. Further inspiration was provided by two trays of beachcombing collections (supplied by Judith and Wendy), as well as a memory exercise asking them to recall (or invent) a previous beach find of their own to write about,

At the end of the session participants were invited to develop a piece of writing to contribute to a group compilation. The diversity of the responses reflects the individuality of everybody’s imagination from a shared experience.


Standing at the edge of the world
When the world was flat,
And all the seas
With monsters filled,
And sweet siren songs
Called the sailors back.

When the ships that sailed
Carried golden treasure,
And crews were
Crusty old tars.

When the skies were black,
And the sun
Never shone,
And the clouds
Blew constantly past.

When the waves on the shore
Pushed forwards, sucked back,
And the birds in the air
Flew higher.

When the dark horizon
Stretched endlessly

And breath seemed
Impossible to take.

Then that’s how it felt
To stand as a child
In awe,
At the edge of the world.

Rosemary Leak


Broken Umbrella

Silver skeleton by the sea,
unclaimed, forgotten,
lying in a grave of pebbles and sand.

Its black fabric
that unselfishly shielded heads
from rain and snow
lies beside it,
a shredded burial gown.
Its help is broken,
its work finished.

Someone will pick it up,
perhaps a child,
pull apart its shiny bones,
throw them at the sea,
then turn away.

The waves will take them in,
like God,
unconditionally, forgiving.

When I am broken,
will Death throw me at heaven,
then turn away?

Will God take me in
like the waves,
forgive me my selfish life,

the help I never gave
when I could have,
the work for others
left undone?

Kathryn de Leon


Beach Spoil

Wind bullies my hair and buffets my face,
Gulls capture the sloping currents.
As pebbles shuffle at my feet,
I look closely at the texture there.

It is not as it seems.
I gather a handful of discards in seconds,
Carelessly thrown away fragments,
Mixed with the rain damp stones.

Tangled in weed, the broken plastic spoon,
That stirred sweet grains into hot liquid,
Stirs bitterness into the café latte shore.

This shimmering zip locked bag held fishhooks,
Cast on synthetic line to snag the mouths of supple fish.
Waves gnaw fretfully at the adulterated shingle.

Here, a firework casing, a rocket shot free,
That scattered constellations, fell empty to dark water,
Where starfish walk on paths spangled with trash.

Bottled misted water guzzled into a thirsting throat,
The containing cap holding it pure,
Casually pitched to taint the sea-slaked stones.

Spat from the lips that sipped saccharine fizz,
A pink straw pokes from twisted seaweed,
As the sucking waves foam and gag on the beach.

A clump of nylon sutured inseparable to weed,
Blight stitched into the suffering shore,
The stuff of the strandline woven with disease.

Red ribbon girdles the mouth of a ruptured balloon
Its skin tattered, its helium dispersed.
It does not fly, except in the craws of birds.

The margins above the tide line
Assimilate our greasy tossed leavings,
Bleached pale by sun, wind and swell.

In the seas, our oily refuse seems consumed,
But gives no nourishment to our Mother Ocean,
Tumours of plastic spread at her heart.

Bilious with sickly indigestion,
She oozes soured sweat from her grey face,
Spewing our waste with an injured moan.

Sarah Beavins


Looking at the sea

What do I see when I look at the sea?
Rows and rows of waves, orderly and patiently waiting to come in

What do I see when I look towards the sea?
The sea wall, bricks built up one on top of the other bracing themselves against the elements

What do I see when I look alongside the sea?
A troop of caravans, arranged like soldiers waiting to move in formation

What do I see when I look up from the sea?
Birds flying in formation, and clouds floating horizontally along with the wind

What do I see when I turn away from the sea?
A solo daisy on the ground, perfect and round
The Martello Tower, strong, defensive and bound
Puddles, making their own shapes on the ground

This is what I saw the day I went to see the sea

Louise Hall

Inspired by The Sea 1887 Jan Toorop


By the Water

Waves crash against the rock barrage,
lifting the strands of seaweed which extend,
and reach out towards the tide.

My grand-father drowned off a rowing-boat
in a choppy sea like this, leaving
a wife and six young children on their own.

A squall blew up from nowhere.
We heard he hit his head on the side
of the boat as it capsized,
that he didn’t swim and soon vanished.

The pain set in motion through many lives
was like an ocean swell born
thousands of miles away, whose force
strikes the shore without mercy.

This morning, I swim out from the beach,
staying within my depth. This isn’t our element.
The sea tastes bitter, freighted with salt.
I climb the pebble bank before water chills me.

Paul Donegan


On my way

A faceful of brown water
into my mouth, into my nose
swallowed it whole
swallowed me whole
gulping it down
scratching my throat, my nostrils
coughing it up, blowing it out
burning my nose
scalding my throat
snot hanging on my lip
blowing it up, coughing it out
and the waves at the shore
lap, softly
tickling mum’s painted toes

Emma Kittle-Pey

The great escape

The rain swept the dummy into the giant puddles in the road, and it bobbed along before drifting into the drain. The baby shrieked as it fell but the mum pushed the buggy and spat at a tourist, ‘no sorry I don’t know where the tower is, we’re not from round here’, thrusting it over the broken road, and the dad walked ahead looking onwards at the tip of the tower that he knew, and she knew, so well from when they were kids.

Inside she raged like the storm that had just been: that she was inside out with cold and the baby was screaming and they’d ended up in this really bad place, to see his mum again, embarrassing! And where’s the f’in dummy?

The dad felt the flatness in his belly that he could do nothing else but be quiet and keep on going. The baby was screaming and she had her jaw poking forward, like she does, and he began to walk a little faster. He started to rage a bit inside too, that they were back here again (last time it had been okay, but now she was right and he felt ashamed).

The baby raged inside and didn’t know why, but we all know he wanted the sucky rubber of the blue dummy on his tongue.

The dummy found peace on its journey to the sea, but just, just, when it was about to start its adventure, was plucked from the stream by someone that cares about sea-life and plastics. It sits in the tower on a table of found objects now, and soon it will be in a glass case in the museum-of-the-way-it-used-to-be-when-we-let-the-plastics-go-to-the-sea.

Emma Kittle-Pey


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The Ghost of Dunwich

Roseanne Ganley explores the effects of coastal erosion on Dunwich, a landmark of the Suffolk coast, and the presence of the ghosts that haunt the land. 


The coast had been eroding for some time now.

Seas of parish churches and religious houses were no longer present. Looking over the cliff edges of Dunwich in Suffolk, you could get a sense of the horror of events that had occurred in the early twelfth and thirteenth century. Towers of parish churches could be seen floating underwater, out in the depths of the North Sea, their presence still haunting over us. On a cold and blistery afternoon in the heart of winter, her ghostly figure is said to have been seen, falling over the cliff edges and diving into the sea.

It was inevitable that the sea would eventually wipe out the entire town. More devastation would be caused, and more buildings would be lost to the ever-changing tide. The raised, cliff top edges held their posture well, staring down at the sea below, standing their ground. A narrow path leading from the beach car park, led its way up to the top of the cliffs, twisting its way round tall, pine trees and forestry intersections. The panoramic views at the top of the Suffolk coast were undeniably pleasant. I waited. The crowds of local dog walkers, wrapped up in winter coasts, edged their way past me as I looked over across the sea. As soon as they were gone, I was alone. I could feel her presence, waiting to make herself known to me. The stories were true. She was real.


Strong easterly winds left me feeling uneasy about where I was, longing to be back in the warmth of my car again. She had been seen for many years, the locals had almost gotten used to her being here now, making the odd appearance every now and again. Crowds of tourists would flood in during the summer to Dunwich, to see the Ancient Roman Ruins, visit the local Museum and take great pleasure in spending their days on the beaches of Suffolk. The winter brought about a harsh setting. The village eerily quiet and void of tourists. The beaches absent of any human activity. The tide sweeping in and out without a cause. Dunwich Heath a few miles inland provided more comfort. Stretches of purple coloured heathland, bringing you away from the exposure of the coastline. It was impossible not to be drawn into the wilderness of Dunwich Forest and Heathlands, a national beauty. To pretend you are in a foreign land, wandering the paths less travelled and worshipping the trees and the surrounding natural world. I could walk for hours in this paradise. In the summer many tourists from around the world travel to this foreign land, take vacations here and live the life of a gipsy for weeks on end, living freely in the wilderness.

But back on the coast, the ghostly presence of the lady who once committed suicide on the cliff edges of Dunwich could still be felt. Her silent screams across the land, traumatised by what Dunwich used to be. Will Dunwich still exist in ten or so years down the line? Or will it be a ghostly presence of the village that once was, now stripped of its entirety taken by the coast, the sea sweeping in and taking every monumental aspect of this historical village. Only time will tell.

All I know is that it will never be the same again.


Roseanne Ganley is a 22 year old MA Wild Writing student from Ipswich. She is an outdoor enthusiast, travel writer and mental health blogger, and is interested in the workings of the mind in relation to the outdoors and how walking can improve our wellbeing.

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Orford Ness: A Guide to Memory Mapping

Tracy Lee-Newman delves into a psychogeographic investigation of place whilst on a trip to the wild Ness.


January 2018, and let’s start with layers. Socks, vests, t-shirts, jumpers, fleeces, raincoats, gloves and hats. Orford Ness is what’s known as a ‘storm beach’, and none of us are taking any chances.

Curving round the Suffolk coast, the Ness is the site of our class’s first field trip; a promontory of shingle, marsh and mud approximately ten miles long, accessible only by ferry. Now owned by the National Trust and recognised as an internationally important area for nature conservation, for most of the 20th century it was a place the public were excluded from because of the secret research undertaken on site by the military; research conducted in the now abandoned buildings we are taken to explore.

Will Self, Robert MacFarlane, the late W. G. Sebald, they have all been tempted to examine what Self calls “one of England’s strangest wastelands”. No wonder, then, that our tutor, Dr James Canton, believes this place will help us hone our psychogeographic skills by heightening our awareness of the different strands of natural and man-made history such places are composed of. Good students all, we pick apart the owl pellets we find in shelters, listen to the song the wind sings through a stairway’s railings, ask unanswerable questions about Cobra Mist – the myth-enshrouded radar project based here until 1973. Inspired by MacFarlane’s urgings that we note the “textual runoff” to be found most everywhere, we photograph the signs, the notices that warn of unexploded ordnance, the peeling DANGER sticker on a decommissioned atom bomb.


Led by David, our National Trust guide, we climb atop the Bomb Ballistics building and, with his help, unfurl the horizontal. Undulating shingle ridges furred with vegetation. Aldeburgh and the Sizewell nuclear power station in the distance. The battleship grey of the North Sea colliding with cloud-riven sky. The wind-beaten pewter of the rivers Ore and Alde.

But if you drop your gaze, or even close your eyes, you’ll notice that the vertical unfolds. This place too, has layers. Biplanes from the First World War test ghost-bombs on the spit. The spirits of the German Prisoners of War camp and the Chinese labourers employed to build a wall still linger. Pigeons, owls and swallows may have colonised the bunkers, and the hares the vegetation, but this place is so uncanny that it doesn’t feel too fanciful to see them swerving to avoid the bomb ballistics experts and the draughtsmen bussed in from surrounding towns. David tells us that the longshore drift has rolled flint down the east coast for hundreds of years, but the future is uncertain.  This might look like a largely dead and static landscape, but look again; look deeper. The roof of the pagoda might fall in tomorrow. Erosion may once again turn to accretion. One day, that lighthouse will join its predecessors at the bottom of the sea.

Back home. I shuck off my raincoat, my wellies, then pick my owl pellet to pieces. A few tiny bones. Tufts of fur. And, more than likely, scores of things I’d need a microscope to see.

Memory mapping: it’s all about layers.


Tracy Lee-Newman is currently working towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. To date, her short stories and flash fiction have been published by Slingink, Secret Attic, Centum Press, Pure Slush and Bath Flash Fiction, and she has a forthcoming piece in Flash Fiction International. Always interested in the effects of places on people, she worked until recently leading Forest School sessions with children, and remains committed to helping those with special needs flourish in both natural and built environments. She tweets @writeatme.

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Barbara Claridge finds opportunity for discovery in a simple garden experiment. 

Vanessas’ Diary 9th – 16th September 2017


I’m wondering where the butterflies shelter when the September sky clouds and cold heavy rain falls suddenly. Each so strong drop might pierce the wing of such a pretty thing. Like showers in April, the rain stops too soon, abruptly. The wind shifts a little and the sky clears to a brilliant powder blue with a white cirrus fringe, and one butterfly is back.

This morning I have laid out some rotting peaches on the railway sleeper edging to the terrace, where I can sit close and observe butterfly behaviour. First is the red admiral, resplendent in black uniform with bright orange epaulets and white flashing. Another lands and another flitters. There is no way to describe their flying; it is so determinedly random. They seem intoxicated, fascinated by the treat.

vanessa 1

Now a comma all aquiver. It is like having my own butterfly garden with free entry. These European commas are no less exotic than those species who need a hot house and tropical food plants, and here close watching is easy. Why seek out a rare passerine or golden oriel to bird watch when a blackbird would do just as well? In fact, I have begun to think there is much to be gained from watching pigeons, those birds most despised by gardeners. Instead see what a few rotting peaches can do for you.



vanessa 2

In quick succession, I have four read admirals, the comma and a peacock, which is somewhat faded against the bright, new-hatched look of the admirals. I spectate at a fashion show as they parade the peach walk and pump their wings, piercing at the flesh and tube-up the sticky syrup.

Look closely and the admiral’s body is the colour of a brown bear pelt and the only black is under the white wingtip markings.

The different species do not interact and skilfully avoid each other’s feeding space. It has been like this for days ever since I had the idea of the peach experiment – the same group it seems. Today’s rain has made the juices runny. Aimless green and black flies crawl over the edges of the fruit. They quiver-fly in drunken circles then fall on the gravel, never still.

The peacock moves to land upon a glistening blade of grass nearby – needing a drink I muse? He rests a while, wings now folded, so that, edge-on, he looks just like a blade of darker grass.

I wonder what I will find feeding on the last of the lavender on the other side of the garden.

Sunday 10:20

The butterflies return when the peaches have been streamed in sunlight. Today the sky is filled with alto-cirrus and lower, faster travelling thin cumulus. It is 13 degrees C. My diary experiment has led to questions not answers. How do butterflies smell? How far can they smell? Can the wind knock them off scent targets? The clouds are building, can they sense the rain?

A second day watch and the wind is strong from the south west. The wind chimes clatter in the peach tree out of tune, but in tempo with the wind. I needn’t have bothered to buy them as the metal fat-ball hooks and swinging empty bird feeders clank and echo out of tune against each other.

More ugly flies are attracted to the shrinking shells of peach flesh and the stones, drupes, are more exposed, stripped clean and now a lighted brown in colour.

See, a comma returns, but a new hatch, with sharp waves to wing-edge and brighter orange scales.

Every so often my peripheral vision is caught by a quick movement against gravel or stone. But no. A turning leaf mimics a butterfly while the real ones cling fast with tail and open wings into the wind direction, sunning themselves. Vivid patches of hot sunlight alternate with chill of cloud.


This morning, in an experiment of childhood returned, I made up a saturated solution of cane sugar syrup and poured it over the peaches to make them even sweeter. I kept a small volume of the brown sticky liquid and three quarter filled a white china ramekin which I put on the step by the door. This was to test if the peaches or the sugar syrup had more attraction for the butterflies. However, up to this point I have only attracted the wasp brigade and an army of tiny brown ants to the peaches and no additional butterflies.

Wait and watch a while longer. Before the end of the day I moved the ramekin away from the step and onto the sleeper next to the fruit bait.

Tuesday 08:45

First red admiral arrives. The day is bright and cool at 12 degrees C. The peaches on the sleeper begin to look like gnarled prunes and my experiment has gone very wrong. In the bright early light the white ramekin contrasts so starkly against the black of the wooden sleeper. Last night it was part full of sugar syrup solution and a drowning wasp. Now it is completely empty with two dead flies lying upside down in the bottom. What has drunk the syrup? In the absence of any slime trail or other evidence my best guess is hedgehog. But every drop has gone in the night? Maybe a mouse party?

The wings of the two flies are stuck down on the empty base but I see their legs twitch and I feel I must release what I trapped. I knock the china against the hollow wood and the flies fall out, damp but alive. Within seconds they rub their legs dry and disappear. A wasp comes drinking, but the syrup is gone and the peach not to his liking so he goes elsewhere in the garden for sweeter fare.


Rain. I use my butterfly time to research some butterfly facts in Collins Butterfly Guide – The Most Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Europe, wondering why any author might write a least complete guide.

The Red Admiral, Peacock and Comma all belong to the Nymphalidae family and collectively form part of the group of butterflies known as Vanessids, but only the red admiral has Vanessa as her prename. Vanessa atalanta, such a stately name, is fitting for such a large power dresser. The larval host plant for all three is the common stinging nettle which grow in abundance around the perimeter of my garden in Brittany. All three species can overwinter as hibernating adults, and the comma and peacock feed in early spring on salix (willow) blossom which again I have growing in the talus ditch and in a woven semi-circle bower, which is in urgent need of reweaving and clipping at this time of year. This wet day is proving to be very valuable in my butterfly study week, allowing me time to put together old ideas and new facts to test against real observations.


The peaches are shrivelled. It is a cold 10 degrees C this morning. September morning shadows are visibly lengthening and the light is changing colour. Around the autumn equinox the transit arc of the sun’s elevation is lowering, fast shortening the days. No creatures except two watching cats. A family of late blackbirds scooters across the wet lawn, flying low between the shrubs looking for wet worms and young snails in shells soft enough to swallow whole.

By 11:21 the three red admirals are back, proboscis prodding and nectaring the disintegrating peach halves. Could they be the same butterflies each day?

By observing closely, I have found that the flies and wasps strip away layers of the fruit, hoovering the surface with a tube that seems to be a ‘mouth’, whereas the butterflies just suck out the juice. Flies are not attractive creatures to me. They twitch about across the peach surface and make the skin on the back of my neck itch just watching them. Yet their wings are of such translucent fabric, delicate in its own way, but held stiffly behind their bodies like black organdie glued to a fine wire edge. One lands on my toe and I feel no sensation.

There have been no butterfly feeders this afternoon. The cat weather vane points due west into a light breeze and I think this may be the end of my butterfly watch.


Fine rain all day


vanessa 3The peach remains are no longer of interest to any creature. When the sun does come out, the bright yellow dahlias in the border draw in the peacocks; the red admirals and comma are gone. Wait a moment, my attention is grabbed by three beautiful violet carpenter bees on that yellow dahlia ……..




Watch the Vanessids here:


Barbara Claridge has just completed the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex as a full time student.  Following a long career as Headteacher of a Hampshire junior school, where outdoor learning was a passion, she moved to Brittany with her husband and began a five-year renovation/construction project of a longère and garden.  She has also worked with the British Council in Beijing and Pittsburgh on the International Headteacher Programme and completed short-term voluntary projects as a Primary Education Adviser in Ghana and Namibia. She tweets @56190bjc


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Pretty Peach

Claire Pearson wrote this piece after finding inspiration at the University of Essex’s Sustainable Practice summer school. In this short story she vividly remembers the first time she became aware of her impact on the natural world.

Pretty Peach

It was 1973. Wizzard was number one in the charts with See My Baby Jive and the last of the day’s sunshine filtered through the orange curtains in the front room. It was a birthday and birthdays meant nice food and presents. About six o’clock there was the metallic scraping of the key in the lock and bright chatter swept into the hallway along with the smell of fried food. She was home at last.

Older, wiser, and already experienced in the disappointments of the world, my sister knew not to expect too much. I watched as her long lacquered nails peeled back the thin layers of wrapping paper to reveal an oblong box about the length of her hand. It was the colour of my skin, decorated with pale flowers, and there was writing on it too. With her usual mystifying indifference, she withdrew the item from the cardboard container and scrutinized its contents. An opaque bottle which matched the colour of the box; and sitting on the top was a great big fruit. It looked just like one of the apples that grew on our tree, only it was yellow and flushed with a spray of deepest pink. I noticed a small cleft from which sprouted a stalk and one bright green leaf that protruded at a rakish angle. My sister explained that the fruit was supposed to be peach and it served as the bottle’s lid.

She unscrewed the top and I leant in to experience the overpowering, ersatz, fruity aroma. Is that what peaches smelt like? She held up the bottle for closer inspection and read the label aloud, ‘Avon Pretty Peach Bubble Bath’.

I was overwhelmed with unconcealed desire for this glorious item: ‘Oh pleeeese can I have it, just for a while, just to look at?’ I pleaded and whined as my sister gazed into the mirror and added the finishing touches to her mascara, but she wasn’t really listening. Then, as she sprayed us both with liberal amounts of hairspray I heard the throaty exhaust of her boyfriend’s car; I was running out of negotiating time.

I whined some more as my sister put on her platform shoes.

I whinged as she clomped her way down the stairs.

Stepping out into the evening, she slipped her bag over a shoulder and made her way towards the rattling car and called back to me ‘You can play with it once it’s empty’.

That night I lay in bed watching car headlights as they zoomed round the purple wood-chip walls while David Cassidy looked down. Our bedroom was littered with things from my sister’s shopping sprees: clothes, magazines, shoes, half empty aerosol cans, nail varnish bottles and perfumes. I didn’t know what was in most of them, or why my sister needed so many, but I knew each item well because I used them all as stock for my pretend shop – and the one thing I wanted to add to my stock was lying beneath a pile of my sister’s work clothes. We were only allowed a bath once a week. I’d be grown up by the time she’d finished luxuriating in peachy bubbles.

The next evening, after my sister had gone out and with the smell of dinner still hanging in the air, I stole downstairs with the bubble bath, along the hall, into the small kitchen and out of the back door, closing it quietly behind me. Evening was drawing in and a few birds still called across the gardens as the wind stirred the trees. It was getting chilly. Checking to ensure I wasn’t being watched through the kitchen window, I scuttled along the garden path and around the corner where the lilac trees grew tall. The plastic bottle felt cool and heavy in my hands. Carefully I unscrewed the beautiful peach lid, held the bottle at arm’s length, flipped it upside down and emptied its pink peachy contents into the flowers, moving around the garden as I went. Shaking vigorously, I emptied the last drops out replaced the lid and quietly hurried back inside returning the bottle to the heap of clothes now on the floor next to my sister’s bed.

I’m not sure how long it took my family to find out what I’d done, but I suspect it was probably the following day, but not because my sister had taken a bath. My grim-faced mother requested I follow her out into the garden because she had ‘a bone to pick’ with me. I had no idea what this meant, but I could tell from her expression that she wasn’t happy. She led me across the lawn and pointed to a strange iridescence that clung to the edges of the water’s surface and it was explained to me that emptying bubble bath into the pond had resulted in the death of all the fish.

My eyes and cheeks burned.

I felt sick.

I felt ashamed.

I was horrified.

I was shocked that I had so much power.

I was a fish murderer!

How could something that looked so beautiful and smelt so divine, be so deadly?

Claire is a part-time postgraduate student in her second year studying for an MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at Essex University.  She is an artist, musician and writer who draws inspiration from the natural environment.

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Burrows Lecture: J.A. Baker: His life, works and legacy

Fifty years ago, a short-sighted, little known young man named J.A Baker wrote a book based on his solitary wanderings tracking peregrines in and around the Blackwater estuaries of Essex. Fifty years later, this book is celebrated as a visceral, incandescent, and vitally important text, precisely presenting the nature of the eponymous peregrine, giving voice to the Essex landscape, and carefully elucidating the wider relationship between humans and their surroundings. Baker is now remembered as the founding father of modern day nature writing, and is known to have inspired many of our great writers of the natural world, including Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane.

This important anniversary is being marked by a new edition of the book, the first biography of Baker himself, and a lecture by the University of Essex’s own Dr James Canton, in which he will delve into the life, work, and legacy of this enigmatic man.

The lecture will take place at The Lakeside Theatre on Wednesday 29th November at 6pm. More information and tickets here.


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‘A Museum of Modern Nature’

Molly Shrimpton finds hope in the unusual at the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition  ‘A Museum of Modern Nature’. 


In Spring 2017 the Wellcome Collection asked members of the public to bring in objects that ‘tell a story about their relationship with nature’. The objects received were then carefully sorted through and selected by a team of individuals who all work with nature in varying ways: from a horticulturalist to a mountaineer, a dairy farmer to a shaman.

The objects received ranged in an astonishing diversity. For some, such as a pair of binoculars, a Ladybird biology textbook, and an elderflower sprig, the logic seems clear. But for others, such as a pack of PG Tips playing cards, a shopping list, and an oxygen cylinder, the story is more complicated. For me, there was no clear route through the exhibition. You enter the large white room and find yourself lurching from one direction to another, moving sporadically towards interesting object after interesting object, whatever the eye snags on next. It reminded me somewhat of the experience of walking through a forest, in which multiple paths spiral off in different directions and the senses are bombarded with new dimensions of sound, smell and touch; the eye is drawn to random totems of sylvan life: a branch, a feather, a husk.

One of the clear, overarching themes to be found in many of the objects – which likely attests to the location of the exhibition and the demographic of its contributors – is the experience of urban life, and the struggle of connecting to nature whilst living in the city. A Thermos flask speaks of a woman’s agony of being ‘trapped’ in London, dreaming of a life ‘in the country with a garden of my own and ideally a dog.’ The flask enables her to have her own space in nature, liberated from the demands of others. It is a symbolic facilitator of the solace that time alone in nature can bring to the harried, the stressed, and the unhappy. A particularly touching entry is a homemade suncatcher, which consists of coloured jewels strung onto a clothes hanger with scraps of ribbon. The creator, Ikuko, explains: ‘I’m living in a second floor flat, I haven’t got a garden, so the window is for me the lookout into the nature around me. (…) the window is an interface to nature and the suncatcher is representing the window to connect me to the outside world, surrounding nature.’ These words capture the quiet longing of someone who is painfully aware of the distance that circumstance has forced between her and the natural spaces of the world. The suncatcher is a labour of love, a humble collection of unwanted domestic articles, which acts as a refractor, taking the light and colours that lie beyond the mediatory window and spilling them joyfully over into the intimacy of the apartment, naturalizing the interior space.

MoMN 11

The material, industrial culture of the modern city engenders other surprising reactions to nature: an artificial yellow chick, a clothes brush and a carton of Princes 100% Pure Apple Juice. A young woman speaks of two old photographs taken by her grandfather of the view from his house, before and after the construction of a motorway. We expect the melancholy and nostalgia of the grandfather, grieving for the loss of his natural surroundings. What we do not expect, is the reaction of the granddaughter: ‘the motorway actually reminds me of the seasons, because as a child I would look out at the motorway when I was visiting my grandparents and in winter, when it gets dark about 5 or 6 o’clock, the lights of the motorway actually looked like Christmas tree lights. So it really reminded me or Christmas and the fact that winter was coming. And I used to kind of watch for the Christmas Coca Cola van on the motorway. So yeah, that’s why it reminds me of nature.’ Industrial development and commercial capitalism – industries we associate most with environmental degradation – here create a surprising access point. Perhaps what this highlights is the remarkable ability of humans –especially children – to adapt to their surroundings, and to find imaginative routes and pathways to nature, even in the most unlikely of situations.


The creative tenacity evidenced in this story reflects the wider perseverance of the natural world, whose wondrous capacity for regeneration many contributors captured in their stories. An elegant sculpture of cast bronze and silver birch stands in this light, the latter of which the contributor uses for its capacity as a pioneer species to regenerate damaged or polluted areas, creating the right conditions for other species to follow and grow. A piece of plastic turf tells the tale of an urbanized city farm smothered in concrete, which the owners decided to turf over in order to encourage people to visit and engage with nature (belying an ironic belief in the capacity of plastic to reconnect us to the natural world). Over time, plants started to grow through the turf: ‘it wasn’t just grass that was growing, it was… there were little bits of kale coming up and little nasturtium seeds’, the contributor laughs as she speaks. Hearing the story, one imagines a kind of green patchwork, in which delicate shoots needle through and interweave themselves into the wider membrane of the plastic lining; a dystopian metaphor perhaps for the future of our planet, in which plastic will become as ubiquitous as grass, inseparable from the raw structure and strata of the earth in the age of the Plastocene.

Other items speak of the importance of the home in our relation to nature. A Dukes mayonnaise jar is filled with soft cotton, into which pecans and pine cones nestle. The objects have been sent from the contributor’s mother, who still resides in her native Alabama. The contributor speaks of the comfort that the jar brings her, perhaps conjuring visions of the shimmering prairies and golden light of the forests of her home. But she also speaks of the pain and longing that alienation from this landscape brings. Her words point directly to the importance of the home environment on the creation of the self, and the way that the self corresponds to the exterior world: ‘I think maybe the influence of the nature of home is maybe underestimated. When you move to a different country, a different climate, you are in a different habitat. The trees are different, the smells are different, the flowers are different, and I miss them. I miss the smells and nature of home. So there’s something about having a connection with almost the deepest part me of me, the part when I was a child, when I could go outside, pick up pine cones, pick up pecans and crack them open and eat them with my grandmother, stop on the side of the road and go into a cotton field and pick some. It makes me feel a bit less lonely and a bit more like my true self.’ The natural surroundings of childhood forever enmesh themselves into our identities; to be alienated from the native landscape for many brings a profound sense of dislocation. One thinks of the numerous indigenous communities who have suffered this displacement, whose cultures, languages, and belief systems have disintegrated with the loss of natal land. What they are, as Barry Lopez says in Arctic Dreams, ‘is not finished at the skin’, they are attached to the natural landscape ‘as if by luminous fibres’, the severing of which is a form of cultural genocide.


Childhood features throughout many of the objects in the exhibition. A vast display of model Volkswagen Beetles is produced as an unconscious longing for the collecting of beetles and insects that the contributor undertook as a child in his native Australia. The difference between these two types of beetles highlights the changes that have passed in recent environmental law. These temporal junctures are also evidenced in a display of shell and silver jewellery, which the contributor was gifted from her own children after it became illegal to take the shells from her local beach, as she loved to do as a child. Indeed it is the entries from children that are among the most interesting, and often the most insightful. An amethyst flower crystal was sent in by ten-year-old Dyala. She is clearly an avid crystal collector, and was attracted to the stone for its beauty, but there is more to her story than this. She explains that the flower crystal gets its name ‘after its shape because its got like little spikes coming out, and its nice to think that like some, it might have been growing one day. I like to think of it that way.’ Her words exhibit an awareness of the vast interconnectivity of organic forms, and a capacity for imagination that allows her to appreciate the correspondence of the natural world in a way that most adults are unable to.

There were many children present at the exhibition, and they were all unusually quiet, absorbed into the items on display before them. Some children sent in creative compositions that highlight the connections between nature, imagination and play. Two young girls sent in the paper coffins that they made for the dead crabs they found whilst walking on the Thames Estuary. There is ‘a (rain)bow and arrows’ from seven-year-old Mia: ‘Making things with sticks, its fun. Nature’s a playground to me.’ Similarly there is a wonderful display of weapons from brothers Felix, Vito and Gulliver, whose axes and hammers are made out of fragments of natural materials found in their local park: ‘We tied the concrete onto a stick with some string and it ha a bug living in it but its dead now.’ The discovery, wonder and joy involved in this imaginative childhood play is encouraging. It provides a stark contrast to a recent memory of a young boy at a campsite in the Lake District, who spent his holiday marching between tents with a disturbingly realistic replica of an AK-47.

Several adult contributors also used creative practices as a method of connecting with their natural surroundings. A beautiful scroll drawing of a loomery is unfurled under glass, the astonishing detail attesting to the long period of time that the artist spent observing the guillemot colony. He writes: ‘It’s a drawing of wildlife and that’s my way of connecting to nature.’ For many, the most poignant object in the exhibition will be the Trench art paper knife, made by a soldier from brass shell casings whilst in the trenches in WW2. As the contributor writes, ‘this object is symbolic of the human impetus to create art in times of unimaginable suffering (…) [it] summons an image of great contradiction, a lone soldier-craftsman working intensively in a decimated landscape of mud, rain and blood. I have speculated about this beautiful shiny fish crafted from the very stuff of war, made in a place where plants and animals had all but disappeared. It is an object that is profoundly connected to the earth, death and life. Its material substance was extracted from rock and formed into a bullet whose intention was to send men back into the earth.’ Paradox and juxtaposition abound in this story. The bullets, intended to sever, maim and kill, are reformed into an object whose purpose will forever be the opening of letters, connecting people and places by the words of love and warmth they contain. It is a totem of mortality, renewal, and perseverance. But most of all it speaks of hope, and the urge to turn to nature and creation when all that is human and humane appears to have vanished. In such times we perhaps reach to the order from which we came, and attempt to leash ourselves back to its security through creativity, beauty and story.



A yearning for the natural world in times of emotional trauma is not unique to this story. A pair of trail running trainers sit quietly alongside a mammal trapping bag and an oxygen cylinder. They are unassuming, not out of place in an exhibition about connecting to the outside world. Worn through to the soles, they are rubbed bare in places. The loose threads, thin patches and eroded heels tell the story of a young man called Adam, who found distraction, peace, and ultimately recovery in the natural world at a very dark time in his life. Being out in nature gave him space to think, and ‘a purpose to keep going’. Rosa, 38, sent in a wooden Hand Plane, used for body surfing; a friend made it for her after her brother’s suicide. In the aftermath, she set herself the task of completing 32 wild swims in 32 days to mark the life of her sibling, swimming into the wake of his death as a way of coming to terms with her loss. She began to feel strongly the pull of the ocean, and to experience ‘the power of the sea and water and nature to heal.’ Rosa carved her brother’s name into the hand plane, and every time she catches a wave with it she is lifted into her memories of him, and is comforted to know that she carries him with her.

For me, the most striking thread that wove through all of the items in the exhibition was the precedence of the subjective; the favouring of emotion, aesthetic, and the personal over the cold hard science that – though undoubtedly important – traditionally dominates the nature we meet in museums. A woman sends in her prayer mat as evidence of the way in which she makes contact with the natural world through her faith. The consistency of her ritual makes her sensitive to the seasonal changes that fluctuate around her. In prayer, she is aware of the world; she is physically close to the ground as she takes herself down into sajdah, with her forehead on the floor, where she feels ‘close to the earth and very close to God.’ The importance of ritual in an awareness of the environment is solemnly evidenced in the traditional Bangladeshi Fakah (fan), sent in by Khoirun, who notes that such cooling methods are no longer needed as the climate of Bangladesh has changed so drastically even in her own lifetime.

C0144668 .

A large jar of feathers was sent in by Kitty. When listening to her story, you can hear hesitancy in her voice as she tries to explain her object, as if she is also being asked to explain herself: ‘Oh, its just one of those kind of magpie impulses, isn’t it? It’s just you see something lovely and can’t help but pick it up (…) I’ve always picked up feathers just because, you know, they’re lovely. And so it’s not really scientific at all the jar of feathers’. She sounds vulnerable to criticism, to the idea that an aesthetic, felt appreciation of the natural world –often associated with femininity – is meaningless and trivial, less valid than one founded upon scientific understanding and fact. She acknowledges that the feathers she likes best are those of the Parakeet: ‘I know they’re invaders and they are probably… they’re probably quite invasive, aren’t they? But they’re just so magical, seeing them flying around in our grey sky, so they’re lovely really.’ I feel a strong affinity with this woman, and a sadness that she has not been made to feel more confident in her emotional connection to her surroundings, as if wonder, joy and awe are less valuable reactions to nature than correct identification and analysis.

The intention of the project, was ‘to create a collective snapshot of how we think about nature in the 21st century and [to] explore how the health of our planet is intricately bound up with the behaviours and values of the people who inhabit it.’ By creating this snapshot, this cross-section of social thought about nature, the trust hoped to create ‘a different kind of museum of nature’, one focused not on science, but ‘which celebrates our everyday relationship with the world around us.’ By taking nature out of the cabinet, the textbook, the glossy brochure and the fenced reserve, the trust aimed to reconnect the individual and their natural environment.



The exhibition begins with copies of the book, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Organizing Nature: A Picture Album’, which was published by the Trust for this exhibition, with an introduction by birdwatcher and writer Tim Dee. It is a handsome book, with many fascinating examples of the strange ways in which our species has learnt to approach and understand its natural surroundings, including maps, taxonomic charts, comparative diagrams, collections, nature prints and cyanotypes. Each of these pieces is a work of art itself, and in the book, contributes to the careful elucidation of the fine line between appreciation and mastery that taxonomic science treads. However, whilst flicking through the text again after experiencing the exhibition, it occurred to me that what the curators had done was to completely bypass the scientific frameworks that traditionally structure our understanding and perception of nature. Instead they had collated a collection of objects that spoke entirely of the personal. Each submission is based not on the correct identification of an organism, or an understanding of its life and purpose, but on an emotional, aesthetic, personal, subjective, embodied or individual approach to nature that is entirely human. They represent the ways in which everyday people manage to overcome the increasing distance placed between them and their natural environments, and begin a dialogue with their surroundings. By allowing members of the public to create the material for the display, they speak back to the detachment that a pane of glass normally forces between viewers and natural exhibits. The objects are totems, vectors, vehicles for contact and communication. They tell intimate stories about the lives of real people, and in so doing, place the human back into the picture we paint of the natural world, undoing the centuries of work that has been done to separate us from nature, and confronting us with the degradation, humiliation and loss that this has facilitated.

The exhibition teaches us –and importantly teaches children – that there are lots of different ways to know nature, and encourages a search for a unique personal connection to it. It demonstrates the vast ubiquity of the natural world; that nature is not just the trees in your garden, or the mountains you see on holiday; it is to be found everywhere, in a fan, a slice of bread, an oxygen cylinder, a garden gnome, a thermos, in you yourself. The diversity of objects collected reminds us that nature is not a static entity, but a web of flux, change and multiple dimensions; it means something different for everyone, indicating that an individual relation is not only possible, but critical. The Trust writes: ‘the environmental challenges we face are global but the solutions to them start with the personal and the local’. Antipathy is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the prevention of environmental degradation. In order for people to feel genuine concern for the natural world, they need to have an authentic, emotional relationship towards it, which does not allow them to ignore its destruction. By celebrating the wonderful variety of highly personal ways in which people relate to their natural surroundings, the exhibition encourages us to seek out our own natural spaces, to explore and revel in the personal reactions they provoke, to create stories, and to treasure the wonders that we find.

The exhibition ‘A Museum of Modern Nature’ is open at The Wellcome Collection until 8th October 2017.

All images copyright to The Wellcome Collection. 

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Othona Radical Writing Retreat

It was early April when Essex Book Festival hosted their inaugural Radical Writing Retreat in partnership with The University of Essex and Radical Essex at the remote Othona Community in Bradwell-on-Sea. It attracted a vibrant mix of people who were treated to an equally vibrant mix of inspirational and experimental workshops, readings, walks, performances and critiques, to broaden their writing. Afterwards they were invited to submit up to 200 words each, inspired by their retreat experience. The results include poetry, prose and song lyrics – a reflection of the eclectic sessions. Contributors are Claire Pearson (CP), Josie Jones (JJ), Judith Wolton (JW), Larry Mindel (LM), Namita Elizabeth Chakrabarty (NEC), Ruth Raymer (RR), Sandra Neill (SN), Wendy Constance (WC). Photos by Wendy Constance

Othona 1

Othona – Retreat and Advance

On approach, Othona opens its arms,
wrapping them gently around me as I enter the gate.
I welcome everyone,
share out beds, towels, sheets; repeat.
Grey-backed notebooks open and fill with the colours of poetry and prose,
incited by the place,
and the common purpose,
which concentrates efforts.
Food is shared,
badgers interlope,
birds are watched,
swimming in the sea is wild.
In the chapel where a child once counted 42 panes
Later to be the answer to the meaning of life,
Stories are told.
Thursday comes, I await important news.
The group is a community that comforts me,
shares in my disappointment when the news arrives.
I feel humbled.
I need to hide and lick my wounds.
I leave quietly as music plays inside Othona’s arms.


Othona 2

A Terrible Beauty

Othona, Bradwell.

Behind me the marsh mud
spittles and whispers, breathes
as the tide recedes. The cockle beach
chatters and dries in the sun.

Sun warms my back,
gleams on fields of green wheat,
clouds of white blossom,
with leaf buds just breaking.

My sudden eye is caught –
two intruders glare out –
stark cubes shrink-wrapped in silver,
giant larvae mothballed for now.

They shadow the light and music of spring.

Only the peregrine can call them home.


Othona 3

Othona is a secret retreat near the chapel of St Peter-on-the- Wall. The buildings are hidden behind the sea wall at Bradwell-on-Sea. Residents from Othona can pray or meditate inside the simple, ancient chapel made up of some stones from the Roman fort.

I felt apprehensive when I arrived. What would the other people be like? At first I sat on my own to drink a cup of coffee, it seemed everyone belonged to a group. However, after the delicious dinner served by friendly, kitchen volunteers and a glass of wine provided from a fellow guest I felt very relaxed.

It was good to be with other writers of all ages, who all loved the Essex countryside. The talks and workshops were interesting and well researched by the enthusiastic speakers.

I have to confess that during writing periods I wandered off to Chapel Cottage. There I rested, in the unkempt garden, caressed by the welcome sun as I listened to chirping birds. Many of these birds fed from the hanging feeders. The most spectacular were the Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers that I saw and heard tapping in the surrounding trees.

Here the spirits of the early Christians embraced me.


Othona 4

Shingle beach                     Thirsty marsh                       Bleached shells
Dry sand
Roman fort                          Saxon church                       Unearthed gifts
Enduring land
Salted breeze                       Noisy trees                             Russet sail
Thirsty bee

Trill and bubble
Of ancient teeth
Stretching out to sea
Waymarking stories

Shared ground                    Unearthed church                   Enduring peace
Quiet Othona


 Othona 5

DOWN (lyrics with link to sound below)

White blossom                   on a blackthorn tree
Red admiral                        sitting on the breeze
I”m going down, I’m going down

Marsh harrier                     twists and spins
A dog on the dune              is digging in
I’m going down, I’m going down

Down to the sunken quay
I’m going down to the hidden sea

Anchors slip                        through the Mayland clay
Blackwater drips                in and out the bay
I’m going down, I’m going down

Down to the sunken quay
I’m going down to the hidden sea
Down, down

Heads up                             hands around
past is breathing                water sounds
I’m going down, someday I’m going down

The moon will shine          The sun will burn
The marram grow             And the mud will churn
We’re going down, always down

Down through the sunken quay
We become the hidden sea
Down, down, down


 Othona 6

Wrinkled sand                    mottled mudflats                             eroded saltmarsh
shifting patterns
Cockle-shell beach             sunken barges                                  barnacled driftwood
wind-scoured strandline
Nocturnal badgers             tunnelling underground                 gnarled trees
Roman remains

On the horizon
the old chapel
stark, solitary
forget-me-not sky
soaringsoaring skylarks
heavenly songsters

Seeking wisdom                  finding friendship                             freeing imagination
telling stories

 Othona 7

Writing in Essex

After years – at Othona in a quiet room – I wrote a poem about racism.

But first the group worked on a poem together – of birds and crosses –
Near the ancient chapel, in wild green Essex;
But even then it was me who said, ‘Unloved birds’, and saw a ‘prayer mat’,
Where others saw loved birds and a carpet.

Between my poem about race – really just a list of horrific racism experienced
Over the years – and the world, a bridge grew in the quiet countryside,
Radical retreaters absorbing the brutal hate spent.
To listen is to love.

Back home, the Shard towers above me, but the metal and glass pyramid vanishes
As I turn, gazing down to the river Thames, then up
Into the glorious sky, happy,
Wondering whether you’re gazing too.

A week later, in Essex again, walking through Wivenhoe, taking her dog for a drive,
A familiar Othona face, calls out, ‘I thought it was you!’
In London friends walk their dogs and don’t drive, but there too I bought cut
Flowers, to bring to the Essex countryside, for you.

Waiting, flowers in my arms, and then you, a poem grows in my heart, about love.


 Othona 8


True to the line on the map the road to Othona
wound for ten miles. Soon after the town we found
the little community. Simple and safe, it welcomed us
smilingly, drawing us in like the smell of warm bread.

We observed the plain lines of the chapel, standing alone,
guarding the land; and the broad horizontal lines
of this seascape of Essex: Dutch-made dyke, the stony
beach and grey North Sea curving round to be
joined by the Blackwater estuary. Starkly marking
the sun-sparkled scene the black-painted barges lay –
carefully placed like printers’ blocks on the shore.
Invisible skylarks called in a vastness of sky.

Various lines of enquiry were gently suggested:
we were encouraged to ponder the history of landscape
and urged to start digging for tales, like the badgers who nightly
excavate stones from the crumbling Roman wall.

At Othona I found myself moved – to observe and to listen,
to pause and to breathe, in the space between the lines.


Othona 9

The Dengie peninsula, a meeting place of vast skies, green fields, river mouths and sea. It’s here you will find a group of dwellings beside a startling shingle beach. Powered by sun and wind, the Othona community runs on group endeavour. It grew from a desire to offer healing to a world ravaged by wars. Rooted in a deep faith, it’s mission remains to offer sanctuary, connection and fellowship to all visitors. Birds swoop the marshes, butterflies and insects weave busily through pungent angelica. Putting self aside to simply be, put pencil to page, grow stories, this is radical Essex.


Othona 10


The Romans came ready for battle, to defend the land they’d claimed as theirs.
The monks came for peace and prayer, to spread the word of their god.
We came for myriad reasons, unsure what to expect, looking for escape, for change, for something different – all of which we found.
We also found:
Peace and solitude, but companionship and shared experiences too
A place to be re-energized, but also for reflection
Somewhere to engage with nature – little egrets, badgers, skylarks,
Seclusion from the outside world – albeit fleetingly – to walk alone along a shell                 beach
But there were also towering wind turbines; grey blocks of the nuclear power station and monochrome photographs of dark times
Radically, we found the time and means to unleash our creativity – to discover our own stories; how to look for other stories; and to find the universal story within all of us.


Othona 11

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