Apples and Saxons 2 The Pennine Way Shakedowns

A barn owl flies across the marsh. A wonderful ghostly bird, beautifully miximg whites and browns, duns too. A silent and deadly predator with a heart shaped face, seldom seen in daylight. I celebrate its presence, male and female are indistinguishable, as it floats above the reed edge, quite clearly hunting. Eyes so sharp any movement is caught and judged. Is the chance of dinner worth the use of energy required to make the attempt at catching it. Any predator will miss more dinners than they catch. The life of a hunter is always chance.

Barn owl lifts, a decision made, and flies to the next reed bed edge, lifting like a spitfire and utilising the wind currents to keep effort to a minimum. Its likely at this time of year that if he’s(?) hunting that there’s a chick or two to feed.

Barn owl is mostly nocturnal, his eyes are adapted for a nocturnal lifestyle. They can pick up movement in deep gloom, but the trade off is that they can’t distinguish colours well.  There is no need to see colour at night, everything is shades of grey. However, even an owl can’t see in pitch black.

Having studied possible routes back to the cars we make a detour back onto a section of the Saxon Shore Way. It’s a last-minute decision, another change from the days plan A. We needed to add an extra section to hit the predetermined ten-mile requirement for each day. The map and phone apps are consulted, and a plan is agreed upon. A turning right instead of left and off we go.

We walk through a farmyard, following the footpath into the marshes, we are northwest of Lower Halstow and the landscape around us is beautiful.  We have walked through an outdoor dumping ground and building sites.  This is a welcome relief. We stick to the raised road, even the soft ground either side looks boggy. There are pools and grassy knolls all around. We can see shelduck and hear warblers in the pool edges, there is reed mace and multiple long grasses I don’t know the name of. Sheppey is in the distance and the new bridge to the island dominates the view.

As we turn and head back towards Lower Halstow we have freshwater marsh on our left and salt flats on our right. Dale expresses his preference for the freshwater marsh. There is a more obvious natural appeal, we see greylag geese with their goslings and swans, mallards show the water isn’t too deep. You can’t dabble on deep water. Indeed, Barn Owl was hunting over it too. However, I love the saltmarsh too, reminiscent of the scenes in Great Expectations. Visibly much more barren than the freshwater, but by its very nature it’s much tougher to live there, as the tide rises and falls, flooded twice a day. It’s inhabitants, most living in the mud need to able to withstand exposure and flood. Some waders will use both freshwater and salt marsh, redshank for example, but the noisy oystercatches much prefer the salt marsh. Its interesting to note that the different waders avoid competing for the same food by having different beak lengths. The most obvious examples are curlews with their long beaks and the redshanks which are much shorter.

That brings to another observation. What is beautiful? Or what is beautiful to different people, or useful? As mentioned, the differences in preference for the marshes between Dale and me. However, we are both enjoying the outdoors, both for what it is and being in it and understanding the benefits of it for our mental health. We are both curious and want to know. Lloyd, another of our sons, clearly understands the benefits it gives him for his mental health, the space, away from real life and movement. He has little interest in the elements that make it what it is though. He just enjoys the big picture, making regular pilgrim ages to the Lake District which he loves. Had to get my head around that one.  I learn tolerance and understanding every day. That’s one of the wonderful things about these shakedown walks, we are getting to know each other better and I wonder if these excursions may be better for everyone.  Give us more understanding of each other and thus more tolerance. Proximity and space are readily available out here.

And that is in complete contrast to another eye-opening reaction to the countryside. There’s a fella I work with in my day job who has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder) and sometimes struggles to keep his mental health positive. I had suggested he might like to join an outdoor group I organise. He recoiled like I had asked him to stand in fire.  The idea of spending time outdoors was so abhorrent to him, that he could perceive of no benefit of it.

I’m still trying to get me head around that one. Understanding and tolerance are needed here. For me the space outdoors gives me time to achieve that.

So, apples. Apples, or rather apple orchards have dominated large sections of this shakedown walk.  I must have walked though apple orchards when they are in blossom before, but I don’t remember vast tracts of land so full of blossom before. Beautiful.

Another thought that then occurred to me, we have to work at prolonged appreciation of beauty when it becomes commonplace, even if briefly. I write this a month after the walk and the blossom has completely gone, as the trees begin to focus on the apples we will harvest later in the year. A different beauty again.

Simon Pollard                   Urban Countryman May 2024.

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