Country diary: Chinooks send pigeons into a panicked swirl
At low tide the Aln runs deep between the sloping banks of the estuary. Reflections lie with barely a ripple across the smooth water: a stationary heron, a jaunty red buoy, the cross on top of Church Hill. The river’s course once looped around this little hill before the Christmas Day storm of 1806 that forced a new and more direct channel. The knoll was cut off from the village and the busy harbour that exported grain was silted up.
Alnmouth became a Victorian resort of converted granaries and balconied villas with oriel windows and rooftop conservatories. There’s a holiday feel today as I look up at the varied rooflines zigzagging against a cornflower blue sky. From the estuary and saltmarsh comes the piping of an oystercatcher and a flock of lapwings flash white and black. Two Chinook helicopters pass low over the beach, sending pigeons into a panicked swirl.
Stone steps in the seawall lead up to the Ferryman’s Hut, a tiny local history museum in the black wooden hut from which passengers would be rowed across the Aln. Down Pease’s Lane, past the stone “pant” (water fountain), we reach the village pond. It’s a wild place, wedged between road and golf course, impenetrably ringed in willows, scrub and undergrowth.
Old maps name this Howle Kiln, a pit once used to extract iodine from seaweed. The pond is clogged with horsetail and greater reedmace. It’s hard to see where water and land meet, the margins so thickly fringed in creeping thistle, bindweed and Himalayan balsam. From this secure fastness comes the croak of a moorhen.
Rosehips, hawthorn berries, elder and brambles provide food for birds. Through my binoculars, the air is a blizzard of rosebay willowherb’s downy fluff, of gnats, flies and dragonflies, flecks of light from backlit wings and seeds. Dragonflies zap about, each wing moving independently as they hover and swoop above the furry reedmace heads, the Chinooks of the marsh.
From a wood-chipped clearing, there’s a glimpse of the pond. Rufous-bodied common hawkers land on the warm bark and I try to photograph them. Frustrated by their speedy takeoff, I look down to see an orange-red dragonfly sunning itself on my leg.