Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Phil Gates

Country diary: I am, it turns out, being watched

The gaze of a tawny owl, through eyes like polished jet.
The gaze of a tawny owl, through ‘eyes like polished jet’. Photograph: Phil Gates

Sounds of ringing picks and hammers, clattering rockfalls, squealing railway wagon wheels on iron tracks: a cacophony that, a century ago, carried on the wind into the centre of the town, a mile downhill. Then, Ashes quarry employed 200 men who sent 136,000 tonnes of limestone annually to the Consett iron and steelworks, 10 miles distant across bleak Pennine moorland. This morning, silence, broken only by metallic tchak-tchak calls of jackdaws, echoing from the vertical rock face. Nature has reclaimed this chasm in the fellside, transforming it into a shallow lake.

Standing on a spoil heap near the water’s edge, sheltered by a towering cliff from an icy north-westerly wind, I can smell peaty fragrance from sun-warmed moss, wild thyme crushed underfoot and a lacustrine aroma of last autumn’s decaying reedmace leaves. At the water margin, its brown, felty, cylindrical seedheads – seemingly out of synchrony with spring’s new growth – are disintegrating, dispersing wisps of plumed seeds across the water. A blue tit arrives and begins pecking one apart. Searching for insects or collecting material for a comfy nest lining? The latter, it seems; it carries a beak-load away to a nest hole in the cliff, whereupon a mysterious dark shape – blunt-headed and broad-winged – detaches from a ledge, glides away and disappears among deep shadows along the rock wall.

Following is difficult: too much haste over this jagged, slippery rock invites a broken ankle. Stepping carefully, looking down for footholds, risking brief upward glances, I thought I knew where it went, but can see no sign, so I stand, wait and watch. Nothing, no movement, no sound.

Just as I’m about to leave, through the branches of a tree growing from a fissure in the cliff comes the revelation that I am being watched by the unblinking gaze of a tawny owl, eyes like polished jet. It’s perched inside a small cave created by fallen rock, lit by the rising sun. Disdainful of the clumsy animal down below, it decides that I’m no threat, and its heavy-lidded eyes close. We inhabit separate worlds: the snoozing owl belongs to the moon and stars; my day, with overnight frost still melting on the grass, is just beginning.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.