It’s been 6 months since I visited my family in the North East of England, so a trip south was long overdue. This would be my first trek from Orkney down to the old country (on St George’s Day!) and had the added novelty of an arrival in County Durham from the north, rather than the previously more customary south. If that wasn’t messing with my head enough, Our Lass and I discussed vehicle/fuel options, deciding that it would be kinder on our pockets if I took her Nissan Micra, as opposed to my hoofing great 4x4. The extra miles per gallon (mpg) of her wee roller skate, as well as the use of cheaper petrol compared to diesel, would make a significant saving. This was somewhat nullified by the fact that my mpm (miles per mug) would be an uneconomically low value in either vehicle, requiring frequent tea stops throughout the 500 miles from Orkney down to Middlesbrough.
This was going to be a long day in the saddle, but I was encouraged by the prospect of perhaps seeing a few species of bird that wouldn’t necessarily make it to Orkney. A short journey on the Orcadian side saw me on board the Pentalina ferry for the early sailing and, after a reasonably smooth crossing, I set off from the north of Scotland at 09.00.
In thick fog.
It was greyer than the combined greyness of a plover, a phalarope, a heron, a wagtail and a big shrike, so I saw very little until I reached Helmsdale and the road dropped down to sea level and below the clouds. Soon, however, the sun came out and the stint (unintentional pun) down towards the Black Isle produced half a dozen Common Buzzards, a possible Long-tailed Tit and a possible Comma butterfly. Butterflies are tricky to ID when driving at 60mph. Sadly, there wasn’t a single Red Kite to be seen, but what with the current issue of wildlife crime in the area, this wasn’t a surprise. After Inverness, another possible butterfly (Small or Green-veined White) was the only highlight until I arrived at Ralia Café for lunch, to be greeted by an overture of Willow Warbler song. Ah, bliss.
South of Inverness, I assumed that I would begin to see Magpies, but no, they were noticeably absent, along with any other Buzzard sightings. Normally, I would expect both of these species to thrive alongside a busy main road, with numerous road kills as a source of food. Pushing on down through Scotland, I did spot an ‘ironically’ dead Magpie at the side of the road, but that doesn’t really count. Even after I had passed Edinburgh, then Berwick, and crossed the border into England, there were no raptors or scavengers about. Somewhere in the middle of Northumberland, there was a possible Red Kite, but an annoyingly tall hedge (and a frustratingly low Micra) prevented me from making a definite ID.
Despite the lack of birdlife, the journey south did have a theme. It was the colour yellow. The wildness of Scotland was typified by Gorse, its zingy flowers even managing to look bright in the fog. And when the sun came out, oh boy! Then the focus shifted to ground level, with masses of Dandelions along the roadside verges. By the time I reached the lowlands of Scotland and then the north of England, a more subdued yellow clouded my vision from countless fields of Oil Seed, its cloying scent also drifting into the car.
And so to Newcastle and through the Tyne Tunnel, surely there would be a Magpie in the city whose football team plays in black and white stripes and who are known as the Magpies?
In a sudden switch of interest, I realised that I was driving passed the Nissan factory in Washington, where our car had been built about 4 years and 28000 miles previously. Immediately following this revelation, I then saw the sign for the Stadium of Light, which is the Sunderland football ground. Now, dear reader, the Sunderland and Newcastle football teams are arch rivals, so as a nearby Middlesbrough supporter, I had to chuckle when it was here, not far from Sunderland’s ground, that I saw my first Magpies of the trip!
Then Penshaw Monument came into view, atop the hill around which the Lambton Worm was reputed to have wound itself seven times (I think), but before I could remember any of the numerous verses to the famous local song, I was distracted by the sign that said ‘Welcome to County Durham, Land of the Prince Bishops’. Yay!
Reaching the county of my birth brought a change in birding fortune, as a Sparrowhawk flap, flap, glided across the dual carriageway in front of me. And then in short order, the landmarks of Teesside came into view. Chemical plants and industrial buildings, the Transporter Bridge, countless trading estates and, in the distance, the North York Moors with the iconic silhouette of Roseberry Topping.
I parked outside my brother’s house and gingerly unfolded myself from the car. If I’d had a peedie dog, I would’ve said “Toto, I've a feeling we’re not in Orkney anymore.” Blossom-heavy and leafy trees decorated gardens and hedgerows, their branches motionless in the breathless evening. The liquid and flutey songs of numerous Blackbirds drifted through the air, a tonic for a tired traveller. With an almost audible click, I could finally relax.
There was one surprise still to come. As my brother showed me to my room, I was delighted to discover that the bed linen had a dragonfly motif.