Saturday, 24 May 2008

May is a very special month. And May 2008 has been, up to now, crammed with beautifully warm days, clear bright skies and, just recently, some rather interesting birds. Yesterday's hot news was the final confirmation that a Black Stork had been residing in these northern climes. First seen a few days ago, but not quite for long enough, or clearly enough for a 100% id confirmation, last night the original finder, Alan Leitch RSPB Mainland Reserves Warden) following his original hunch finally pinned the bird down as it decided to roost at Woodwick, Evie and good views were had by most folk (me excluded – unfortunately I didn't hear about it til this morning).
The news this morning included a Rustic Bunting – actually in the village we have just relocated from! - Ah well, the bird wasn't to know that. A brilliant find by Paul Higson and I decided the day would have to change course somewhat. With Sally at work at the ferry office doing a special ticket sales day for the Fair Isle daytrip (which I appear to have a ticket for – ahem!), I tempt the kids with the suggestion of a car trip around the county, a picnic on a sandy beach and the chance to see some of their old friends from the 'Hope.
Sandwiches made, pop and crisps packed, sketchbook, bins and scope loaded and away we go. The detour to Evie proved fruitless, except for the stunning drive and amazing scenery, but we arrive at our intended beach after another 40 minutes – 40 minutes crammed with the Greatest Hits of Queen which both Savannah (13) and Edie (6) are mad keen on. Sandwiches are wolfed down whilst I check out the little tern colony – 5 birds noted in the 20 minutes – then we had a wander along the shore. A fine little group of sanderling in various plumages from fine grey to blushing orange. Great birds! A rakish silhouette crossed the bay – dark morph Arctic Skua, followed by its big cousin – Bonxie. 80 eiders are a fine sight too and, I realise, the long-tailed ducks have finally departed for their breeding grounds. They seem to stay later each year (?).
We're now running out of time but I make the drive down to St Margaret's Hope, fingers crossed that the bunting will have decided to stay. On arriving at the site - opposite the doctors' surgery – I see four familiar faces, all looking in different directions. Is it still around, I enquire. I t appears that it has been around, but very elusive and 'crap views' were all anyone's had this afternoon. I tell the kids to behave and to sing Bohemian Rhapsody a little less enthusuastically and I take a wander up the lane, bins in hand. I spend ten minutes circling the tiny copse – a few nice birds are singing, including whitethroat, blackcap, greenfinch and chiffchaff, nice stuff. I then just pick up a very slight contact note – a bit like a little song thrush and there's my bird! He's just sitting in a willow, bold as brass and directly opposite my car with the kids headbanging in it! I retrace my steps, quieten the kids and get out my drawing gear. He's a little marvel and I spend 15 minutes enjoying his company, the dappled sunlight cascading through the canopy – chiffchaff and whitethroat singing and, every now and then, a subdued flutey refrain from the rustic bunting – his throat swelling and vibrating slightly as he performs.
The scene could have been in any wood (well 5 trees is a wood up here) in Britain, but I'm reminded starkly of where I live on the return drive. Speeding along the ayre which seperates Echna Loch from the sea and my attention is attracted by a kerfuffle in the corner of the loch. I can see a female mallard frantically mobbing a hooded crow, whilst an oystercatcher is going beserk over its head. As I draw level, the hoodie picks something up and starts to mangle it. It's a baby oystercatcher and, as always, a slightly sickening feeling hits me. The feeling doesn't last long – it's nature and that's what happens, but it's still gruesome to witness it. The kids don't notice anything – they're screaming at the top of their voices “. . . left alone with Big Fat Fanny – she was such a naughty nanny . . . “
Maybe I'll sneak out to look for the stork later on . . .

Monday, 19 May 2008

Home - In A Round-about Way . . .

Well, we made it! We have finally managed to complete the excruciatingly stressful sale of Lyrowall, purchase and then removal to Monivey, Stromness. And there's a tale to be told . . .
The sale of our fab beach-side cottage in South Ronaldsay happened really quickly. In fact, having decided that promoting the sale of my house via my website was pretty much a complete waste of time (I've never even sold a painting through that particular medium, so it was always a bit unlikely that I would sell a house that way!!!) and plumping for the time-tested method of using (arghhh!) Estate Agents, the house only took two weeks to sell. And that just before the market came a-crashing down. Very lucky, in many respects. The fact that the people buying the house liked my most recent acrylic painting (red-throated divers) may have helped. The fact that I mentioned that the painting could stay where it was IF their offer to buy the house was satisfactory, may also have have had an influence – whatever, they liked the place and we shook hands there and then.. We then put in an offer on a house in St Margaret's Hope (the local village) which was accepted immediately. We were later to find out why . . .
Calling in many favours, we got the offer officially approved and set a completion date for the purchase (the point of no return) and also persuaded the people buying our house to move that completion date forward so we could have the money from the sale in our account ready to pay for the new house. Tipperty-top!
However, we soon ran into a few problems. Our solicitors found out that as the house had flooded, we may not get insurance and, as it was built in the mid 1600s, it was also understandably listed. But what we didn't realise was that we couldn't even build a conservatory on it (essential due to the small size of the existing accommodation). The final straw came when we discovered the amount of grant aid which had gone into the renovation of the building – staggering. Unfortunaltely (or fortunately whichever way you look at it) my mate had been the agent for the renovation and, when I asked him for the keys to do some measuring up, his reply was - “No effer's getting the keys to that house until I get paid!”
“How much you owed, Paul?” I ask him. £38,000 was his reply.
The implications were immense for us and we, fairly understandably, pulled out immediately. Great, that leaves us with no-where to go and officially homeless in two weeks time.
We knocked on every door in the village for the chance to rent or buy . Nothing. Then Sally decided we would have to take a look at a house which I already knew. I did a painting for the owner last year, but I hadn't taken much notice when she (Helen) had told me it was going on the market. Anyway it had no land so what about the horse and chickens and our old boy Jacob the mongrel labXcollie – now 17 years old. Well, needs must and all that, so we went to see the house anyway – divine. Agonising decision to be made and heartbreakingly, Tessa, our Clydesdale, just has to go. We vet a couple of homes for her, but soon find the perfect home. She went within the week. Conveniently they also agreed to having the chickens too, so that left us without any livestock at all- the first time in a decade.
Our offer on the house was rejected! F*ck, f*ck, f*ck!!!
Nothing else to do, I'm afraid – so it was, with more than a little trepidation that we agreed we would have to stay with my Mother-In-Law until something came up, which at this rate could be quite some time.
Four days before we had to get out of the house, I receive a call from a friend. His ex-wife was friends with Helen, the girl selling the Stromness house. She's moved to Fife and could do with a quick sale and she is willing to be a bit more flexible with the price. Sally and I raid the kids piggy banks and look behind the cushions on the settee – nothing! Last resort and Sally phones her big sis for a little bit of help (we don't need much, but if you haven't got it, you just haven't got it!). She comes up trumps and we bang in a slightly higher offer – which Helen accepts!!! She even agrees to let us rent the house until the sale is finalised, but it still means a week with Ma-In-Law, but at least there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Two days before we have to be out of the house and, saddest thing – Jacob dies. He's very old and has deteriorated rapidly over the past ten days (I know how he feels). I actually think he knew we were off and just couldn't be arsed with it. So he stayed where he was and died. I buried him beside his little brother Oliver, who died last year (while I painted a little watercolour of a lapwing, to take my mind off his passing). They will lie side by side under the willow trees on a hillside garden in South Ronaldsay, hopefully forever. For the first time in over 17 years I don't have a mate to walking with – very strange feeling!
But life goes on and we have to get the kids organised with new house, new school and new friends – plus explaining that this also means leaving the old ones behind. Gradually they come round to the idea (they love the house, which is a real bonus) and Edie is now into her third week of school in Stromness. Today, however, Savannah's first day at the Academy! - Eeeek!
Staying at the MiL's house has some advantages. I get to sit under REAL trees and watch the rooks going about life. I have my sketchbook to help keep me sane during the few moments I am not charging between the two houses in a borrowed VW Transporter (with no tax, test or windscreen!) loading and unloading all our earthly possessions. Having John – the lovebird – around is also nice. I make a few drawings of him when it's quiet, partly for practice and partly because it's a bit silly seking out subjects to draw when there's a very coomliant one in a cage three feet away!
It takes six days to do the removal AND I'm working for the RSPB at the same time. I have never been so utterly sh*gged-out!
And, because Helen has been such a darling allowing us to rent the house (otherwise we would be still moving our stuff around Orkney) I offered to do her a painting to go with the one she commissioned last year. Sitting on the pier behind my telescope, can of lager in hand and sketchbook at the ready, a pair of red-throated divers cruised into view. They stayed for well over an hour and made excellent models for a few sheets of drawings. As they slid out of view I hurried inside and made an immediate watercolour of the pair. I'll send the finished picture to Helen tomorrow. The whole thing has a nicely wholesome feel to it.
And this story has a happy ending. We totally adore the new house and living in The Burgh of Stromness – Orkney's second largest settlement (2000 souls – a village really!) offers the opportunity to get my work out to a slightly wider public. There are common and Arctic terns fishing in front of the house, eiders, red-brested mergansers, shags and cormorants floating by, red-throated divers crackilng their nuptuals in broad daylight and, last year at this time, a pod of seven orcas just happened to make an appearance just off our pier, much to the delight of the human inhabitants of Stromness – not so the local Grey seal colony!
The kids seem at ease with the whole thing and I can walk to the pub(s)!!!
See you later . . .