Caught by the River

Buzzard Come Downs

5th May 2012

by Phil Thornton

My wife bought me a new pair of binoculars for my birthday last December. I walk my dog, Monty, a black (f)lab, in an old disused quarry/chemical dump where the sandstone excavated in the 19th century was used to construct the harbour walls of New York and the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool, across the Mersey estuary. I can see the cathedral from the top of the cliff known locally as ‘Frog’s Mouth’ peeping over the estates of Speke, Garston and Toxteth. With my binocs, I survey the Mersey estuary, the minarets and domes of Ellesmere Port’s vast oil refineries at Stanlow and the monstrous chimneys and pipelines below me that fuel the chlorine plants of Rocksavage and Castner Kelner. Beyond, in the distance, the Welsh fields and hills of Clwyd, Moel Famau’s tower visible with the naked eye, the peaks of Snowdonia peeking through the mist.

To be honest, there’s never much to see up here. The binoculars haven’t come in handy apart from the odd sighting of a jay or a kezzy. Then, on Saturday morning after a late night in Macclesfield listening to Weatherall and others at a mate’s house party, I’m on a fuzzy headed, seashell ear come down and notice to my left, the unmistakeable swoop of a buzzard’s wing as it alights on a small ventilation shaft serving the covered reservoir that pumps brine to the Ineos Chlor plant in Weston Point. Excitedly I turn my spy glasses to catch the buzzard then notice there’s another one perched on the ventilation shaft twenty feet or so behind.

It’s only then I notice the magpies excitedly hop, skip and jumping about on the grass below them, their plastic tommy gun rattles attempt to bully the huge pair from their perches. As one of the buzzards, the female by the looks of it, nonchalently ignores them, the male takes off again and is chased by three or four brave maggies, who follow it for a few hundred metres before returning to their pals pestering the female. I forget poor Monty who is busy sniffing and licking piss from nettles as usual. The buzzard flies directly overhead and I try to follow it as it turns a circle then returns to its speck, where the magpies once again bounce about like minor league hoolies.

This goes on for ten minutes or so and I then notice Monty’s gone AWOL. I shout him but he’s not hidden in the gorse or behind the silver birches and I worry that he’s fell over the edge of Frog’s Gob as so many others have done. The cross and plaque dedicated to Wayne O’Sullivan who fell from here in 1995 stands at the foot of the cliff along with his spray can obituary, Wayne O MUFC Died 7-7-95. I know Wayne’s uncle well, we both went to Ibiza in 84 and his own daughter tragically died from a seizure when she was only 15. My daughter has just left home to live with her boyfriend and across from her new house, the good folks at Ineos Chlor are constructing a huge waste incinerator that will spew more shit into the most polluted air in Western Europe. It’s a wonder any wildlife survives around here yet the buzzards and the magpies vye for a pecking order amongst these ruins.

Luckily I find my lumbering hound on the path down to what the council’s marketing people would have us believe is a place called ‘Happy Valley.’ Carved into the stone are the names of various old quarrymen – GF Ormsby 1903 for example – along with former friends, old punks, skinheads, dope fiends, scallies. I came across my own name quite by accident one day, not even remembering when I’d scratched it into the soft, red rock. I walk back through the valley and up on the other side of the reservoir, attempting to get a better position to view the buzzards. As I move along the ridge of the cliff with Monty now on his lead, I catch a glimpse of the buzzard overhead again only this time, there’s a huge crow guarding the ventilation shaft and it seems to have scared off both the buzzards and the magpies. Behind the sloping grass, I can hear some squabbling going on but can’t see anything. The crow struts about cockily and then I hear the beating of huge wings and both buzzards are now in flight, moving off to the west across the Mersey followed by a few angry magpies. The crow stands arrogantly on top of the resevoir, daring all comers to challenge it.

I suppose I could say something deep at this point. Something about the cycle of life, competition, mortality, the sands of time, evolution, survival of the fittest, the futility of faith and fate and all that caper. But, I’ve had a long night listening to cosmic techno and filtered tip hop, the Liverpool v Everton semi-final is about to kick off and I’ve got an appointment with my arl fellar at the Cherry Tree where he’ll be moaning about the price of bitter and the uselessness of Andy Carroll. Monty sniffs the air, he can smell a bitch somewhere and his legs are twitching. I return to the car satisfied that my birthday box has come in handy at last.