Ahead of his appearance on our stage at Port Eliot next week Chris Watson takes a stroll along the River Coquet.
A gloomy wall of Sitka spruce trees almost block my passage trying to follow the burn into the evergreen darkness, but I know my way. Within a couple of hundred meters the plantation gives way to a real woodland, oak woodland and one of my most treasured sites in Northumberland. Lady’s Well is here and must once have been a spring, which watered an early Pagan settlement. St Paulinus apparently baptised 3,000 people here in AD 627, but the atmosphere around this now gently-manicured site is pre-history. The Lady of the Well may have originally been a Naiad, a water spirit who lived beneath the surface and one who was worshipped as an essential to fertility and life. The water held within the soil of this woodland certainly sustains an ancient population of oak trees, which in turn support an enormous community of insects, flora, mammals and birdlife. In late May, the dawn chorus of birdsong in these oak woodlands around Holystone is a remarkable sonic experience. On a clear calm night from around 3 am the first song will be heard, most likely a redstart, in the broad leaf canopy high above, a simple solo penetrating through the blue-grey forest light. These notes spark competitive song battles across adjacent territories, which in turn awaken all the other woodland birds. Soon the individual songs of robins, wrens, woodpigeon, song thrush and blackbird collaborate and coalesce into the event of a dawn chorus with chaffinch and wood warbler contributing to a finale around 5 am. Soon after this, the urgency subsides, the intensity declines and the chorus melts into the contemporary sounds of that day. Heard from the perspective of High Farnham on the far bank of the Coquet, the chorus appears as an ambient silver glow across the river, a Phil Spector style mono block of sound, which rolls out and fades into the early morning mist that drapes the pebble-dashed bank side. Like a great film, this is the perfect collaboration of sound and image.
Read Chris’s chapter in full in A Collection of Words On Water, available in paperback in the Caught by the River shop.
Chris Watson will be joining us at Port Eliot Festival on Sunday 2 August, presenting his annual Nature Disco.