Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Mat Bingham

Mat Bingham | 2nd January 2017

…In which, as we enter a new year, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

I had met Hannah’s family and she had met mine, but after 18 months of us being a couple the two families still hadn’t met each other. We decided to hold a party in our back garden on the August bank holiday, a get-to-know-you session for the Binghams and Kirkhams. We called it Familyfest. We had lots of entertainment including games, campfires, outdoor cinema and a Nerf gun battle in the hay meadow next to the house. Hannah made afternoon tea on the Sunday, with cakes and drinks served using my grandmother’s fine china. Sitting around the campfire in the evenings everyone spent time getting to know each other over a glass of whisky or two. I must confess I love any excuse for a fire. The smell of smoke triggers memories of summer holidays as a child. When I was growing up the fields in the fens would be alight in late August, the stubble burning signifying the end of the harvest for another year.

In September I was asked if I could attend a conference in Denver, Colorado. Free flights to America are difficult to turn down so I didn’t need asking twice! The conference lasted three days and when it ended I flew to San Francisco, meeting Hannah at the airport. We hired a car and drove along the Pacific coast to Monterey Bay looking for sea otters. I lay in bed the night we arrived in Monterey, too excited to sleep, wondering if I would catch a glimpse of the otters.

The next day, Hannah was the first to spot one as we walked along the coastal path. The otter was asleep, silhouetted against the morning sun, sheltering from the breakers in a forest of kelp. Once I had got my eye in I realised there was a whole family of otters out there, two hundred meters from the shore. The otters grab hold of the slimy kelp leaves and roll around wrapping themselves in it, a comfort blanket that is anchored to the ocean floor. It was a really hot day, the Pacific Ocean reflecting and amplifying the sun’s rays, but I wanted to get closer. We hired a kayak and paddled out into the tangled, ochre-coloured kelp. Hannah held on to the slippery leaves to keep the kayak steady. I leaned back and, focusing on breathing, steadily photographed the sleeping otters.

Paddling further around the bay the tide dragged us to within a few meters of a Californian sea lion. They are much bigger than I expected, longer in fact than the kayak that was the only barrier between us and a good dunking in the Pacific Ocean. The sea lion’s head appeared to be a bit sunburnt, which may have accounted for his grumpiness.

Digging deep with the paddles we managed to put some distance between us and the sea lion, returning to the relative shelter of the kelp forest. As we headed inshore I watched a snowy egret using his long splayed toes to balance on the kelp leaves, picking off fish that were hiding below one at a time with his dagger-like beak. Sometimes the egret would miss completely, a piece of speared kelp instead of a fish to show for his efforts. All too soon the day ended and it was time to leave. I will always remember that day.

I grew up with dogs, admittedly not the types of dogs that work for a living herding sheep, but I am definitely a dog person. Since settling in to our new home we have longed for one. My son already has a dog that lives with him and his mum, a livewire spaniel, and he was of the opinion that there should be a dog at both his homes. Hannah and I didn’t take much convincing. We set out on a two and a half-hour car journey one Saturday in late November, heading for Wales to meet some Welsh sheepdog puppies. It was a forgone conclusion in my mind that we would connect in some way with one of them.

They were from working dog stock on a Welsh sheep farm. We entered the stable where they were kept, and the six puppies excitedly ran around our feet, biting and tugging our bootlaces with their needle-sharp teeth. In less than two minutes they had untied my shoes and were chewing the bottom of my jeans. I picked up a small bundle of fur with bright blue eyes the colour of a glacier. I could feel her tiny heart beating against me. She looked up and nibbled on my shirt sleeve before gently falling asleep in my arms. She is going to be called Skye and I can’t wait for her to be a part of our lives.

Mat Bingham on Caught by the River