You don’t watch barn owls, you encounter them. It was a cold, clear February afternoon and Neil and I were walking back from Camber Castle across the mudflats of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. It was not long after we’d decided to write this book together and there was a special new intimacy between us, as if we were both privy to a happy secret – a pregnancy, perhaps. The sun had just gone down behind us, turning the sky vermillion, and it was as if the winter world were celebrating too. In front, in the gloaming, there rose from the reeds a puff of smoke, a wraith, a bird paler than any living thing has a right to be. She glided ahead of us, luminous in the dim light, and wheeled to perch on a fence- post, hanging in the air for a long moment before settling, wings spread. She regarded us coolly and then set off again, an alien ship drifting over the earth. Neil and I stood, bewitched, until the barn owl disappeared, embowered in a clasp of willow.
We celebrated all the way to the car.
Barn owls seem so heavily freighted with meaning and myth that they live mostly in the realm of symbol, with just one talon in the natural world. It was this mythical aspect of the owl that was part of the enchantment of two of the books I loved as a child and which my children now love in turn. The first is The Owl Service by Alan Garner, in which Alison’s folded paper owls dredge up ancient myths from the Welsh countryside. There’s also Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, in which the Lord Sepulchrave, driven mad by the burning of his beloved library, believes himself to be an owl. He retreats into the crepuscular world of the Tower of Flints:
This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
Finally, he is torn apart by the ravenous owls.