Caught by the River

The Blackbird Diaries

Katharine Norbury | 24th January 2018

Katharine Norbury reviews Karen Lloyd’s The Blackbird Diaries (paperback, 224 pages, and out now with Saraband).

When we think of Cumbria, we probably picture the bleak, magnificent, sheep-cropped mountains that were both home and inspiration to Coleridge, Wainwright and Wordsworth. Melissa Harrison got the idea to write Rain while walking from Keswick to Threlkeld along a disused railway track. Robert Macfarlane described striding across Red Pike in the snow, and lying in the middle of a frozen tarn, in the dark, in The Wild Places (although it’s a tough enough walk on a fine spring day). James Rebanks famously nurtures a flock of Herdwick sheep on the fells of Matterdale and George Monbiot continues to deplore the ravages of those same Herdwick sheep and their Swaledale neighbours throughout the county. Karen Lloyd, in contrast, has perfected the knack of snagging our gaze and directing it to the lowlands, south of the National Park, and to the strange, turbulent coastline of Morecambe Bay.

Lloyd’s first book, The Gathering Tide: A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay won Eric Robson’s Striding Edge Productions Prize for Place, and was rightly lauded by Mark Cocker as “a hugely impressive debut”. Now, hot on its heels, comes The Blackbird Diaries, a charming and informative account of a year spent observing the birdlife in, around and above Lloyd’s Kendal home.

Lloyd’s perspective is quietly domestic, as she writes of the blackbird of her title: “Later, washing up the dishes, I watched him hunting for snails in the clematis that winds and spills over the dividing wall between our garden and next door”. She has a keen eye and a quiet, understated way of describing her neighbourhood that I found captivating. It also brought to mind the writing of Lloyd’s former teacher, the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie.

On a personal note, I became so enthralled with Lloyd’s excursions, many of which were undertaken while walking the dog, that I bought an Ordnance Survey map of south Cumbria and spread it before me while I read. The Lyth Valley, the deer park at Dallam Tower, and the estuary of the River Kent were all places that I had simply not stopped to think about, beyond acknowledging the terror of the Kent’s tidal bore, so keen had I been to head for the hills. Yet they are more than worthy of our attention. The rich and managed wetlands of Silverdale and Arnside are home to a far greater variety of birdlife than is supported within the bleak and denuded National Park. I found myself remembering the birds that came to our garden feeder as I was growing up in the industrial North West of England: blackbird, yes, thrushes – mistle and song – nuthatch, tree-creeper, bullfinch, chaffinch, greenfinches by the score, wren, robin, starling, magpie, crow, jackdaw, collared dove, woodpigeon, blue tit, great tit, sparrow, dunnock and more. But what used to be household names for me as a child were thinner on the ground than I would have expected in Lloyd’s Kendal garden.

I currently live in South London, where the number of sparrows I see in a month can be counted on one hand, and the only things that are visibly seen to thrive are the corvids (various), and wood pigeons. But I hadn’t quite clocked that the rot was countrywide, despite George Monbiot’s best efforts to inform me. There is an exoticism and celebration to the arrival in Lloyd’s garden of, for example, a greenfinch, about which she is both knowledgeable and sanguine. Without seeming to take sides politically, Lloyd gently points out the changing bird populations of the area in the years that she has been observing it, and speculates as to why this might be. She acknowledges, begrudgingly, that the only place the precious and beleaguered curlew might find sanctuary might well be on a managed grouse moor. She documents the sad tale of Cumbria’s last, widowed, golden eagle: “The last eagle in England broke above the ragged outline of the ridge – High up where Long Stile ends and the final pull to the summit of High Street begins”, names familiar from Wainwright’s, and Mark Richards’, illustrated guides to the fells. Eventually, when the eagle-sightings stop, Lloyd supposes that it has either died or headed north to Scotland, unable to attract a new mate in such a “small” territory.

Lloyd joyously shares with us Swift TV – the CCTV footage made by her friends of the nesting habits of swifts, and the astonishing sight of swift chicks doing “swift pushups” in their nest, to give them the strength and stamina necessary for that first, terrifying, two-year, maybe three-year maiden flight during which their tiny legs will never touch a solid surface. And she notes that the current fashion for restoration of old buildings is as much responsible for destroying the habitats of returning swifts, who find neat hard mortar where their nesting site once was, as other factors. Houseless swifts are forced to remain airborne for yet another year, failing, without their nesting site, to breed. One wonders how far the ubiquitous holiday cottage, dark for half the year, is responsible for this. There’s a faint sense that incomers have contributed, through their ignorance, and desire for the perfect home, to this dwindling swift population.

During the writing of the book, catastrophic floods occurred, and Lloyd records the days in bites of news broadcasts:

“‘Scroggs Bridge in Kentmere has gone.’

‘There’s no way in or out of Levens village.’

‘People are stranded on the road at Heversham.’

‘The A591 has gone.’

‘Appleby Bridge has gone.’”

Her diary at this point reads, in its own way, like the second world war newscasts parodied by Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe: “This is Alvar Lidell bringing you news of fresh disasters”.

During the writing of the book, the Lake District was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lloyd, while characteristically modest in her observations, nonetheless makes it very clear quite how divisive this decision has been for the county, and yet, as ever, she reaches out for the positive: “Set against an epidemic of species loss across the globe, were we in the Lakes to work towards this achievable goal [the replanting of the upland valleys and hills, to improve bio-diversity and conserve topsoil, which famers like James Rebanks are already engaged in], we might show how it is possible to buck that downward trend, to show others how the land can come alive again. After all, without wildlife, landscape is merely background.”

The Blackbird Diaries is therefore a number of things. It is enjoyable bedside reading for the progressing year. But it’s also more than that: The Blackbird Diaries is a keenly observed historical log of the political and ecological decisions affecting Cumbria as we slide towards the brave new world of Brexit.