Dec 072009

Passing Laurel Villa, you’d never suspect it was a Tardis. One has to enter this modestly proportioned house on the outskirts of the County Derry town of Magherafelt to taste its magic. Your first impression is of a beautifully kept bed-and-breakfast house. Then you notice the photographs and paintings lining the walls: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney. There are poems printed on linen, first editions in glass cases. Upstairs you pass the bedroom doors: the Kavanagh Room, the MacNeice Room, the Heaney Room. Laurel Villa is a shrine (though a very unstuffy one) – a genuine House of Poetry. Gerardine Kielt keeps things immaculate, and cooks the best breakfasts in Ireland; Eugene, her husband, organises poetry readings at Laurel Villa, and maintains contact with poets far and wide – including Seamus Heaney himself, the most celebrated and best-read living poet in these islands today.

Heaney, a local boy born on a farm a few miles from Magherafelt, has a great admiration for the Kielts’ love and respect for poetry. So much so that this Nobel Laureate, hugely in demand and fêted all over the world in this year of his 70th birthday, found the time to come to the unassuming Magherafelt house in June and give a reading in front of an audience of fifty. My wife Jane and I were there; so were Heaney’s brothers, his relations, his local acquaintances. Watching him chat and sign books, joke and clink wine glasses after the reading, you got the measure of a very genuine and grounded man, very pleased to be back on the soil that sprouted all those famous poems.

Joining Eugene Kielt on one of the guided tours he conducts round Seamus Heaney Country, we found the building blocks of Heaney’s young life and his life-long art coming at us round every corner, shining a light on poems that we seemed to have known and loved for ever. At the Hillhead near Magherafelt, Barney Devlin’s forge stood beside the roaring Toome road, the low ‘door into the dark’ exactly as Heaney described it in one of his best-known poems, ‘The Forge’. And there was the 89-year-old Barney himself, ‘90 next Boxing Day!’ An ageless man, full of life and fun (personal motto: ‘You must get up!’), delighted to be so much visited. We leaned against the door jamb and listen to the smith yarn and ring the anvil with his great hammer, as he did at the Millennium hour. He pointed out hearth and bellows, long-redundant tools, a stuffed rooster in the rafters. ‘Dick the fighting cock, champion of Meath!’ Pouring out a none-too-mean measure of whiskey, Barney gave a wicked chuckle and slapped me on the back. ‘I’ve never touched it in my life, but I like a man who takes his drop!’

In the townland of Broagh below the forge, a long-abandoned railway line curved across the lanes. Heaney wrote in ‘The Railway Children’ of climbing its grassy cutting, level with the telegraph poles where ‘words travelled the wires/In the shiny pouches of raindrops’.

How many people wish that Mossbawn, the original thatched house where the poet was born to Patrick and Margaret Heaney in 1939, had not been demolished! But it was, some years ago, and in its place another long, low, modest farmhouse stands beside the Toome road. The McLaughlin family live here now, farming the same fields and milking cows in the same yard as Patrick Heaney did seventy years ago. We looked around the place – the byre, the sheds, the waterlogged field at the back of the house where the Heaney boys put down ‘four jackets for four goalposts’ and played football until the light died:

‘And the actual kicked ball came to them

Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard

Breathing in the dark and skids on grass

Sounded like effort in another world …’

Of all the places we visited, I found Church Island on the shores of Lough Beg the most resonant. The spire stuck up skywards from the massed trees of the island, unapproachable beyond a rain-sodden wetland. Leaning against the ivy-grown road wall, Eugene quietly read us ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, Heaney’s eulogy for his second cousin Colm McCartney, murdered by sectarian killers in 1975. The backdrop of the poem and the present setting were one and the same: cows in a mist, clays and waters, a soft treeline.

‘ … I dab you clean with moss

Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.

I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.

With rushes that shoot green again, I plait

Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.’

The late afternoon light began to fade. The unvisited locations of Heaney Country would have to wait for another day – Anahorish (‘We were killing pigs the day the Americans arrived’), Bellaghy Bawn, the graveyard where Seamus’s brother Christopher Heaney lies buried near Colm McCartney. ‘I like to think that I belong to these places,’ said Eugene Kielt, steering us back towards Magherafelt, ‘and they belong to me. What Seamus Heaney’s magic is, for me – he can attach a total stranger to these places, and leave that stranger attached to them as strongly as I am myself – these ordinary places that I’ve known all my life.’

Laurel Villa Townhouse

60 Church Street, Magherafelt, Co. Derry BT45 6AW (02879-301459; – From £70 dble B&B.

Guided tours of Seamus Heaney Country

Variable length, depending on people’s interest. From £60 pp, transport and copies of poems included; group rates negotiable

Reading (all titles published by Faber & Faber):

Seamus Heaney’s poems:

Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996; The Spirit Level (1996); Electric Light (2001); District and Circle (2006)


Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1980); The Government of the Tongue (1988); The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (1995); Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 (2002)

Interviews: Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll (2008)


‘The Poet and The Piper’ (Claddagh Records 2003): Heaney reads many of his best-loved poems; master musician Liam O’Flynn plays uilleann pipes and whistle

Collected Poems’ (RTE Lannan 2009, 15-CD box set): Heaney reads his 11 collections in their entirety

 Posted by at 00:00
Nov 062009

Martin French deserves a medal. Not only did he get up in the cold and dark to see me off from his Bark House Hotel at Oakfordbridge, but he put porridge, bacon and eggs on the table at six in the morning. They make them tough down there on Exmoor. Ranger Richard Eales was nursing flu and the effects of a kick from an over-excited Exmoor pony, but he turned up for our dawn rendezvous at Exmoor National Park headquarters in Dulverton in his usual form – humorous, observant, and passionately knowledgeable about red deer.

From West Anstey Common Richard and I surveyed the ground around Lyshwell Farm. The farmer, Raymond Davey, enjoys seeing red deer, so Lyshwell is a likely spot to find a sample of Exmoor’s herd of some 4,000 of these beautiful and impressive creatures. Red deer have been native to Britain since shortly after the last Ice Age. Stags and hinds spend most of the year apart, but in autumn they come together briefly for the rut or mating season. That’s when the wooded combes and farm pastures of Exmoor echo to one of the most thrilling sounds in nature – the roaring of the stags.

As Richard and I watched from the high common, a deep dog-like bark rose from the oakwoods in the combe of Dane’s Brook far below. ‘A hind,’ said Richard. ‘She’s spotted us, and she’ll be warning the others.’ Then came the sound we had been waiting for – a grating, throaty roar from the direction of Lyshwell Farm. ‘Ah, he’s bolving,’ exclaimed Richard with satisfaction. ‘That’s the Exmoor word for the roaring. It’s a threat and a challenge to any other stag: “I’m here, and I’m in charge!” ’

Through binoculars I made out the stag as he stood by the hedge, head back and bolving, a large figure indistinct in the early morning light. In the field above him several hinds and two little calves came into focus. Beside them were a couple of prickets, two-year-old stags with two long dagger-blade horns where their antlers would eventually grow. ‘When a stag’s in his pomp,’ Richard expounded, ‘he’ll have his “rights” – his brow, bay and tray spikes at the base of the antler – and up to three “points” at the top of each antler. That stag we’re looking at, he’s a fine beast – he’s got all his rights and three points on one side, and all his rights and two on the other. Let’s have a closer look at him.’

Down in the Lyshwell fields we crept with bent backs along a hedge to a point where we could see through a screen of twigs. The stag was the size of a racehorse. He stood sideways on about 50 yards away, a magnificent spectacle against the rising sun, his dark form dazzlingly outlined in dewdrops, his heavily-antlered head thrown back as he bolved. The roar, a mixture of circular saw, Harley-Davidson and outraged lion, echoed out across Lyshwell Wood, projected forth on a puff of steamy breath.

‘See how dark his coat is?’ breathed Richard. ‘He’s been wallowing in his soiling pit, peeing in the mud and rolling in it to get a good stinking smell all over. A stag’s cologne, that is.’

Among his harem of a dozen hinds, most faces were turned towards us, but the stag seemed oblivious. He was sizing up one of the hinds, and had nudged her a little apart from the others, scenting her hindquarters and lifting his head between sniffs as if pondering a rare old vintage. Hinds are in season for a matter of hours only, so the stag relies on all sorts of clues to tell him the time is right. ‘He’ll lick up the hind’s urine,’ murmured Richard, ‘and run it along the Jacobson gland in his upper lip to see if she’s ready to be served.’

This hind was ready. It has to be admitted that the red stag is no languorous artiste du chambre. Ten seconds and the embrace was finished. The hind resumed her grazing, the stag his bolving and scenting of other posteriors. But the group of hinds remained uncomfortably aware of us. Soon enough they began to move off. Richard’s nudge was followed by his whisper, ‘We’ll go down in the wood and catch them there.’

Deep in Lyshwell Wood the stag’s soiling pit lay well-trodden, the wet mud exuding a powerful goaty smell. We crept along a sunken path. From the field above came the groans and roars of bolving in several separate voices – not just one stag, but three. Peeping over the top we saw ‘our’ stag trotting and roaring, and another animal making off in disappointment.

‘He’ll be back,’ said Richard as the herd disappeared into the wood and we straightened our stiff backs. ‘There’s a lot of hard work for the stags during the rut, keeping the hinds together, seeing off rivals, not to mention the mating. But they must think it’s worth it – they’ve been doing it for about ten thousand years.’


Red Deer Watching: Ranger-led expeditions: contact Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre, Dulverton (01398-323841) or Exmoor National Park Authority, Exmoor House, Dulverton (01398-323665); NB Lyshwell Farm is private property, but there are several footpaths across it.

Richard Eales’s deer-watching hints:

  • Go at dawn or dusk

  • Take good binoculars

  • Keep your eyes open, and give them time to adjust to spotting the deer

  • Be quiet, move slowly and keep downwind of the deer

  • Keep low to break up your outline

  • Stop still as soon as you spot a deer

World Bolving Championship: Held each October at Blaydon Rails above the Barle Valley, in aid of Devon Air ambulance. Details: Rock House Inn, Dulverton (01398-323131;


Accommodation: The Bark House, Oakfordbridge, Devon EX16 9HZ (01398-351236; – really charming, welcoming small hotel, happy with very early starts!


Kia – A Study of Red Deer by Ian Alcock (Swan Hill Press); Red Deer by Richard Jefferies (Halsgrove); Exmoor’s Wild Red Deer by N.V. Allen (Exmoor Press)


 Posted by at 00:00
Oct 052009

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
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As we came down Hugh Kemp’s drive early in the morning, a red squirrel scuttered across the drive just in front of us. It sat up, cleaning its nose with both front paws, its tail a puff of pale russet smoke, black eyes fixed on us, before diving out of sight between the bars of a cattle grid. ‘Come on in,’ said Hugh at the door of Mirk Pot House. ‘I’m sorry my Jane isn’t here to greet you. Coffee? You’ll have to excuse the clutter. Now, then, these red squirrels of ours …’

The tree planter and red squirrel conserver of Snaizeholme is a Yorkshireman by birth and a landscape artist by talent. He’s also been a practical conservationist throughout his eight decades of life. In 1966 he and his wife Jane found the ruinous farmhouse of Mirk Pot in the hidden dale of Snaizeholme, a cleft tucked into the rolling country to the south of Wensleydale. ‘Our battle plan,’ he says, ‘was to buy a derelict hill farm with some outhouses and a reasonable amount of land. We’d rebuilt the house by 1967, and we started planting trees commercially.’

Christmas trees, Sitka spruce, Japanese larch, sycamores – the Kemps planted the bare fellside enthusiastically, and soon began to notice an increase in bird life. When they fenced off the plantation against grazing sheep and deer, ‘mountain ash, hawthorn, bird cherry, the native trees – they all came back. We got expert advice from the British Trust for Ornithology on how to improve our plantations for wildlife; we clear-felled our Sitka; we created a wildlife corridor with native trees – hawthorn, silver and downy birch, willow, sessile and pedunculate oak, blackthorn. What we ended up with was a very young plantation of broadleaves, and a few big conifers. We were trying to encourage the black grouse to return, but inadvertently we were actually planting for red squirrels.’

It was a local woodsman who first spotted a red squirrel in Snaizeholme, but no-one quite believed him. Then in 1997 there were confirmed sightings, followed by a steady increase in red squirrel numbers. With support from DEFRA and the Forestry Commission, and some expert advice from the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, Mirk Pot has become a red squirrel refuge. Grey squirrels – introductions to the UK from North America, now crowding Britain’s native reds to extinction all over the country – are baffled by specially designed feeders which provide the red squirrels with their favourite mixture of peanuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts. The sessile oaks are coppiced, to retain the trees themselves without allowing them to produce the acorns that grey squirrels love.

As we left the house in Hugh’s company, a red squirrel was swinging on the bird feeder in the garden. It jumped down to the wall, ran along the stones, stopped for a scratch, did a double take when it noticed us, and scampered out of sight up the nearest tree. ‘Stone walls,’ mused Hugh. ‘We’ve had half a mile rebuilt – cost us an arm and a leg, but it’s worth it. Red squirrels hate travelling through thick undergrowth, but they use that wall as a motorway.’

We boarded Hugh’s battered blue Land Rover and went bouncing along rough tracks to West Field, near the specially created viewing area. Hugh told us of the parapox disease, sometimes called squirrel pox. Greys are immune to parapox, but can transmit it to the reds, whom it condemns to a slow and horrible death. ‘Even more reason to keep out the greys,’ was Hugh’s crisp summing up.

At the viewing area there was just one red squirrel on show, a pretty little individual that was sitting up on the bench eating peanuts from the feeder. It soon took to the tree-tops, and its colleagues must have been keeping out of our way, because we saw no more. But red squirrels are generally far from shy, it seems, when food is on the agenda. ‘I found one actually in the food bin by our front door,’ recounted Hugh. ‘So I fixed the lid on properly. But when I took it off next morning, blow me if there wasn’t a squirrel sitting in there eating. Now I chain the lid down – but even so, I’ve seen them on their hind legs trying to prise it open with their front paws!’

I found the red squirrels of Mirk Pot wholly delightful. Whatever the cause – and I suspect it has a lot to do with childhood memories of Beatrix Potter’s cheeky, charming Squirrel Nutkin – their energy, inquisitiveness and delicate beauty are quite irresistible. They thrive in Snaizeholme, quite oblivious of what they owe to Hugh and Jane Kemp. But we, at least, can give thanks for this dedicated couple and the invaluable conservation work they are so effectively doing in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales.


Red squirrels in Snaizeholme (OS Explorer OL2): Access: either on foot via Snaizeholme Red Squirrel Trail (10 miles return walk from Hawes)

(; or B6255 from Hawes to Widdale Bridge, left up minor road to entrance to Red Squirrel Viewing Area (signed) via Mirk Pot or West Field.

Hugh Kemp leads red squirrel walks, by appointment only (01969-667510).

Further information: Hawes TIC (01969-666210)

Hints: Red squirrels are most active around dawn/dusk and in sunshine after bad weather; their hearing is acute; they’re most likely to be in the treetops. Take binoculars, keep quiet, and stop still if you spot one.

Help and advice

The Wildlife Trusts (01636-677711; can advise on locating red squirrels across the UK; likewise Natural England (0845-600-3078;, Scottish Natural Heritage (01738-444177;, Countryside Council for Wales (0845-130-6229; and Northern Ireland Environment Agency ( The Forestry Commission ( and the Forest Service of Northern Ireland ( are active in conserving red squirrels. The National Trust has developed 5 downloadable Red Squirrel Walks: see

Red Squirrel Week: 3-11 October 2009. Details: contact The Wildlife Trusts

Reading: Trees and Wildlife in Wensleydale (Mason Bros, Newsagents, Main Street, Hawe, North Yorkshire DL8  3QN – £10 plus postage – tel 01696-667278) is Hugh Kemp’s autobiography. 

 Posted by at 00:00
Sep 142009

Wild and wintry weather was tearing across the flat North Lincolnshire landscape, showering the huge ploughed fields and ruler-straight roads with whirling leaves and bursts of rain. Lovely weather for ducks – and for grey seals, according to Claire Weaver, Natural England’s adviser on wildlife management for several of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest along the Lincolnshire coast. ‘The seals don’t care,’ she observed as we set off along the fenced path through the dunes of Donna Nook, heads down against wind and rain. ‘They’ve got just two things on their minds at this time of year – giving birth, and having sex.’

The UK is home to something approaching half the world population of grey seals, and the window of opportunity for them to pup and mate is a narrow one. They have to come ashore to do both, explained Claire. But on land they are slow, clumsy and vulnerable, particularly when all hyped up and distracted by birth and sex hormones. So nature squeezes both activities into a very tight time frame. The cows, having delayed implantation of last year’s fertilised egg for seven months, have been carrying developing pups since late spring. They give birth a couple of days after they reach land, wean their pup for three weeks, and then mate and get back to sea in as short order as possible. By that time they are literally starving; they don’t eat while on shore, and drop about 40% of their body weight.

The enormous flat expanse of salt marsh and mud flats at Donna Nook on the southernmost edge of the Humber Estuary, the Lincolnshire grey seals’ chosen pupping and mating ground, is not only an SSSI and a National Nature Reserve managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust – it’s also an MoD bombing range. Juggling things so that aircraft can practice, seals can perform their functions undisturbed and the public can enjoy the spectacle safely is a complicated business, but NNR warden Rob Scott, his solo assistant and dozens of volunteers make a wonderful job of it. The fenced path conducts you along the edge of the saltmarsh, and there are the seals, hundreds of them, some close enough to touch – if you don’t value your fingers. ‘They’re wild animals,’ Claire reminded me as we stood looking down at a snow-white pup cuddled up to the fence, ‘and they can give a nasty bite.’

There is something very Walt Disney about grey seals – the adorable huge-eyed pups in white coats, the sleekly dappled mothers and big bruiser males with ripples of fat round their scarred necks. ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’ were in the air. At first glance all the adults looked utterly docile, a collection of fat slippery slugs marooned in the mud. But nature is a ruthless driver of behaviour. The bulls went slithering and undulating forward to confront one another with open-mouthed roars, occasionally tumbling over in actual combat as they bit at one another’s necks. Young males not yet bulky enough to ring-fence a harem made nuisances of themselves, teasing the seniors by invading their personal space to provoke deep roars and impressive displays of sharp teeth.

A couple of bulls tried their luck with the cows, but were warned off with snarls. It was a little early in the season for mating; the first pups had only been born three weeks before. Now there were well over four hundred of them, ranging from the newly born (in coats still stained bright yellow by amniotic fluid) to three-week pups already losing their lanugo or baby coat of white.

The cow and pup pairs lay high up the salt marsh or in the dunes, well away from the roaring and splashing on the mud flats. I watched a well-grown pup nuzzling for its mother’s tiny teat while she guided it with flaps of her flipper. Seal milk is fabulously rich in fat, so while the cows and bulls starve and diminish, the pups put on weight like super-sizers, nearly four pounds a day. ‘They need to,’ said Claire. ‘When that cow goes to mate and then back to sea, the pup’ll be fending for itself for the next fortnight, living on its blubber until it gets into the sea and starts fishing for itself.’

It was a mesmerising sight – the rain-freckled marsh and mud flats covered in grey seals, apparently inert, in reality working overtime to respond to the timeless imperative of reproduction of the species. As I watched, I became aware of the extraordinary noise the seals were making, swelling like a chorus behind the show – a mooing, roaring, groaning and banshee wailing that our seafaring ancestors told each other was the song of the mermaids. Eerie, ghostly and spine-tingling, it haunted my inner ear for the rest of the day.


Seal-watching at Donna Nook NNR: A1031 (Cleethorpes-Mablethorpe) to North Somercotes; brown signs to Donna Nook. Open to public (free) all year. Best time is pupping season, mid October – late December. Observe MoD range warnings. Try to visit on weekdays; weekends get very crowded, lanes are narrow and car parking limited).

Claire Weaver’s seal-watching hints

  • Don’t get too close – you will disturb the seals, cows might desert pups, and you could get badly bitten.

  • At Donna Nook, keep out of the sanctuary area.

  • They’re wild animals – don’t feed or pet them.

  • Leave the dog at home.

  • Bring your binoculars, and don’t forget the camera

Help and advice

The Wildlife Trusts (01636-677711; co-ordinate 47 local Wildlife Trusts across the UK, Isle of Man and Alderney, and should be able to help you locate and watch grey seals. Other helpful agencies are Natural England (0845-600-3078;, Scottish Natural Heritage (01738-444177;, Countryside Council for Wales (0845-130-6229; and Northern Ireland Environment Agency (

Grey Seal information:;

Grey seals in Wales:

Accommodation: West View B&B, South View Lane, South Cockerington, Louth, Lincs (01507-327209; Very helpful and friendly.

Reading: Seals by Sheila Anderson (Whittet Books)

Information: Donna Nook NNR (01507-526667;

Louth TIC: Cornmarket, Louth (01507-609289;

 Posted by at 00:00