As The Wife and I were driving past Ellalong Lagoon the other day we played a car game: what single consumer good or item would you have if you could have anything, regardless of price? There were of course conditions (there always are). It must be a “thing” that is entirely discrete in and of itself and can have no on-costs or recurring commitments. This rules out real estate (buildings or land); vehicles (camper vans [her] or beautifully restored British motorcycles [me]); or weapons (yes, I know, I would like a lovely big rifle – but then does it come with an endless supply of bullets? Apparently not.).

It was surprisingly difficult to think of anything that I actually wanted.

Being of an age, I do find – as have so many before me – that I get increasing pleasure from the non-things. My current favourite is bird tracks in mud.


And it’s free!


I was Facebook talking (if that’s what it’s called) with a friend who still lives on the estuary where I grew up. He’d posted photos of egrets which, in recent years, have begun visiting – and even breeding – in that part of north-west England. The conversation moved onto shorebirds in general, and specifically their declining numbers in the Duddon Estuary. The two key factors in this decline have been habitat destruction and the clean up of the local sewage treatment plant.


Less poo in the water = less microbial action = less single-cell reproduction = less bottom-feeders = less … Yep. You get the picture. So that lovely poo-laden water that I spent my summers splashing around in, before coming out and picking off the sea lice, was also brilliant for counting shorebirds, and for my immune system.

I was looking at the stretch of concrete banking and creek bed where the repair work took place to stop the leaching of toxins into the Styx. Given that the old gasworks site covers several hectares, and the repair work covers about 60 metres, there’s been an inevitable “Bulahdelah bypass” effect, with the bottleneck simply moving a little further along.


It stands to reason. If this stuff is pouring, leaching or squeezing out of a place, and that place gets plugged, then the stuff won’t stop trying to pour, leach and squeeze – at least not unless the entire site is bounded and capped.


It’s a shame. I’m not implying that the clean up of the gasworks is the same as the clean up of the sewage treatment plant on the Duddon Estuary. Poo is nasty stuff, but it’s not as nasty as hydrocarbon by-products from coal-tar distillation. What saddens me is the way that humans are in an endless process of despoiling and remediating the world around us.

If I could have the one thing, then it would be a kind of non-thing. It would be a total remediation of the gasworks site and the whole stretch of the Styx from Chinchen Street bridge to the Griffiths Road bridge, with connectivity to the unused RailTrack section on the eastern banking. The Styx would be reconfigured, allowing it to meander through the site, creating acres of habitat for waders, shorebirds, insectivores, amphibians and predators. There would be boardwalks and bicycle tracks and hides for birdwatching. There would be … hold on. I think I’ve already had this thought.

In the meantime, it’s back to the non-things for me. This rufous night heron on the litter boom the other evening is a good example. (Must learn how to take low-light photos with an iPhone.)


What is your “thing”? What one thing would you have?

Hard, isn’t it?

Where it all began


I’m visiting family in England and, as always happens when I’m back here I find myself tramping the same highways and byways that I tramped as a kid.

When I’m in Newcastle I call the water channel that runs down the centre of the Styx Creek “the beck”. It’s a northern word of, I think, Norse origin. This, below, is the very first beck I ever played in, got wet in, made dams in: it is the proto-beck against which all other becks are measured. It has a name, Blea Beck, though I never knew that until I was well into my teens and I saw it marked on an Ordnance Survey map. To me it was just “the beck”.


I crossed the beck every day, then scrambled up this  path behind Harry Barker’s squawky, stinky chook sheds, on my way to the school at the top of the hill. God knows what sort of state I must have been in when I arrived.


If you look at the first picture of the beck you can see a dark patch that my iPhone hasn’t been able to focus on properly. Here’s that patch but close up. It’s where the beck’s been boxed in or channelised at some point in the distant past, and so you could say that this is my first ever drain.


One afternoon, in about 1971, me and a friend set off into the dark maw with a torch and wellies that were quickly swamped by the deepest parts of the beck. Sections of the roof were collapsed and it was very exciting (read stupidly dangerous). The first inklings of my desire to sneak around watery places, to go to places I shouldn’t!

The beck leads into the Duddon Estuary. The house where I grew up – where my dad still lives, where I’m sitting as I type this – overlooks the estuary. The low hill in the background is Black Combe and its profile is embedded in my DNA. Many, many hours were spent following Blea Beck down through dales (rows of fields marked out in furlongs) to this estuary, hours of playing in the brackish water where the beck met the tide.


This day, Black Combe had a covering of cloud. Which is a not uncommon event, I have to say.


But it’s gorgeous, whatever the weather.


It’s where it all began for me.