If I go into town with the aim of buying bread and picking up my dry cleaning, you can guarantee that upon my return Rachel will say “What took you so long, and where are your trousers?” Anyone who has travelled with me as I take the longest possible route between any two points, even in my home town, will testify that my sense of direction is pretty much non existent. To confound matters, I also have a rather poor memory.
How I ever managed to travel to the end of the country, sail across the ocean and go in search of exotic species is one of the wonders of the modern world, but I did. While this might make it sound as if I spent a gap year looking for dodos on Tristan da Cunha, it was actually a week of birdwatching on the Isles of Scilly.
But that was thirty years ago, and a lot has changed since 1984. Of the things I do remember, I have: married, divorced, bought various properties, gone grey and sprouted excess ear and nasal hair, but none of those are in any way linked with birding or the Scillies. What I don’t remember are the details of my first trip to The Scillies.
Having recently read the book Scilly Birding – Joining the Madding Crowd by Simon Davey, many of those lost memories have been rekindled, and I can now remember it as if it were yesterday. As I worked my way through each chapter it was as if the author had been standing beside me and my two friends throughout the week, and together we ticked off the same list of warblers, thrushes and American vagrants.
To many people, birdwatching conjures up images of old men in bobble hats pointing at bushes and claiming to have seen a lesser spotted warbler. Why the nation is obsessed with lesser spotted warblers I shall never know. For one thing, they don’t exist. In fact, lesser spotted birds generally are few and far between, and the lesser spotted woodpecker is the only British lesser spotted anything.
Try shooting, not shooting:
Birding is actually an incredibly difficult sport and can require significantly more skill and fieldcraft than hunting. Although, I dare say that those with the attitude of ‘What’s that? Dunno. Let’s blow its bloody head off anyway’ would take some convincing otherwise. Think about it. If a safari guide stands you in front of something that is grey, the size of a garden shed and has nothing but a length of dust extraction hose with which to defend itself, chances are you will be able to identify it as an elephant. Not much skill there. Maybe killing it will boost your machismo. Sorry, but frankly, any twat with a blunderbuss would be able to fire a chunk of lead into the poor bemused creature’s hide.
Birding, however is hunting the hard way. If you can spot a tiny green bird flitting its way through the foliage of a tree twenty yards away and even identify it down to the subspecies, THAT is a skill. If that isn’t manly enough for you, why not try getting a good photo of it. If you can do that, then you my friend are the dog’s cojones.
But I digress:
Back to 1984 and some of the bits that are not in the book:
Our trip began well enough, and we rattled our way through the South West of England in my trusty Ford Anglia (a car that would double in value if the glovebox contained some change for parking). We arrived in Penzance much too early for the ferry, so we opted to stop at Marazion marsh for a spot of pre-Scilly birding and a traditional birding breakfast of cheese and pickle sandwiches, a bottle of Quatro and a cigar. (Smoking wasn’t such an issue back then; in fact, it was almost compulsory in our school.) As the sailing time drew near, we left the car with a complete stranger who assured us that his front garden was a car park for visitors to The Scillies, and a few rather queazy hours later (I don’t sail well) we set foot on the magic isles.
Outside toilet… bathroom and bedroom:
Despite my poor memory, there is one chapter of the week that is indelibly etched upon my mind. When we arrived at the Garrison campsite to check-in to Greystones, our cottage for the week, we were informed that it had been double booked. Our hearts sank, because we knew that every room on the Island was always fully booked during the birding season, so we were going to be sleeping in a hedge for a week. Fortunately, the grandmother of the site owner had some personal accommodation in the grounds and we were allowed to stay there. It was actually little more than a collection of small wooden buildings, but it served our purpose of having somewhere to eat, sleep and soak our aching feet after a day of trekking around the islands. In the eighties, it was what we called ‘having a holiday in a garden shed’, but these days, it would be classed as glamping and charged at a premium rate, so if nothing else, we were pioneers of the tourist industry. However, it didn’t really spoil the holiday and we still got to see plenty of brilliant birds.
If you would like to read a full account of my first birding trip to The Scillies, read ‘Scilly Birding – Joining the Madding Crowd’ by Simon Davey, but as you do so, remember to visualise me doing whatever it is he is talking about.
Oh, there is one other small detail you will need to change. Every time he mentions that he was staying in Greystones, remember that we were supposed to be staying in that cottage. As the author recounts his luxurious comfort, think of me in a shed nearby.