Sunday, 15 November 2009


‘Lovers’, decreed the melancholy Austrian poet, Nikolaus Lenau, ‘should never venture farther apart than the westwind can carry the sweet song of the nightingale.’ But of course these days lone lovers venture to the very ends of the earth.

In the late summer of 1964 I was alone and melancholy and lodging in the attic of the Passage Inn at Topsham. To cheer myself up, I, who had never sailed before, bought, for thirty pounds and at the Cherry and Cherry, Shaldon boat auction, a little boat without a name. I called the boat ‘Bärbel’ after my distant beloved. She was a lovely little sprucebuilt, twelvefoot, lugsail dinghy, straight out of Arthur Ransome.

Anyway the first outing I made with ‘Bärbel, the boat’ was to that part of the river where now the motorway crosses the Exe. I rowed, I did not attempt to sail, among the reed beds and and was enchanted by what I found there. On every reed, or so it seemed, sat a starling. The reeds were bending beneath their weight and there was a noise of chatter and singing everywhere. A few birds, but only a few, allowed me to disturb them but they soon settled again as I passed among them like a Pharoah.

The reed beds are still there and, despite the motorway, the starlings still visit. In that neck of the Estuary I have seen murmurations of starlings since. Sometimes they fly so as to darken the skies. But that first progress of mine, paddling among the reeds nearly fifty years ago to be welcomed to the Estuary by happy starlings, is still one of the most cherished of my memories.

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