It’s hard to imagine now that before moving Up North, My Taller Half and I spent six years living in Southend-on-Sea in Essex.
Southend is where miles of suburban flatlands meet miles of Thames estuary mudflats. Terrible for hillwalking, fantastic for wildlife and birdwatching. While I longed for the hills, I can’t deny that I also enjoyed the coastal wildlife, seafront pubs and promenade walks.
Occasionally I get dragged down to Southend for work purposes, and this week I spent two nights in my former home. After an interesting evening train journey from Liverpool Street to Southend Victoria*, I decided to walk the promenade from the pier towards Westcliff.
(*the whole train was humming, loudly, for the entire journey. The commuters seemed oblivious, I nearly pulled the emergency cord. The train operator was clearly embarrassed by their trains – there was no clue from within the carriage as to who they were).
While waders are now returning to the British uplands, whose who breed in the arctic are still waiting for winter to lose its grip, so I was thrilled to see little white birds, busy as ants, glowing in the night against the sea defences by the pier. Sanderlings. Thirteen of them (I counted twice). My absolute favourite bird (apart from starlings, oh and tree sparrows, and don’t forget spotted flycatchers…). Totally oblivious to my presence, eschewing the wader’s high tide sleep in order to fatten up for their impending journey.
A little further on and my slight nerves at walking in the dark in a town are now gone (how easy it is to forget how to cope in once-familiar places). A tight flock of sanderlings are sleeping right next to the promenade. About thirty, although this time I didn’t count. One or two feeding, the sleepy ones fluttering their wings and occasionally jumping slowly into the air. So trusting. I want to scoop them up and take them home.
I nearly go back to the hotel for my forgotten camera. It has a night time setting but I doubt I’d be satisfied with blurry sanderling shots, so I carry on.
I pass the Westcliff casino (always changing its name, still looks the same). Lots of cars parked in the bays between the traffic lanes. I spot a fox ahead. It’s found something tasty next to a car, clearly thrown out by the lazy occupant. Rural foxes are not brave – a rare treat to see one in Weardale. I stop so as not to scare this one off.
The fox gives up on its dinner and trots towards me. I hold my breath. It stops in the road, close now. A car beeps its horn, startling me, not really bothering the fox, who is now walking right past me on the pavement and then heading to the bin behind me and then back into the car park to look for more discarded food.
I get one more chance to visit the seafront on the morning of my last day. The tide is nearly in, but only one sanderling in sight and three Brent geese. I say my goodbyes and look forward to the trip home. This time I make the effort to travel the C2C line to Fenchurch Street (took me ages as a C2C commuter to realise the C stands for both City and Coast). Modern train, coastal views. I think to myself that I’d never have managed four years as a commuter if it wasn’t for the views from the train window.
Fast forward a boring but uneventful journey home. I’m getting off the bus at Wolsingham. I look up, and there are thousands of starlings gliding in the air above me. Sanderlings and foxes forgotten, what a treat to be back. Starlings can form huge roosting flocks in the winter, and I can’t believe these guys are still hanging around. Maybe like the sanderlings they are waiting for spring to arrive in their breeding grounds?
I should be hurrying home, but I enjoy the starlings circling above me when one of them dives down into the trees behind the main road. Two, three seconds pass, then starlings start pouring out of the sky in their hundreds and into the trees. I stand and watch for what seems like an age as the cloud of starlings, pendulum-like, arc over these trees, a small group pouring down at each pass. Eventually all the starlings are earthbound and I am released to go home.