Monday, 5 September 2011

Under the skin

On one level Beddington Sewage Farm is an eyesore that requires hours of birding input to whittle out each hard won avian nugget. On another it is an oasis in an urban sprawl that freely bestows upon the visiting birder ornithological delights. There are plenty of other levels inbetween - days spent up to the knees in mud watching and listening to Water Pipits; hot days of screaming swifts and scratchy Whitethroats; days of looking longingly eastwards towards an up-Thames squall and praying for displaced seabirds; and other days involving the risk of eyestrain looking through telescopes to pick through the thousands and thousands of gulls resting on ice. All of these states of the farm have their own magic that has snared generations of birders since the 1930s.

It is a site that has a continuous birding record stretching back 80 years (with some records going back even further). There is even a book that chronicles the enormous amount of data that has been collected by the amateur faithful. From the largest breeding colony of Tree Sparrows in the UK, to late summer gatherings of 40 Green Sandpipers. From wintering Water Pipits, to records of Glaucous-winged Gull and Killdeer, there is something here for everyone, with a history that few patches can equal.

I first trod the grassy banks and stared across the sludge lagoons in the autumn of 1974 and fell under its spell. I saw plenty of 'firsts' here and can honestly say I have never - ever - felt more excited birding than I did during 1975-1976 when I started to immerse myself in its birdlife, learning the trade of identification and being accepted into the Beddington camararderie that existed between the regular visitors. I lay on grassy banks as Swifts zoomed above my head only feet away as at the same time Lapwings displayed overhead, collapsing as they did so, on folded wings of bottle green irridescence in the sunshine. These were happy and formative times.

As a 'regular' irregular today I can see beyond the ugly landfill, the piles of earth, the plastic bags flapping in netting. There are plants and insects colonising these man-made scars on the landscape. Here, also, be birds! I can still see the Elms of my youth even though they were felled 35 years ago, I can still visualise the brick outhouses that I sheltered in from the rain, still imagine the small bed in which I saw a Bluethroat trapped and the large fields that regularly held small flocks of Ruff and Golden Plover in amongst the winter thrushes. All now gone, under the wheels of diggers, bulldozers and piles and piles of refuse. My winter Beddington skies are still filled with the ghosts of those Short-eared Owls that were always there - surely for all other winters to come... Today's Beddington is just a continuation of the old one and if I am still standing there birding in 20 years time will no doubt feel just as nostalgic for our current tin hide in which we bullshit so freely between the rare bouts of excitement. It's a refuge from the 'real' world, a place where my carrying a scope and tripod is not met with incredulity. Each and every member of the bird group will have their own reasons for visiting and I'm sure we each harbour our own idealised view on why we continue to do so and what makes the place special. But special it is. The future may be unsure, but even if the Beddington of 2030 is but a blackened tree stump poking out of a contaminated pool, there will still be a birder nearby, checking it out.


  1. Great post, Steve. I wish I lived a bit closer, I would visit the place a lot more than I do.

  2. Good post Steve. Beddington provides me with a mix of memories...

    Clambering around the lagoon embankments to photograph Lesser Yellowlegs; an autumn Tawny Pipit; superb views of a Quail - one of only two that I've actually seen.

    Less endearing were: missing the Killdeer by a whisker and being totally unconsoled by the London-tick Whitefronts that flew over later that day; experiencing the spiteful antipathy of a small-minded minority in the late '80s that put an end to any desire I might have to visit the place ever again. Still, it was always a nightmare to twitch anyway :o)

    Just serves to remind me that people are actually more important than birds.

  3. Neil: you would be a welcome additional to the birding throng.

    Gavin: good to hear from you. I do miss 'Not Quite Scilly' - are you thinking of starting up again, maybe as 'Red Devon Hat tales' or 'Sod the Solitary Sand'?

  4. Hi Steve. I never did thank you for the kind words in 'Not Quite Scilly RIP', so hopefully you'll take this note in compensation. In many ways I miss it too, but it seemed best at the time to let it go. I've noticed that I am not so photo-conscious now I don't have a blog to decorate, and there are several other subtleties that remind me that I behaved slightly differently due to the 'needs' of blogging.

    I can't see another blog starting up with my byline on it, but one learns to never say never. I have plenty of other ways to fritter time - occasionally wasting my figurative breath on BirdForum is one. I don't know why I bother...

    I get the impression the current Beddington crowd are a sound bunch. I'm glad. Enjoy.

  5. It's texts like this that make my mind twist about having abandoned my relatively short affair with Beddington. I feel I have developed as a birder since that time and regret not having undertaken a decent period of watching the site in the manner that I do Canons; I'm sure in doing so I would get a whole lot more out of it than I did in my regrettably broken year or two there.

    It is perfectly possible for me to return there but I am now addicted to Canons Farm, which can also be a magical site, and know I would feel extremely guilty about ditching CF to selfishly run back to a site that already basks in excellent observer coverage. I also recognise that if I did this, I would immediately start to experience reverse feelings and long for Canons Farm.

    If someone would PLEASE just come along and dig a bloody lake at my patch then I'd never feel a glimmer of a temptation to budge!

  6. Nice well written evocative piece Steve. I don't know the place and probably never will living at the other end of the country but the sentiments you express so well struck a real chord. It brought to mind miserable working days in the early 80s amongst the depressing Seal Sands chemical plants at the mouth of the Tees. I retained my spirit and my sanity, until I could escape for good, by spending lunch breaks along the multi-coloured settling pools and drainage channels watching waders and ducks making a living in spite of the industrial desolation all around. I'd usually come across one or two other birders managing to find their own thing amongst the steel pipes, chimneys, tanks and flare stacks and we'd bullshit too - as you do in your tin hut- among the weird chalk loving plants that popped up along dykes where the reclamation landfill material had been rought from afar. Pockets of calm - priceless yet not valued.
    Nil carborundum illegitimi...