Learning the ropes
More personal history waffle. There's a room-full of notes to mine for this stuff...
Dungeness April 1976
We are being given a thorough grounding in observatory life and a whistle-stop tour of the varied habitat to be found in the vicinity of the peninsula. I am being left with a feeling of utter wonderment with what I am experiencing. Vivid images from the past few days are replaying in my mind: looking towards the lit power station at night as we go wader ringing at Lade Pits; watching a Long-eared Owl drifting silently past on a perfectly still, golden evening at the Oppen Pits; walking out to the far-flung Airport Pits, leaping ditches and flushing Grey Partridges.
The daily routine of the observatory is seeping its way into me and the idea of what a ‘proper’ observatory day entails: getting out of bed before dawn; helping erect mist nets in the half-light; alternating between drinking tea, chatting and birding until lunch; sea-watching for a couple of hours; checking the recording area for migrants; going back down to the sea until early evening; having a last look around the moat before dark; and finally sitting in the common room and partaking in the calling of the log. This last act is one that I am thoroughly enjoying, an amalgamation of everybody’s observations in the DBO recording area during the day. It gives meaning to the counts that I amass in my notebook. It takes on the feeling of a religious act, from the handling of the leather-bound log sheets to the incantation of each species name, read out by the warden in scientific order.
Let me take you on a tour of the building. We enter through a small, fortified porch, which has the front door placed on the eastern wall. This leads to a narrow hallway, with stairs on the left. From a line of pegs along the hall wall hang a collection of assorted jackets, mostly weatherproofed and in various stages of disrepair. These do not appear to belong to anybody in particular, seemingly abandoned. A cupboard under the stairs houses the electricity meter (50 pence pieces please) and an ageing selection of household cleaning agents, whose price tags hint at days gone by. Pre-decimalised days to be precise. To the right is the ringing room (for a detailed description of this delight see later). Straight ahead is the common room, the heartbeat of the observatory. This room is dominated by a large table around which are hard wooden chairs. Comfort is but an afterthought. A radiogram (and I mean a radiogram) sits on the window-sill and still works perfectly well. Cupboard space is in plentiful supply. Across one wall is a notice board festooned with information leaflets and notices, mostly produced in Nick’s spidery handwriting. From here we gain access to the small, but well equipped kitchen. A back door leads into a tiny yard where a dilapidated coal shed slumps, its contents a medley of wire, off-cuts of wood and coal. There is also an outside toilet, which only the brave or foolhardy actually use.
Moving up the steep, narrow stairs, we reach the first floor (not before negotiating a wickedly tight turn and a sign that reads ‘No muddy boots’). To the left is a bathroom with two small basins, an ancient washing machine and a toilet cubicle that has been added as an afterthought. The next door along is the warden’s room (which very soon he will vacate for the larger bedroom opposite). This said bedroom opposite is the most airy and boasts a panoramic view of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. We continue up the final flight of stairs and into the top floor bedroom, which has five beds. In the far corner of the room is a door, which leads to a smaller bedroom affectionately referred to as ‘The Firetrap’ due to the lack of exits provided should flames sweep the building. Health and Safety would surely close the observatory down if it ever inspected the premises. All the bedrooms are stocked with old, uncomfortable beds, fit for a convention of masochists. The mattresses are thin and obviously once belonged to a home for the incontinent before DBO gratefully inherited them. The pillows are lumpy and dirty. Piles of damp, grubby blankets are free to be used. The Hilton this isn’t. There is no central heating. If it’s cold a couple of electric fires will be plugged in and the two heating bars will make little difference to the room temperature while eating up all of the 50 pence pieces in the meter. The original sash windows, while charming, are draughty and rattle like buggery in the wind. For some reason I find all of this acceptable and will come back time and again to use these facilities and what’s more actually pay for the privilege.
A feature that appeals to me is that each window has a checklist of birds taped to it. We are invited to add to the tally of species seen from them. I am surprised to note that every window has had Rough-legged Buzzard ticked off of the list. Enquiries reveal that the 1974 Rough-leg invasion sent a couple to wander the peninsular for several weeks.