If I’d thought quicker, I would have started humming Bolero.
We don’t often see snow out here, with the influence of sea on three sides, but when it does come it falls with a curious intensity that borders on malice, the way a lapsing alcoholic might fall on a bottle of malt. There is always a debate in cold weather as to whether we should head to town “up and over” or “down and round”. The latter gives views of the sea, the Antrim coast, a seal colony that grows larger by the year, and when northwesterlies are well settled in, tantalising glimpses of North American and Icelandic birds blown off course. “Up and over”, on a clear day, gives a sudden fleeting view that takes in Islay, Jura, Gigha and Arran. A few yards further on and Arran disappears, to be replaced through the passenger window by Rathlin and the empty, light-sucking gap that we tell visitors contains nothing until you get to Labrador. I’ve never bothered to check whether Labrador is entirely accurate, but they get the point.
This year’s snow, stingy at first, deepened overnight, then froze hard and then took a top layer of hail. It was the combination that was our downfall. We decided that “up and over” was worth the risk, though the extra 200 feet usually means a drop of at least a couple of degrees near the top. It was obvious at the second hairpin that the car wasn’t going to make it. We reversed into a passing place, did the requisite 23-point turn and headed back down. At the first hairpin, just above the house and easily negotiated on the way out, it became obvious that some equation of axle weight, human weight and friction coefficient were going to decide the outcome. Like Torvill and Dean, we glided gracefully across the ice and clunked unpleasantly hard into the ditch that I had painstakingly deepened over the summer to take away some of the rainwater.
The car was now at at least 45 degrees, with nearside wheels – now near the wrong side – spinning hopelessly in the air. Fortunately, a local farmer retired a few months ago and positively relishes the challenge of levering stricken drivers back onto the road. Malcolm was summoned and arrived, smiling gently at the haplessness of incomers. The smile turned wry when he realised that even a stout 4X4 was not going to be enough to lift the front end out of its rut. He headed off to borrow a tractor and forklift from another farmer.
And it was then we saw the owl. It was sitting in the poplar hard-by our bridge, one of four originally planted there, reduced to three by the gales in 2015. The stricken tree has provided us with kindling and quick heat ever since. Poplar is classed as a poor firewood, or what the Americans call a “gopher wood”, the idea being that you put in a log and then immediately have to “go for” more. The owl, a tawny, was pressed in close to the trunk, so nicely camouflaged that it only gave itself away by turning its head. We might have known it was there. Chaffinches and tits were noisily crowded on the branches above, scolding the intruder.
Owls have been scarce this past year. The vole population has undergone one of its periodic crashes and, as ever in such circumstances, the owls stop laying and their numbers dwindle. We have two owl boxes on our land, at opposite extremes. One is intended for a tawny, the other more wishfully for a barn. The last time I checked the former, about a fortnight ago, there was a scratch at the entrance, but it could have been caused by a falling branch, or have been there all along.
We have a curious relationship with owls. On two occasions a pair have found their way down a decommissioned chimney and into my library. I went in one night and had that strange feeling that someone was watching me. When I turned, a beautiful barn owl, by size a female, was staring from the frame of a picture, so light that it hadn’t even been moved skew whiff. I made some kind of noise and the bird flew straight for the dark emptiness of the window, only to suffer that most typical existential disillusion of the avian world, that empty space can be as hard as stone. It flopped to the bench and for a shocked moment I thought it was dead. But it was moving and able to grip. Ten minutes of gentle handling allowed it to stand upright on an iron seat outside before flying off. Almost predictably, when we went back inside, its mate was waiting patiently near the door. He (she?) sensed the colder air and flew silently by us.
Two weeks later, we were visited, via the same route, by a pair of tawnies. They want more careful handling.The great bird photographer Eric Hosking didn’t call his autobiography An Eye For A Bird out of vanity, but because he once made the mistake of putting his face too close to a sitting tawny, which went for him. “Our” birds were skittish and took some rounding up, but eventually one settled on a little curtain that covers a hatch that connects the house to the oratory; this is where Sr Colette took Mass when the Black Hermits were here. Same outcome. Once one bird was caught, the other followed meekly outdoors. We keep the photos to hand, for the sceptical.
Malcolm returned with the other farmer and a large, rather industrial tractor. We were winched out with much clanking of chains, and the owl was momentarily forgotten. We’d sensed they must be around. We’d been seeing more voles on the road at night, and such is the symbiosis between them, that usually means that the owls will follow. The car was dirty rather than seriously damaged. I had a Gemma Collins-sized bruise on my head from unremembered contact with the window. We decided after a break to head into town anyway. Down and round. As we crossed the darkening footbridge, the forgotten tawny burst out of the tree, finally exasperated by the small birds and sailed over our heads, its eyes unforgettably huge, like the nightmare creature in a Goya etching. We drove gingerly and stopped to thank Malcolm for his help. As we left, a barn owl popped out of the ventilation hole in the gable of his cowshed and fluttered like a moth to a post on the road, where it sat and swivelled anxiously in the headlights. They’re back.