Of dolphins and space stations (and not a single red squirrel)

24 Apr

As humans, our capacity for adaptation should never be underestimated. When I first started working in my current office I was startled and hugely disturbed by a bona fide World War 2 air raid siren which went off at top volume at exactly 8.30am. Even more so when nobody else even batted an eyelid.

“It’s the clocking-on alarm for the dockyard workers down the road,” said the only person who even acknowledged my shock. “They do it at lunchtime too.”

These days I barely register the daily apocalyptic howl either, which I suppose would have made  me a rubbish person to be around in the 1940s. I would have got through an awful lot of sandwiches before realising that my house had been obliterated.

Conversely, the most ordinary of experiences can be transformed into something completely surprising if you let them.

The tourists and school parties have been steadily descending on Swanage breathing some much-needed life into it after the hibernation of the winter months… but it can be a bit of a nuisance when the only supermarket suddenly runs out of bread on a Friday afternoon again, and the school parties start illicitly drinking cider and flirting on the seafront at sunset.

So to get away from all that we took ourselves up to Durlston, a country park on the clifftops that’s not far outside the town. I’ve been there thousands of times over the years. I’ve walked it, climbed it, birdwatched in it, had cream tea by it, been to parties at it and as a hormonal teenager I am quite sure I snogged a couple of boys in the car park too (not sure whether this would have been before or after illicit cider and seafront flirtation).

But I’ve never been stargazing there before. When the sun sets at Durlston, the world goes black (this same quality probably also contributed to the teenaged exploits) – and with the exception of the distant twinkling lights of Poole, there is no light except a rich canape of stars and planets. Within an hour we’d seen shooting stars (from the Lyrid meteor shower, fact fans), glimpsed the rings of Saturn through the resident observatory on the hillside and watched the International Space Station make its nightly voyage across the night sky. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even though a fellow stargazer cheerfully informed us that it happens every 90 minutes or so.

There was quite a community up there in the darkness, a motley crew of amateur astronomers with their telescopes and red lights and laser beams sharing their knowledge and looking for the next thing of beauty. We felt gloriously out of our depth as they compared astronomical sightings and pointed out distant galaxy formations like they were introducing old friends at a dinner party. It was a world away from the kiss-me-quick brigade swamping the town for late night kebabs and karaoke and it felt alien, but strangely honourable at the same time.

The next day we decided to continue seeing the place through new eyes with a trip to Brownsea Island. Neither of us had ever been before, and what little I knew about it came from Springwatch on the telly and Mrs Archer, a 90 year old lady I used to visit on a Monday afternoon as part of some long forgotten community scheme thing at college (quite possibly it was a choice between this and PE).  Mrs A often recounted fond memories of holidays there in the castle.

Anyway – according to her and Springwatch and pretty much every other wildlife authority going, Brownsea Island is a haven for rare red squirrels.

Well, we walked every inch of that mainly woodland island (no mean feat when one is 8 months pregnant) and didn’t see a single one of the little blighters. It was a wonderful day but we left a little disheartened despite the best efforts of the other main residents, the peacocks – it’s not easy to upstage a peacock but when you’ve heard about a squirrel doing an assault course your expectations are raised somewhat. It takes more than a few pretty feathers to beat that.

Perhaps they had a word with the rest of the animal kingdom though because when our boat got back to Swanage bay we were suddenly surrounded by dolphins. Another first for me – I’ve never seen dolphins in the wild before and I certainly never expected to see them in Swanage. I had seen adverts for “dolphin watching boat trips” but assumed this was just a ruse to get the cider drinking teens away from the seafront for an hour or so. After a lifetime on, in and under the water in that bay I thought I knew it well. Kelp, yes, crabs, yes, shrimps, oh yes. Dolphins… definitely no.

But there they were, leaping through the water, playing with the other boats that came to see, and calling to each other. It was an absolutely amazing sight and felt again like something unique and special in the middle of something so familiar and ordinary.

I wonder what Swanage will have in store for us next… a Dorset branch of Selfridges would be nice.

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