Hilbre is a dark shape on the horizon. The gloom and a light mist have stripped it of any detail. The mist had made me think twice about making the trek over, if it comes down dense then you can get hopelessly disorientated very quickly with predictably dire consequences in this tidal zone.
But the weather forecast is set fair, unseasonably warm if it is to be believed so I decide to carry on. Confidence in my decision grows as the dawn breaks and Hilbre becomes clearer. A slight breeze nudges the mist out towards Liverpool Bay. The clouds over the mainland are starting to get a pinkish tinge, sunrise is close. I love the dawn. The beginning, the freshness, expectation. Dawn is cool. Cool Dawn. Connections and memories perk up in my mind as I walk. Cool Dawn…
Back in the late 1990’s (when music and football if not fashion was better) I was a poor(ish) student. Even though my education was unencumbered by exorbitant tuition fees I still needed some vacation employment to make ends meet. For a while I had a part time job in a betting office. I had no prior interest in horses or horseracing and I have not followed it since I left, it just seemed like a decent job for my schedule and bank balance at the time.
Over a few months I learned how to read the form and work out that this had little bearing on successfully picking a winner. As a general rule I didn’t place bets, I knew the odds of actually making money was non-existent. There is a reason why bookies drive around in flash cars and have fancy houses – people are bad at picking winners.
It was March 1998 and the Cheltenham Festival was in full swing. Posh people had taken a break from hunting foxes and shooting Hen Harriers and were instead racing horses below Cleeve Hill.
The festival was working up to the Gold Cup in the afternoon and I was casually looking through runners and riders over a brew when I saw Cool Dawn was running at 25/1. I had seen this horse a couple of times before and it had run really well, true it had been pulled up in its final race before the Gold Cup - but 25/1? Really? I fancied some of that. At lunchtime I nipped out with a crumpled fiver and spent £3 on a disappointing sandwich and stodgy cream bun leaving £2 for a bet. I placed it in a rival turf accountant on the way back to my shop. All the regulars were on See More Business so when that was carried out by a loose horse at about halfway there was much swearing and screwing up of betting slips.
I stayed quiet and watched as Cool Dawn had an untroubled passage around and, under a little pressure from Strong Promise, crossed the line into racing history, in the process making me £50 better off. I’ll never forget Cool Dawn.
On this cool dawn I fumble with the settings on the camera and eventually settling on something that seems appropriate and start the intervalometer for a sunrise time-lapse sequence.
The sun is rising over the Royal Liverpool Golf Course, it’s light spilling across the sands to Hilbre. Oystercatchers and the odd lingering Bar-tailed Godwit are preening in the channel that runs along the east side of the island. It is almost silent, a fuzzy hushing noise is just about audible from the water at tide’s edge, but that quickly fades as my brain filters out the white noise. It catches the occasional Oyc call and Redshank whistle.
As the sun climbs it starts to burn off the mist and things come into sharp focus. Clear skies overnight with a mist forming in the early hours had first encouraged, then grounded migrant birds. Two Song Thrush and a handful of Chiffchaffs are on the island. There are Wheatears too, 5 if I have counted correctly. These are what I want to photograph.
They flit up and down the west side of the island, in and out of the shadows of the slopes and outcrops. They stop every now and then to look around. I’m not sure if they are looking for danger or surveying the ground for food. Either way they are still and it is a chance to photograph them.
It is cool in the shadows, a reminder that despite the sunshine that looks set to last all day, we can’t really call time on winter yet. But the presence of Wheatears hints at a shift in season.
Spring is coming. I find a small hollow and settle into it. I poke my head up to see if the birds have come any closer. They seem to pop their heads up to see what is looking at them.
They skip and jump after flies that go buzzing past and dart at any buggy movement in the grass. Dashing on long legs towards anything that looks like a meal.
There are still deep shadows on the west side of the island, it won’t be fully illuminated for a while. One bird is flying from sunny patch to sunny patch stopping occasionally to look for danger/food on a protruding sandstone perch. It comes closer to my hollow. I put down the cinnamon bun I had been scoffing (wiping my hands on the baby wipes I remembered to add to the bag – see the Mudflat 3K mkII post for an explanation) and pick up the camera. The light on its perch is wonderful, an orangey glow, cooler than sunset light, it is dawn light. Cool dawn light.
The birds wander in and out of the grass, occasionally disappearing in the new growth. The sward greening and lengthening as the growing season slowly starts.
Click, click, click. Picture after picture of the harbingers of Spring on the island.
The shadows shrink, the air feels warm for the first time, Wheatears whirr past in pursuit of prey. I pull myself up to a sitting position, satisfied with my pictures I put down the camera and swivel to allow the sun to hit my face. I close my eyes in the glare and feel the warmth on my cheeks. Winter has been vanquished, Spring has carried the day.