Sunrise over Beadnell Bay in Northumberland
Sunrise over Beadnell Bay in Northumberland

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"Dolphins". . .

A short story . . .

The heather felt comfortable in the hot sunshine with a pleasant breeze wafting up the cliffs. The brilliant blue sky was reflected in the sea with bright turquoise patches above the sandy sea bed and darker blue above the seaweed covered rocks. Further out to sea the pattern of waves was crossed by smooth meandering pathways marking the currents out in the firth.

Then, there they were, about two hundred yards out from the foot of the cliff a school of seven or eight bottlenose dolphins. Their sleek bodies cut through the water in a series of arching leaps, the white surf in their wake sharp against the blue of the sea. I stared fascinated as the group made its way across the bay towards the little town of Cullen. I watched for about ten minutes until they disappeared moving out of the bay towards the far headland.

It had been a good holiday so far. Hot sunny weather every day. We had picked exactly the right fortnight to visit the Moray Firth, my sister, brother-in -law and I.

That morning we had visited the distillery at Dufftown close to the farm cottage we had rented. The distillery tour guides were students from all over Europe and our guide was a young Spanish woman (I was tempted to say "girl". She looked the same age as my daughter). But no, she was definitely a woman, otherwise I would not have been so aroused by the shape of her breast in its lacy cup under a sheer white blouse as she leaned backwards over the hand rail to point out the copper stills below.

"Stop it ", I thought. "You're turning into a dirty old man."

She explained that she was about to start her final year of an English course at a Spanish university. A Scots friend had put her onto this summer job as a tour guide.

It was the process of mashing the malted barley that started it; the memories I mean. Well not the process, it was the smell. The geminated barley is crushed in a large stainless steel vat. Three times ever hotter water is added and drained off to be fermented. When the hottest water was added pungent steam billowed from the vat with an emotive aroma that I had not encountered for forty five years.

It was the unmistakable smell of the hot mash my father used to make for his hens. I can picture him now in the kitchen standing at the stone sink under the basement window at the back of the house, filling the kettle from the single tap. When the water boiled he poured it over a mixture of potato peelings and milled cereals in a galvanised bucket and the steam carried that same aroma through the whole house. Then he would put the bucket to simmer for half an hour on one of the two gas rings on the stone slab next to the sink.

When the mash was ready we set off with it across the cobbles in front of the row of terrace houses. We walked up the lane to a footpath across the fields to the main road where my father and two friends owned a small piece of land. The hen run was on this land next to the rhubarb patch.

When we reached the hen run I stayed outside whilst my father spread the mash in a wooden trough. The hens squabbled and pecked furiously at it Whilst they were all busy feeding we checked the nesting boxes for eggs. These were put carefully in the bottom of the bucket on a handful of straw and we set off home.

Such a trivial memory really and yet it brought with it feelings of warmth and of sharing with my father that are difficult to recapture now that our experiences and views of life have moved apart over the years.

My eyes refocused on the patterns of sunlight reflected off the brilliant blue sea. I looked across at my sister and her husband sitting in the heather a few feet away straining to catch a final glimpse of the dolphins, but they were gone.

Frank Firth
August 1995.