28 SEPTEMBER 2002, Page 38

The castle of snoring owls and laughing ospreys


Ido like to stay in a castle. Nothing grand. I have no desire to put up at Balmoral or Inverary. Blair Atholl or Castle Howard. with footmen striding, chambermaids tripping down the corridors, port-sipping and gunroom chatter after the ladies retire from the mahogany, and a general air of uneasy Edwardianism. But I do like to be surrounded by ancient stones, once capable of defying the crossbow and mangonel, even cannonades. I relish arrow-slits, the grooves in which drawbridges once slid, massive oak and iron-studded doors, even if now creakily opened by electric eyes; strange glimpses of dungeons from bathroom windows, the faint but unmistakable whiff of mediaeval fear, as ravens croak a fatal entrance under the battlements. And not only croaking birds but 'the temple-haunting martlet'. as Banquo puts it, 'no jutty, frieze, buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle'.

Best of all, to give a sound dimension to a silent castle and bring the past to life with their muffled music, are owls. I love owls at any time: tawnys and eagle owls, long-ears and short-ears. little owls and pygmy owls, tengmalms and Scops owls and snowies, even nightjars which are not so different. I rejoiced, at the Rothermeres' last Christmas party, to see a party of tame owls brought to liven up the occasion; including a gigantic eagle owl, whose fierce tufty eyebrows and large, deep, black-circled orange eyes, blazing fury, belied a friendly security which permitted one to stroke his mottled feathers. Strange to think that this warm, convivial monster was quite capable of killing brother owls that stray on to his territory, and whose booming, deep-throated 000-hu and loud kvek-kwa and kwa-kwa-lcwa strike terror into any hawk below the size of a buzzard.

But owls are at their best around a castle. It is, if not their natural, their just and poetic habitat. The castle I stay at during my visits to the Lake District is perfect owl territory. It is half-ruinous: that is, the habitable Georgian section, still grappled together by mediaeval walls bedded in the great rock overlooking the confluence of two dramatic rivers, abuts directly on the ruins, unused since the Civil War. These tower aloft to a great height, massive arched windows punctuating their ashlar walls, but their grimness and dark secrets have been civilised by ingenious gardening. The floors of the old guardrooms, solars and halls have become lawns fringed by delicious borders; flowering shrubs and rare trees and plants spring joyfully from every gap in the stony fragments, and the whole ruinous edifice is alive with colour, rich in foliage, heavy with the scent of blossom, full of bees and butterflies. It is a mingled paradise of the martial and horticultural arts, in which to scramble and ponder, read and sketch, sip cool liquids and gossip, as the shadows lengthen and the sun-splendour falls. No wonder Turner painted here so often: it has exactly his blend of man and nature.

This year, to cap it all, what was the wellpreserved and evocative kitchen of the castle has been chosen by a history-conscious owl to build its nest in a big crack between the high stones. It is. moreover, a barn owl, my favourite kind, and a bird of great charm and beauty. Its heart-shaped facial disc is pure white from which deep black eyes gaze at you steadily. Seen from above, its impressive wingspan is covered in pale buff bars, but you usually sec it from underneath, which is entirely white, body and wings. It is not solely a night bird, but hunts also on summer afternoons to feed its nestlings, and we caught magic glimpses of it wheeling and soaring in and out of the castle ruins. It has a nasal hiwit or twi-wit, most satisfying to hear, and its chicks positively snore, as many young owls do, though whether they are asleep or awake when they make this fascinating noise I have never discovered. At all events, it was a delight to see the handsome bird making itself and family at home. A half-ruined but habitable castle is a splendid dwelling-place at all times, but one with an owl and its snoring brood is God-blessed and complete.

Why have owls always been regarded as wise? Is it the intensity of their gaze, penetrative, unblinking, from which hesitation or ambivalence seem wholly absent? Owls are astonishingly well equipped by nature as relentless hunting machines. The face-disc, which seems to radiate certitude, is broad to accommodate exceptionally large and efficient eyes which can remain immobile for long periods to permit patient observation. An owl can turn its head 180 degrees to either side and thus has all-round vision. It is binocular and so sees in depth and can calculate distances with great accuracy. By moving its head away from the central plane, the owl increases its depth perception. I have heard it said that owls are colour-blind and cannot see at all in bright light. Neither is true, particularly of the barn owl, which needs colour vision for its daytime hunting and can certainly see better than humans, acquiring acute light-sensitivity by enlarging its retina (each pupil operates independently). Owls have a ruff. Like the big eyes, it enhances the appearance of wisdom but is also a feathery mechanism, one of several the creature possesses, to concentrate, separate and analyse sounds. This means that certain species of owls can hunt in total darkness, simply by receiving tiny give-away sounds (like a rodent treading for a microsecond on a dry leaf) and locating them with pinpoint accuracy. The owl can detect whether the prey is coming towards or away from him by hearing alone, and thus can calculate the speed of its progress, so that the swoop puts its large, powerful and sharp central talon right on top of the target. Our soldiers, operating with the latest night-vision equipment, cannot aim with this degree of efficiency because they lack portable radar. The owl's brilliant co-ordination of aural and visual systems is made possible by a large brain, another sign of wisdom which our forebears spotted.

Having studied the barn owl I was still more fortunate in my recent castle visit. I descended its ancient motte and rocky perch to take up a position by the fastflowing river where Turner painted (and, you may care to know, Bing Crosby delighted to fish). Clattering over the stones by the rapids. I disturbed a great bird, which rose up in outraged indignation, swooped and soared off at high speed to the neighbouring wood. I thought at first it was an unusually large seagull, for the underparts and breast were brilliant white. But this was no gull: far from it. It was bigger than a buzzard, as big as an eagle, and when it finally perched to give me an unblinking stare of concentrated hatred, I realised from its hawkish profile it could only be an osprey. I watched for several minutes but it did not move. It was waiting for me to go, to resume fishing. By now I had a new neighbour: an exceptionally beautiful heifer, whose name was Arabella, according to a tag on her ear. Curiosity had brought her close, and she fluttered her long eyelashes at me. I resumed painting, concentrating hard to master the rapids. Suddenly I heard a crunching sound, and turned to see Arabella making off with a mouthful of my best brushes. Enough to make an osprey laugh.