As a cold easterly whips the Northumberland coast, the blood-orange ball of the setting sun seems to be crashing slowly into Budle Bay, turning the river that meanders through the sand and mudflats into liquid fire. We are meant to be hurrying back to the car, but I come over a brow on Budle Point to find my partner sitting rapt on a bench, all sense of haste dissipated before the spectacle.
I join her. As people often do when watching sunsets, we slip into a reverent silence, as if observing a ceremony. Though the outcome of the ritual is predictable, the progression towards it is never the same. As the land darkens, the brilliance of the setting sun is amplified in the sinuous tracery of water, the wind picks up, and the clouds are edged with flame: earth, air, fire and water all momentarily aligned. The collision of elements seems appropriate for the transitional nature of the season – a rite of autumn.
The glory of the sunset is so absorbing that for a minute or two I hardly notice the living movements and sounds of the bay. In the reddening skies, congregations of gulls are appearing from different directions inland and drifting down to mass together in huge numbers on the flats and shallows. Looking through binoculars, I see currents of birds streaming over each other like aerial traffic above the fluid sandscape of the estuary.
The clamour of the gulls forms a wide white noise that sounds homogeneous and distant at first. But as my ears become attuned, the mass of sound reveals further layers, depths and details. I travel over the estuary by ear, picking up the calls of greylag geese, lapwing, ringed plover and others that I cannot identify, many no doubt on migratory journeys.
A curlew appears from somewhere above us and flies into the bay. Its looping, bubbling call joins the others but still remains distinct, the loveliest voice in a dusk chorus of tens of thousands of birds from near and far, as captivating a sound as the sunset is a sight.