Monthly Archives: February 2010

wetwalk14

28th Feb. 2010. Mid-afternoon. Air moist but rain-free, and not particularly cold, though I am well-bundled in case the north-west breeze picks up. Still walking, I dare not begin running again just yet. There has been a lot of rain, and every paddock and field has acquired glinting pools and lakes overnight. The parkland below Westwick House is a sheet of water and overflowing into a swollen Beck Brook, which is but a couple of feet from overtopping its deep-set banks. The big fields around Longstanton are as much water as land, and hundreds of gulls are swirling about or strutting by the water’s edge. I could be looking at mud-flats by the sea.

I head up the no-through road which skirts the old airfield, double fenced, bristling with warning signs, screened by a belt of low scrubby trees, and patrolled by security vehicles. I climb through the barbed-wire fence and stalk through the shelter belt, putting up bouncing rabbits. The ground underfoot is spongy and sodden. A hound barks not far off, and, for a moment, I fear I have been rumbled. But it is only the honk of a goose. The airfield is open parkland here and I come across a hidden pond, a couple of acres of deepish water, fringed with reed and bulrush. Some fifteeen black-throated Canada geese are cruising out in the open, or grazing the bank. The only other birds swimming are a handful of white-faced coot. I am surprised there are so few waterfowl as this spot seems quite undisturbed and rarely visited. I will come again.

I clamber back over the fence, through the back lane of the village, and past the black hole of the Detention Centre. The green lanes and driftways are muddy and slippery. The ditches are overflowing. It is not long before cold water seeps into my shoes. On an overhanging branch by the track there is a still, dark, squat shape. Too small for a wood pigeon. I’m sure it’s a bird but it doesn’t fly off as I expect. I raise my binoculars and only then does the shape take life and slip away over the hedgerow. It is a falcon. I scour the field to no avail, but then he appears 200 yards off flying up and away from me. Over some bungalows at the end of the lane, on the edge of Rampton village, he stops and hovers 50 feet up. It must be a kestrel, a wind-hover. From this distance I cannot see his wings move at all, it is as if he is suspended by an invisible thread, hanging in the air. He swoops away and lands on the top of a telephone pole 500 yards away. I follow but cannot get a clear sighting as he is against the light. He looks small and hunched on top of the pole. Three starlings sit on the wire not five feet from him, unperturbed – they simply ignore each other. He launches off and hovers again, facing into the wind, his splayed tail showing the distinctive black bar of a kestrel. After 20 seconds he gives up and, in frustration, scatters the starlings. He moves 100 yards down the lane, and begins to hover again, this time barely 15 feet from the ground. Then he drops straight down, and is lost to me behind a hedge. I hurry to find him, and as I get near, he rises and flips away into an orchard, dangling something slim and limp from one foot, a shrew perhaps. A successful hunt, probably the last of the day. I balance on top of a field gate, scanning the orchard. He is nowhere to be seen. Then, at the far end, I spot him in an apple-tree, just before he dips away, jinking like a peregrine, his red-brown back lit by the sun. He is only a kestrel, a small bird of prey after all, and hardly a rarity (though the first I’ve seen in this locality), yet thrilling all the same, a glimpse of the wild in this unwild place. And, as always, something of a gift.

I make my way south and homeward along a very wet Cuckoo Lane. Little Beck Brook is here like a deep grown-up river, 20 feet wide and the colour of milky tea. As I pass a lone old ash-tree by the track, there is a flap and flurry of wings like a wood-pigeon taking off. A green woodpecker undulates away, low over the field, showing its yellow-green rump. I look up into the tree, and there are three neat holes in the trunk about 15 feet up. I have discovered its nesting site. It must be the same green woodpecker I saw weeks ago in this vicinity. 200 yards further up the track are another three trees, two oaks and an ash. Again, I find woodpecker holes in the ash-tree, but none in the oaks. Perhaps the oak wood is too hard to drill. The parliament of rooks at Westwick House is in full voice as I pass in the fading light. It has been a good walk, 6 miles and my legs are fine, only a little foot-sore. And, surprisingly, not another soul about, even though it’s a Sunday.

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walkout13

26th Feb 2010. A second walk to test my knees. Mid-afternoon. It’s cold and blowy, damp in the air. The wind roars like a river through the high bare tree-tops along the brook. I meet a woman walking her dog, ‘fenland born and bred’, as round and rosy as an apple, something of a botanist. Before they ripped up the disused and overgrown railway track to make the guided busway she walked it for months recording, collecting and pressing its flowers and plants. It was a rare wild corridor in these parts. We look at it now, a bare and sterile swathe through the land. The fields round about are empty too. Full of lapwing and golden plover before they installed the bird-scarers, she tells me, and last year there was a pair of sparrowhawks in the little wood behind Westwick House.

The sky is magnificent though, layer upon layer of pink and plum and dove-grey cloud reaching into the distant blue. And here come the gulls, group after group, flying low into the face of the cold north-west wind, frolicking and gamboling like lambs, heading home somewhere far away beyond my horizon.  In the arable a lone oddling (one of Clare’s words) rook, or what I take to be a rook, catches my eye because of its strange greyish-white secondaries that unfurl when it flies. An albino of sorts.

The old medieval trackway back from Histon is muddy and slippery. 500 pigeons sit at the lower end of a huge field, all facing the westering sun. The afternoon is bright now, shining, and the land is lit. I spook them and they rise and fill the air like blown confetti. 200 yards off the track there is an old orchard, unfenced, in the middle of stubble fields. The apple-trees are overgrown, unpruned for years, each pooled below with dull black fruit like spherical droppings. The place is a thicket of brambles, and rarely visited I reckon, the best habitat around for fox, muntjac, badger, and other wild things but today I put up only a hen pheasant. A last look at the sky – indescribable loveliness – I am lost for words. They have ravaged the land… but the heavens remain.

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walkdontrun12

21st Feb.2010. My first tentative outing on foot since my knees went five weeks ago. To see how they stand up. Because, after a dismal, wet, snowy morning, the air has cleared, the sun is out and it’s a sparkling afternoon. I’ll walk it though, a couple of miles perhaps. Dozens of redwings are in the horse pasture, not bunched together at all, but spaced out evenly over the ground, the sun catching their cream and chestnut-striped breasts and smudge of red beneath their folded wings. White cloud-scribbles and criss-crossed contrails bleed into the high blue sky. Low above the eastern horizon the warmed air is blooming into cumulus pillows, precocious, presaging spring. Beck Brook is still brown and swollen within its deep-set banks, flowing quietly towards the North Sea. Not a trace of snow survives across the land. 200 yards away in the middle of a field, green with sprouting blades of wheat, two hares clock me and make for the shelter of the hedgerow, running smooth and strong. Cuckoo Lane is muddy and slippery – it would be difficult if not impossible to run on I think. Meanwhile my legs seem OK, twingeing here and there, and ankle-aching, but good enough for a walk like this. Back through the yard of Lamb’s Cross Farm as sun is close to setting. As usual, the tinny sound of a radio leaks from the dark cavern of the barn – Lady Ga-Ga this time – cold comfort for the tractors and the captive cows.

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