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.