Monthly Archives: March 2010

dusking25

31st March, 2010. 6.00 p.m. It’s blowing a cold gale out of the north-west and the sky is full of low, driven cloud. I follow a hunch that I’ll find a buzzard out in the open paddocks to the west of the village where I’ve seen one before. I’m rewarded with two, the first time I’ve seen a pair together in these parts. For ten minutes they engage in what I can only describe as air-play. They’re not hunting, they’re just flying, cavorting, enjoying the wind in their feathers. They stay low, about 40 – 80 feet above the ground, facing the rush, beating their great wings just enough to stay in place, without being blown backwards, occasionally swooping down low, and gliding round in a loop. They look more streamlined, with more pointed wings, than the stiff, heavy, broad-winged birds of the books. In fact they are remarkably agile and buoyant. They don’t stray too far from each other, and twice they make contact in mid-air, one rolling sideways, momentarily touching talons, like two bros bumping knuckles in greeting, before peeling away.

The buzzards drift towards the airfield, and I follow them on foot. When I get there, they are mobbed by a rook and drift lazily back to the paddocks. I think they like the terrain here – it is open, there are no trees, and there are plenty of rabbits… perhaps it reminds them of moorland. I get a good look at both birds, and I’m certain that neither is the gap-tailed buzzard I’ve seen to the south of the village. If there are indeed three birds, or even two pairs, in this small district, and they manage to breed, it indicates a remarkable change in fortune – it was only in 1999 that the first breeding pair in the whole county was recorded, after the toxic disasters of DDT and myxamatosis.

I leave the buzzard grounds and work round the back of the tomato ‘farm’ – in reality a ramshackle, polythene agro-outfit running on imported plants, imported growbags, and imported East European labour. These lithe and cheerful spring migrants have yet to arrive in great numbers, but dozens of broke-down caravans are lined up out back to receive them. Just before sunset, the wind drops, the sun breaks through the cloud, and the land glows briefly. The season has been slow to turn, but everywhere leaf-buds are ready to burst with excitement. A great weeping willow beside the allotment gardens seems, from afar, to be the first and only tree to have come into full leaf, dripping long golden-green tresses almost to the ground, but close-up they turn out to be catkins not leaves, a profusion on every branch and twig. A dusk chorus breaks out, led by the blackbirds. The willow catches the last rays, flares in glory, then merges back  into the dusk.

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mornwalk24

30th March, 2010. 7 a.m. BST, 6 a.m. body-clock time. The sun has risen 20 minutes ago, but is hidden behind cloud. In fact the whole sky is overcast, a uniform silver grey. But at least it’s dry, though the ground is wet after yesterday’s rain. I head north up the concrete tramlines of the guided bus-way. Today, for the first time in months since I damaged my knees, I try a little gentle running… now and again… trotting really… 50 yards, 100 yards. A pair of Canada geese fly over at 50 feet, heading for the pond on the west side of the airfield, one conversing with the other… a slow, rhythmic  kerr-onk… kerr-onk… kerr-onk, like a child idly swinging a squeaky barn door back and forth, back and forth. Then, coming straight towards me from out of the north, is a pair of pure white mute swans, elegant in flight despite their heavy, barreled bodies, their great wings soughing through the air with each downward stroke, a sound as soft as silk. They pass on without a glance. The descending cackle of a green woodpecker or eekle echoes out over the fields. I am struck by the purposefulness of birds, their pure intent, their inscrutable comings and goings. The well-known hadith of the Prophet of Islam comes to mind:

If you really trusted in God as God should be trusted, God would sustain you as God sustains the birds – they go out in the morning hungry, and come back to rest in the evening full

There are many interpretations. For me, now, it’s this… every day’s a new day… go out each morning, and seek what’s waiting for you…  sustenance of every kind, signs, encounters, openings…. death even. But you have to be attentive to it, and open.

In a paddock down by the travellers’ mansions on the edge of Rampton, a skewbald mare, with long, dishevelled white mane and forelock, suckles a foal. The day darkens rather than lightens, and a mizzle sets in. The fields are wet underfoot, and soon my shoes are sodden. I have seen few starlings (colloquially starnels) this year, but a compact flock of some fifty is feeding in a field. They rise quickly, all together, wheeling in tight formation, and settle just as quickly, as one body. I walk on top of the high bank of New Cut hoping to see the barn owl, or the fox, that frequent these parts, but the wet is against it.

From Rampton I take the road to Cottenham. It’s eight o’clock, and the commuter traffic is almost non-stop. There is no way off the road. Barbed wire seals off fields and gates, and I am forced onto tarmac nearly all the way back to Oakington. Edging a field is a row of small scrubby trees in blossom, stars glowing white against the gloom – the earliest and indeed only wild blossom I’ve seen this year. They are myrobalans or cherry plums, Prunus cerasifera, and in the autumn I will return to collect their sharp red and yellow fruits. They were often planted as a shelter belt for orchards, and this row is the remnant of just such a one, as a few gnarled and abandoned apple-trees nearby testify. Along this stretch are one or two last remaining patches of orchard, still tended, pruned and harvested, in a district that was once full of them. From a distance, it appears that the apple-trees, incredibly, are in blossom, bathed in a pale green froth, but on closer inspection I see that each twig is covered in grey-green lichen.

It is drizzling steadily now. With no where else to go, no pavement or path, I run on the road into oncoming traffic. At Westwick, lambs and ewes are in the pasture by the brook. They’ve been out at least a week. Each lamb has been spray-painted, tagged, with a blue number. The number 18 twins are sticking close to their mother. Number 24 is lost, all by itself, and bleating. One of the number 15s is trying to eat a plastic bag. But mostly they are huddled close together under the canopy of a large tree.

It’s past nine when I get in…. a good, though uneventful, walk through the fen-edge, with a bit of running too. A shower, then breakfast, and I’m ready for work.

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eveningwalk23

27th March, 2010. Late afternoon. The sky is full of blown clouds. I climb over a field-gate to visit one of the oldest inhabitants of the village – an ash tree that lives in a pasture, all alone, in front of my house. I have no way of knowing for certain, but, judging by its girth, it must be 200 years old or more. Like many ash trees round here it has lost its head completely (possibly pollarded in the past?). One side of its massive trunk is black and spongy, half-rotted away, and its base is a hollowed-out cave just big enough to crawl into on a wet and windy night. Yet it supports great boughs of healthy wood that have grown into a new crown. Its silver roots shoulder the ground like outcrops of polished rock, or a pod of dolphins breaking water. I fear the first great storm will bring it crashing down.

A buzzard quarters the south fields, not high, perhaps 50 feet, then 100 feet, stalls against the steady breeze, then turns and surfs fast on the rushing wave of air, passing directly overhead. I am looking straight up, neck bent back, and nearly lose my balance. It has a gap in its flaring tail, missing feathers, and a conspicuous, large brown patch on its left-side underwing. I should be able to recognise it again. It is only when we begin to know them as individuals that wild creatures become our companions, our fellow travellers.

I walk the bank of Beck Brook, scanning the water for signs of life, hoping to catch again a glimpse of eel. But in 500 yards I see nothing – no fish, no eels, no voles, no insects, nothing. There are various types of water plants swaying in the gentle flow, but no visible creatures. I find this puzzling. Many of the winter-fallow fields have been ploughed and harrowed this past week, transforming silver stubble into smooth, raked, seed-tilth the colour of ochre. But along each edge of these fields is a strip of stunted grass, of a strange chemical colour, red and orange. My first thought is of herbicide, weed-killer. If so, how much is washing into the brook?

Evening presses in as a light shower unlocks the earth’s scents. I cut westwards towards the A14, then north, then east to Long Stanton. The fields too are empty today. In 4 miles I see only pheasants, partridges, rooks and wood pigeons – though rabbits are with me all the way. Night falls fast, and the last straggling rooks lurch back to base camp.

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springramble22

24th March, 2010. A fine, warm, hazy afternoon. Several bright yellow brimstones flit along the hedgerows of the pastures on the edge of the village (though not the first I’ve glimpsed – one meandered through the garden two days ago). I decide to go where I have not been before and head out towards the south-west. I stop and talk to John, working his allotment – “Greensand – it’s alright if you hit it right”. Denims with big turn-ups, baseball cap, camouflage jacket. He tells me there are red deer near here. That’s a surprise …. though he seems to knows his onions.

I strike off down a farm track which leads past acres of empty aluminium-framed tunnels, disrobed and open to the sky. Further on they are planted with rows of unpruned raspberry canes. A final section is plastic-wrapped and under cultivation – baby strawberry plants in thousands of gro-bags, slung precariously between piled-up plastic crates. No high-tech, computer-controlled, automated horticulture here. This is a slapdash, shoestring operation. And, surprisingly, there’s not a soul in sight. Behind the tunnels is a wastelend of discarded plastic sheeting. A mile away, across a green desert of sprouting winter wheat, a never-ending slurry of traffic sluices along the A14.

I head south beside a long hedgerow, heading up to the village of Girton. The buds of blackthorn are just showing green, and elder thrusts out tiny fists of leaves. On the other side of the hedge are the close-clipped fairways and greens of a golf course, with waste-bins placed thoughtfully near each teeing ground. On my side, round, white, dimpled eggs nestle here and there amongst the green blades of wheat. I pick them up and soon have pocketfuls of golf-balls. I don’t know why, I have no use for them at all, and know no-one who plays the game. There is a noticeable absence of birds in the great fields, but a pair of lapwings make up for it with a joyous, flamboyant, aerobatic display. Reaching Girton I am desperate for water but, in mid-afternoon, the village shop and both pubs are closed. I cut across towards Histon on a cindered foot-path that runs beside Beck Brook. Here we are upstream and the brook is more like a gutter in deep-set banks, with barely-flowing water. I leave the path and follow the water all the way back to Oakington through open fields. It slowly gathers strength and vitality, fed by field drains. Some sections are four feet wide and gravel-bottomed, about a foot deep, with gently undulating weed. The water looks clear, but I dare not drink it. I scan it for signs of life, but see nothing. Then, further on, there is a disturbance. A slick brown muscle is writhing and slithering on the surface of the water, where the weed is thickest. I cannot see a head, nor dorsal fin. It is, I guess, an inch thick and about a foot long but I cannot see the whole of it. As I try to get closer, it and another one nearby give a final startled thrash and disappear under the weed. Are there eels in little Beck Brook? This discovery throws a whole new light on our one and only watercourse.

I’m too warm, and stop to shed some clothes. Only then do I appreciate the extra weight I’ve been hauling. My pockets are bulging with golf-balls. I hadn’t realized quite how many I’d picked up. But I can’t just chuck them down, in the middle of nowhere … can I? It doesn’t seem right.  So I shoulder my burden and trudge on. A large bird settles in a bare hedgerow tree half a mile off. It is a buzzard. The first time I’ve seen one on this side of the village. As soon as I stop and raise the binoculars, it’s away. It flies unhurriedly and disappears over the trees at Westwick House, putting up hundreds of pigeons from the fields beyond. I find myself on the wrong side of the stream. There is no bridging point nearby and the banks are too steep and densely vegetated to try a flying leap, fully-loaded as I am. I really don’t want to wade it. I find a sturdy branch and throw it across. It holds, and I clamber up the further bank, through thick undergrowth, to emerge on the village rec, startling several mums and kiddies in the playground.

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springwalk21

21st March, 2010. First day of (astronomical) spring, and a fine, blue, shiny Sunday morning it is. Contrails stretch like bunting across the sky. I head west through the village into the prairie fields towards the A14, lawns of winter wheat as far as eye can see. No paths or tracks here, I follow ditches and hedges, hoping for a break. Every bank is riddled with rabbit holes. They scatter this way and that. Two palm-sized kits are scrapping in the sun, running at each other, leaping into the air, arm-wrestling. A buzzard cruises over the hedge and circles round, not 20 feet from the ground. A kill lies at the edge of the field – a smallish rabbit – several days old, head and neck untouched and staring at the sky, tail erect, belly cleaned out, exposing white ribs and backbone. Skylarks chase each other up into the firmament. I pluck a sprig of pussy willow and lodge it in my button-hole as a symbol of spring.  Deciding to make my way back through the old airfield, I clamber through the fence. I know the gaps now. There is a lot of waterfowl activity on the lake, but I can’t get near enough to get a good look. A black security truck prowls slowly round the perimeter road, stopping yards from where I’m hunkered down in leaves and mud and fresh green shoots. I edge round a tree to keep out of sight as it moves off at snail’s pace.  In the open parkland beyond I spot a fox, sauntering about in the sun. I like the irony – he is a lot less wary (and fearful) than I am.

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dawncroak

20th March, 2010. Dawncroaker regrets that he will not be going into the fields today due to a throat infection. Which gives me the opportunity to have a little rant…. or croak, as I prefer to call it. With the vernal equinox due to occur at exactly 17.32 today we move, astronomically speaking, into Spring. From now on our days will be longer than our nights. A cause for joy surely, like the ancient Persian Nowruz or New Year Festival which will be celebrated today by millions across Iran, Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia. A time of re-birth, re-growth and renewal. Perhaps. But I, for one, regret more the passing of winter. I love winter, and for me, this winter has not been hard enough, cold enough, snowy enough, or long enough. I just love log-fires, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, snow, ice on ponds. Yes, I know that some people suffered this winter – the elderly, hill-farmers, flood-victims – but why, oh why, do so many unaffected people complain about it? It may have been the coldest for 30 years, but round here at least, it was, for most people, let’s face it, a doddle…. having to scrape a little ice off the windscreen, perhaps, or crank up the central heating. For some creatures, too, it may have been tough, but being smarter, if they can’t hack it, they tend to migrate or hibernate. Much was made of the revival this winter of fen-skating at Earith just up the road. But only two generations back it was possible to skate on the Cam all the way from Cambridge to Ely, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, skating matches were held in towns and villages all over the Fens. They had real winters then. As far as I’m concerned, the next one can’t come soon enough… bring it on!

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dawnwalk20

18th March, 2010. It’s 4.30 a.m., dry, and surprisingly mild. The sky is a sombre, pale indigo, with not a star nor moon in sight. At ground level, beyond the street-lights, I can’t see a thing. I have to trust my feet to find the way. If I happen to cross paths with the so-called fen tiger itself I’d never know it (this elusive beast – a large, dark, feline creature, much larger than a domestic cat – was filmed nearby just off the Oakington road in Cottenham in 1994, and reported by two police-officers at neighbouring Westwick the following year). I’m not at all sure why I’m out here at this hour. My head aches and my throat is raw. The monotonous noise-loop of traffic out on the highway is amplified in the night-silence, contaminating the land for miles around. A greenish glow hovers over Cambridge to the south.

At 5 exactly the first blackbird strikes up but the dawn chorus is reluctant today. Out in the fields it is a distant and desultory affair. Cock pheasants crank up and peter out. My passing flushes many from their roosts in trees and hedgerows. I make my way across fields to the old orchard, and settle down under an apple-tree to await the dawn. It doesn’t happen. Cloud layers in the south-east momentarily flush pink against mauve but the sun fails to show. It’s a dull and misty start to the day. Newly-ploughed fallow, the colour of milk chocolate, releases its odour into the morning. I walk the old track towards Rampton in search of some life, but even the barn radio at Lamb’s Cross Farm is unplugged at this hour. The cattle are bedded down in the yard, still and silent. Further on, four male runners run up behind me and pass by with a mumbled ‘g-morning’. They don’t look at all happy. They will scare off any creatures along the stream, so I turn down the drove towards home. The sky has imperceptibly lightened. A fresh breeze blows up from the south-west and I begin to feel cold. I am underdressed and hatless. I wish I had stayed in bed.

And then, as has happened so many times before, I am taken by surprise. I have two close encounters, one after the other. First, on the track, not 40 yards away, looking straight at me, is a brown hare. I have previously seen them only from a great distance, in the middle of fields. We stare at each other, unmoving, for a good few seconds. Through the bins I look into the face of an ancient and mysterious creature. There is something of the kangaroo about it, its stance, the way it carries itself. Its ears are indeed enormously long and pointed, black inside. Its fur is thick, coarse-looking, greyish, mottled. Deciding I am no threat, it moves unhurriedly into the sprouting arable beside the track, sniffs and paws the ground a bit, then moves off at a slow lope on long ungainly hind limbs. This is no mad March hare, leaping and boxing in intoxicated ‘hare-brained’ love, but a treat all the same, for they have declined by more than 80% during the past 100 years, and in some parts of the country have disappeared altogether.

Then, in the rough grass inside the old airfield, ambling towards me, is an animal the size of a thick-set boxer dog. It is a muntjac or barking deer. It heads straight towards me, and as I am downwind, is oblivious to my presence. I crouch and watch it through the binoculars. Again, I have seen one in the garden two years ago, grazing on fallen acorns, and occasionally crossing the road at night, and as roadkill, but never close-up in the daytime. It is by no means an elegant deer. It is stocky, with a somewhat hunched appearance, its haunches being higher than its withers. This one is grey-brown with what look like scars on its flanks. It is a buck, with two, short, backward-pointing antlers, and two black lines running down its forehead. We are separated by a ditch and a few strands of barbed wire. It passes to the side of me, walking slowly, head down, perhaps 12 yards away. It is soon downwind of me, and, sniffing the breeze, catches my scent immediately and disappears into the hedgerow. Muntjac are aliens from China, now naturalized over most of southern England and Wales, preferring forest and woodland habitat. To see one out in the open like this is, I believe, unusual. I wouldn’t have thought there is enough woodland or scrub around here to support them. They’d make a fine meal for a fen tiger.

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dawnsaunter19

15th March, 2010. 6 a.m. Striated sky, sun risen, but diffused by cloud. The road hisses with early morning commuter traffic. The rooks at Westwick House are busy building. There is a great hubbub, and much to-ing and fro-ing. Every bird, it seems, has a twig in its beak. I watch one carry a stick about a half-mile to its nest, even though the ground near at hand is littered with them. But what do we know? Birds are active in the bushes and hedgerows – among the less common (round here, at least, so far this year) I note songthrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tit (Clare calls them bumbarrels) and yellowhammer, along with many unidentifiable, brownish flitty ones (twite? corn bunting?). In the middle of an expanse of arable far away are two hares which lope away on spotting me. They are very wary of humans, and uncommon here it seems, this being only my second sighting this year. I follow Beck Brook / New Cut towards Rampton, and put up at least four different pairs of mallard from the stream. A last group consists of two males and a female. Invariably they give themselves away by quacking loudly on take-off, and invariably it is the female that leads them in their wide, circular arc of a flight. A heron lifts off from the steep inner bank of the waterway, followed closely by a ghostly pale barn owl in much the same place as I saw one 9 days ago. It must be the same bird, or its mate, and as it flies away from me, it is clear that its back is more sandy-orange than I had noticed before. It flies low along the edge of a field, silently, with big slow wingbeats, and eventually disappears into an ivy-clad tree. It is past seven, the sun is now out, and it is a bright, shiny day, so this is my second sighting here of a barn owl in broad daylight. It seems they are not purely nocturnal or crepuscular. A greater spotted woodpecker dashes from a thicket and hides behind a tree. In the last piece of pasture before the Rampton-Cottenham road are hundreds of winter migrant fieldfare scattered evenly over the field, all engaged in that curious start-stop fieldfare routine – three or four steps forward, then stock still in an upright stance for a few seconds, then forward again. A kestrel swoops down from a telephone pole and glides right across the field above the fieldfare, a couple of feet from the ground, scattering them one after another. They are not unduly alarmed and the kestrel makes no attempt at a kill. He is just having fun it seems. I turn back through the village, and up Cuckoo Lane, before branching off towards the guided busway and home. Two lapwings are cavorting and swooping and dashing and changing direction abruptly in a mesmerizing aerial display. Skylarks are in full voice over the airfield (collectively known as an exaltation, which is just brilliant),  their last brief season before the bulldozers and the builders move in.

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walk/run18

13th March, 2010. 7 a.m. A dull look to the day, overcast, like beaten pewter, but mild. I go east, and work anti-clockwise around the old airfield. Instead of watching the landscape, and being alert to peripheral flutters and flurries, I try to focus on sound. This is no dawn chorus, played out earlier, just the everyday morning soundscape of the sub-rural fringe. In the foreground, of course, the usual trilling songsters – today they are blackbird, robin, great tit, chaffinch and song thrush – punctuated from afar by the strident calls of rook, and murmurings of sore-throated wood pigeon. There is a great deal more going on, only we are half-deaf to the natural sounds around us and have all but lost the skills to identify or describe them. Even the bird books struggle with inadequate onomatopoeic jibberish. How to describe now, for example, the unique, staccato, fly-by volley fired off by a gang of jackdaws, or the curious grinding noises made by roosting starlings, as if they were chewing on grit? Out in the open, I am thrilled to hear, especially at this early, sombre hour, the sustained liquid outpouring of skylarks high in the air. The great lid of cloud has been blown southward and the northern half of the sky is now clear. The day brightens. The laughing cackle of a green woodpecker (called also, in various dialects, eccle, hewhole, highhoe, laughing bird, popinjay, rain bird, yaffle, yaffil, yaffler, yaffingale, yappingale, yackel, and woodhack, many of which are clearly onomatopoeic; see eekle on Land-Words page) reaches me from far away, and at the far end of the old airfield a group of lapwings are cavorting and swooping on broad blunt wings, whistling their far-reaching, plaintive two-note calls. Out on the watery flats beyond, gulls cry. The farmyard track on the edge of Long Stanton wheezes gently with collared doves. And below all these top-notes, the near sounds and far sounds, the ones we know and the ones we don’t know, is the deep, dark, rumbling substrate of A14 traffic, several miles to the west, all day and all night, like a dull, persistent ache that once recognised refuses to go away.

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walkabout17

6th March, 2010. It being a Saturday, I decide to go for a longer walk. 10 miles, 5 hours – with many distractions along the way. In the large pasture on the edge of the village, where yesterday I counted 160 fieldfare and redwing, there are no birds at all. Different day, different time of day (it is midday), different weather – today is cloudier, with a fairly cold northerly breeze, though it is bright and lovely, and warm when the sun breaks through. There are certainly fewer birds about, and less song. I head north up the guided busway.

A flicker at the edge of vision makes me stop. From the end of a 4-inch diameter corrugated plastic drain-pipe, sticking out of the embankment on which the busway has been laid, is a little brown face with a wet, pink nose and white chin. The face cranes round to look straight at me, dark ears erect. It is a stoat… or a weasel. Without seeing its tail I can’t tell the difference. It retreats deep into the pipe. It is a perfect hide-out from which to survey the killing fields below. I like the way it has appropriated this random human artefact, made it its own.

Further on, an exaltation of skylarks fills the sky, trilling ecstatically without let from high up in the blue, wings a-quivering. At times they hover and glide like miniature kestrels with wings held out and tails splayed, showing white outer feathers. Then they cease their singing and plunge headfirst towards the earth like kamikaze pilots, wings folded, pulling up at the last moment and landing nonchalantly near their mates. These are males … consummate performers, show-offs … larking about. The skylark is red-listed, its numbers having halved in the last 40 years due to the growing practice of sowing crops in autumn rather than spring, so it is good to see them here.

In the grass at the edge of the airfield sit 7 lapwings, dark green above and white below, the first I’ve seen here, but they are skittish and rise quickly on rounded wings, crying out their country name, a plaintive and penetrating pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit. These too have seen a catastrophic crash in numbers over past decades.

I turn into Rampton Drove and spot a wind-hover, not 200 yards from where I saw one a few days ago so it is doubtless the same bird, or its mate. I follow it for 20 minutes, as it works the stubble. It hovers some 20 feet up and coasts to the ground frequently, up and down, up and down, occasionally perching on posts. It doesn’t stoop, and makes no kill. A pair of partridge explode under my feet, whirring off like clockwork toys, kicking up a fuss.

I head further north, up the medieval trackway called Haven Drove that is a continuation of Cuckoo Lane. It is a broad green way, built up above the level of the surrounding fields and partly hedged. On one side, far from any road, lies a pile of fly-tip which stops me in my tracks – it consists of toddlers shoes, velcro-strapped, little plastic wellies, baby clothes, some broken trucks, plastic toys and a large, naked, blue-eyed doll with articulated joints, staring up at me. Why kids’ stuff and nothing else? Why would anyone want to haul it all the way up here and dump it? It could all quite easily fit into a bin. There is something very sad about this particular pile of junk, so carelessly discarded.

Dozens of fieldfares, all grey rumps and black tails, loop ahead of me from tree to tree, chattering like blackbirds. They are heading north. The trackway passes straight through the middle of Belsar’s Hill, an Iron Age earthwork that once guarded the causeway that led over the fen to Aldreth on the higher ground beyond. Tradition has it that it was the Conqueror’s HQ in his disastrous campaign against Hereward the Wake. It is hardly a hill, more a large oval embankment with an outer ditch, still showing clearly in the fields though now much worn down. I leave the ancient causeway for another day, and head back. I walk on long, straight, lonely one-lane roads, raised above the fields, linking one isolated farmstead to another. This is wide open country, ditched not hedged, with big skies and far horizons. Fenced paddocks, horses, newly ploughed ground.

Back in the village of Rampton, I decide not to take the same, more direct, way back, but a slightly different longer route, even though I am hungry and footsore. I’m glad I did. I’m walking on the high embankment beside New Cut, the downstream continuation of Beck Brook, here fully canalized, looking out beyond a smaller ditch onto a narrow pasture edged by a strip of woodland that backs onto houses. A dark, indistinct, animal shape some 200 yards off catches my eye. Through the binoculars it condenses and sharpens into a magnificent dog-fox. The second in two days, in broad daylight, and in much the same circumstances. He is trotting along the edge of the field, stopping to sniff here and there, lifting a leg to mark his territory. He is in show-dog condition, with a thick coat of fur, reddish flanks and head, dark ears, greyish down the back, white underparts, throat and muzzle, and a great bushy white-tipped brush. I settle down on the bank and watch. He sits down at the woodland edge and watches. The watched becomes the watcher. We are about 100 yards apart, though I am above him. He knows I am here. Perhaps the glint of lens has alerted him. He moves off, but turns to look at me once again. He is not sure. Again he moves off, and turns. I get up to follow, and he dives into cover.

During this walk I have crossed paths with only a handful of people – a family taking the air, a woman walking her dogs, a lad cantering a horse, and a dozen or so hard-core cyclists. A little further on I meet Farmer Giles. He is out training his new gundog. He is stout, large-headed, unshaven and ruddy-faced, a local man. Mother born in Oakington, father in Cottenham. Farmers for generations. His ‘farm’ is dispersed over several parishes – a field here, a field there, all down to arable. His pleasure lies in shooting – rabbit, partridge, pheasant. He is unimpressed by my fox – ‘bloomin’ critturs’, but he won’t be drawn further on this apparent prejudice. I suspect it is because they are both hunters and in competition, both lovers of pheasant flesh.

New Cut / Beck Brook

There is a final gift to come, bestowed out of the blue. A large white bird with big slow wingbeats is being buffeted by the wind, which has swung round to the east and is now blowing steadily. It is making its way slowly upstream, buoyant, wavering, hovering, now 50 feet, now 20 feet above the bank, looping back on itself, as if looking for something lost. At first I take it for a gull or an egret, but it is the wrong shape. I can barely believe it when I focus. It is an owl, a barn owl, on the hunt, on a bright and sunny afternoon. Moreover it appears to be almost pure white. It passes close above, and I get a long good look. That distinctive, blunt, wedge-shaped silhouette formed by the outsized heart-shaped face and small tapering body. Large white wings. White body, above and below, with only the faintest streaks of marmalade-orange on the top of its head and on its upper back. And the blackest of eyes, shining, that look straight at me as it passes. It flies about 100 yards upstream, then turns and makes its way back the way it came, slowly, following the water. It doesn’t land. So conspicuous is its whiteness against the land I can track it from afar, until it is but a speck in the distance. As far as I know, tawny owls are more common here (though I have only heard them calling, at night), so it is a real privilege to watch, not merely glimpse, the rarer barn owl, in the middle of an afternoon, and a very pale form at that. It is, to me, something quite out of the ordinary, probably never to be repeated. I take it as a special blessing.

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