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.