Monthly Archives: April 2010


April 27th, 2010. Heard the first cuckoo of the year, calling its name, at 8 this morning in the lulls between traffic. About a mile away, towards the brook. A rich, resonant, far-reaching two-note call repeated over and over, the quintessential sound of spring, as if the season had been distilled in an oak barrel and was now spilling over (spring overwhelms, and writers must be forgiven for indulging in a little purple prose or hyperbole at this time). In the late afternoon I take a long, slow, circuitous ramble to Histon, with many still stops, reaching into the evening.

The brook, and the two rivulets that feed into it locally, is barely flowing. Except in the shallowest parts the water seems hardly to move. So dry has the weather been for some weeks that the water-level has dropped by almost a foot, exposing bare mud below banks lush with growth. The water, curiously, is now a dull yellowish brown. Aquatic plants and rushes are growing apace and threaten to cover the surface completely in places. In the more open stretches tiny fish in ragged groups dart here and there, like kids in a schoolyard, and whirlygigs send concentric ripple-rings over the surface. There’s no sign of my snake.

Spring’s in full flush. In gardens and orchards pink apple blossom of some early varieties has opened in the last day or two, and horse-chestnuts are lighting their candles. Paths and tracks are sprinkled white with the fallen petals of blackthorn, like the aftermath of a wedding. Field verges and banks of the ditches and brook are now knee-deep in stinging nettles, deadnettles, cow parsley, hedge garlic, all sorts of grasses, and unknown burgeoning greenery. I wade through it all, releasing chlorophyll scents. Most shrubs and trees are now in leaf (except for the oak and the ash, perhaps, of which more anon). To me the loveliest of new leaves are the glossy, coppery hearts-hanging-down of the black poplars lining the brook, and the downy ivory-green butterfly wings of the whitebeam. Against all this abundance of bright, fresh greenstuff they are a welcome sight. How quickly we get used to green.

The gathering foliage renders birds and other creatures all but invisible. Except for the butterflies, more conspicuous now. They are hardly abundant, but several Small Whites, Orange Tips, and Peacocks cruise up and down the bank where I’m sitting, the latter resembling small bats with their dark brown underwings and fast, flitty flight. One alights on the back of my hand and rests awhile, spreading its gorgeous rusty-red, eye-spotted wings in the sun. The upper forewings of the male Orange-Tip are dipped in rich orange, ostentatious in flight, but when it stops to sip nectar it folds its wings upward to reveal pale, mottled, gauzy underwings which blend with the blossoms it feeds on. You’d never know it was there. White-bummed bumblebees barrel through the air and a mist of midges cavorts over the water. Suddenly, the lower air is alive.

In a tiny island of mature trees, fallen boughs and thick undergrowth in the midst of vast fields, I provoke a sudden, unfamiliar alarm call. Looking up, I see it is a great spotted woodie, ‘great’ being somewhat misleading, as this one is only the size of a starling. It is great only in relation to its middle spotted and little spotted cousins. It has no crimson nape, which means it’s a female, but, still, it is confusingly small for the species. Perhaps it’s a juvenile, though the season’s against it. I have come to realize that there are variations within species that don’t match the airbrushed pictures in bird books. I watch the woodpecker for some time, as it works round bare branches with desultory tapping. I want it to ‘drum’, but it fails to perform.

Further on, in a great field of green wheat below Histon, my attention is caught by a pale form gliding into the crop. At first I take it for a female pheasant, but when it rises I see it is a hawk, clutching a catch in one claw. It is, I’m certain, a sparrowhawk, the first I’ve ever seen anywhere. It flies with rapid, shallow wing-beats low over the field then rises up to perch on top of a telephone pole where it hunches to tear flesh and feathers. For a full twenty minutes it eats with calm deliberate bites, then straightens up and broods over its territory. It is a long way away, at least 500 yards, and I need to get closer. The pole is in the middle of the cornfield but I figure that if I walk round to the other side I will be a little nearer, and moreover, the sun will be at my back, giving me a clearer view. So I set off, with one eye on the hawk. It is a long trudge around three sides of a square and, almost inevitably, the hawk absconds before I get there and disappears over a horizon of trees. It is gone.

But, instead, I meet Edouard, an engaging young man being walked by four handsome, pure-bred huskies with unnerving blue eyes and a touch of the wolf. Born and brought up in Spain, of English parentage, he is over here to gain an education of sorts. Not willing to be parted from his beloved childhood companions, he has brought his dogs with him. They are on long retractable leashes and at times they threaten to turn him into a maypole. Being up close to these no-ordinary creatures is some consolation, I suppose, for the loss of a hawk.

Up in the old woods that once belonged to the manor of Histon I hug an ancient, hollow-trunked oak that I’ve visited before (see picture in mornwalk26). It is 4 hugs round at chest height – that’s a girth of just under 23 feet or just short of 7 meters – which roughly translates to 500 years by my reckoning. The longevity of trees is truly humbling. It is no wonder that some people worship them. If you’re going to worship a living, created being,  it might as well be an old tree such as this. It’s outlived everything else. It has endured. Actually this particular veteran, surely the oldest on my patch, is marked on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree map, with a girth of just 6.3 meters. Next time I’ll bring a measuring tape. It is, I notice, in leaf, in the process of leafing at least, the first oak I’ve seen to be leafing, and this is significant, as I’ll explain in some later post, for predicting the weather this year.

I arrive back in my village in the late slanting evening to a susurration of pigeons, swallows swooping, church bells ringing, and the bleating of ewes, while a gang of their offspring career madly round the meadow playing follow-my-leader. The epitome of springtime in England. It’s a truly glorious evening… that is, one full of glory, glorifying… glorifying the Creator, the Divine.

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earlywalk 34

25th April, 2010. Sunday. Some days bring no special favours or encounters. I leave the house at 5.30 a.m. and make my way north along the guided-busway, then cut across a field and follow the brook to the village of Rampton. Coming back I retrace my steps, more or less. The sky is cast over and stays like that, for the first time in weeks. No sun then, though it is exceptionally mild. In the distance a light mist carpets the land. The dawn chorus lingers, but I hear (and see) only the usual denizens. Not to dismiss them at all, these commonplace creatures, but to list them again and again would be tedious. I must, though, mention the jenny wren (or kitty wren in Clare’s vernacular speech), usually the shyest and most retiring of birds, sitting on top of a gate-post in full view of the world, singing its heart out – a high, thin trickle of notes that barely carries across the lane – its chest puffed out like an opera singer’s, trembling with each weedy, defiant outburst.

The early light reveals a network of well-used animal runs or paths, not so conspicuous in the full light of day or in bright sunshine. They lead through fields, up and down banks, and across watercourses, worn by the feet of wild creatures themselves, according to their own mysterious ways. Claw marks in the mud suggest badgers but I’ve not seen any hereabouts, nor found a sett. They are no doubt used also by foxes, muntjac, hedgehogs, stoats, rabbits and rats, at one time or another. But who first blazed the trail, and what rules of the road apply here? Are those using them immune from predation, protected by some sort of code? One thing is certain – they get wet when crossing the brook.

Birch, whitebeam, sycamore, field maple, plane and some species of willow are all fleshing green, whilst individual ash trees are just breaking leaf and others are not. On the banks of the guided-busway the nodding, pale yellow cowslip is in flower (Clare’s cowslap or paigle), believed to be the favourite flower of nightingales which are supposed to only frequent places where cowslips grow (though I saw none today, nor ever have), as is garlic mustard or jack-by-the-hedge – both of which are edible and medicinal plants. In this year of discovering or, better, uncovering the place where I live, I think I must eat from it too – foliage, fruits, roots, flesh – to taste of its minerals and treat from its storehouse of medicines, so now I must learn how to forage, with due care and respect.

Now is a good time to reflect on this quest. With 34 forays so far, and about a third of the way through the year, I am bang on target to achieve the estimated 100 walks round my patch by 2011. Already I have traversed most of the ground within two miles of my house, a territory of some 12½ square miles. True, there remain a few unpromising tracts that I still need to tread, and there are some definite no-go areas, despite my best efforts – one or two especially intimidating farms, the Immigration Detention Centre in the grounds of the old Oakington barracks, the disused airfield earmarked for a new town, fenced and patrolled (parts of which I have, nevertheless, cased from a distance, and slipped into on occasion), and, of course, several hundred private gardens in the four villages that lie within my domain. But I now know the terrain, the lie of the land, at least. However, sauntering through it is only a start. I need to go deeper. To know it more fully I should sit still in one place for some time, pray in it, and sleep in it too, take night walks and bivouac out in the open. To experience a place only in daytime is to know only half of it. I began by running through this landscape (a little), then I walked it, and now I must sit in it, and lie down in it too.

On coming back into the village, I meet the Old Laughing Lady again, not seen since the cold days of winter, laughing still I’m glad to say. She finds the idea of bird-watching hilarious. And then, for the first time in weeks, it rains.


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April 23rd, 2010. Late afternoon.  9½ miles.

Most of this walk was along tarred, vehicular roads with unnatural, unforgiving, foot-jarring surfaces so I not only felt I was tramping (properly ‘stamping, walking heavily’) but felt like a tramp to boot.  I am now engaged in systematically exploring the few remaining unvisited tracts on the edge of my 4-mile diameter circle of territory. I head south-west to a section between Bar Hill and Madingley, beyond the A14 divide. To get there I have to walk a mile along the main road between Oakington and Dry Drayton, which passes over the A14, so that I can pick up a bridleway marked on the map. I find the bridleway sign, just off the hard shoulder of the northbound carriageway, but it is pointing into an impenetrable thicket. I discover the right-of-way itself nearby, barred by a gate, expropriated as a private driveway within someone’s garden. It’s a no-go area as far as I’m concerned. I walk a little way down the litter-strewn verge and cut through the crematorium to see if I can reach the bridleway from another direction.

The crem, as it is affectionately called, is unsurprisingly orderly, sanitized, polite. The grounds are green, clipped and spacious. Pleasant to walk through… perhaps because there is no action this evening, no smoke from the chimney (have they gone smokeless perhaps?). Tucked away in a corner, on a knoll, is a heart-rending tree-shrine. A sapling adorned with mementos – a silver star hanging from a branch, a fading plastic-wrapped photo of an overjoyed Mum hugging a baby, another of an awkward young teenager, a model silver motorbike suspended by a thread, and a motorbike tax disc holding a message, tacked into the wood. 20 years old. It’s not hard to discern how he died. How they must have poured their grief into this tree, watered it with their tears, his family and friends. Death on the road, and even in death remembered, fittingly, beside a roaring avalanche of traffic. It’s a poignant reminder. My son and I both ride motorbikes. My instructor used to say that Death lurked just around the corner, waiting for the unwary. Bikers or not, we would do well to remember the Lurker.

A gap in the hedge brings me onto the sought-after bridleway, a dry dirt track that winds through fields of flowering rape. There are, I am pleased to see, a few butterflies on the wing, the canaries of the agrochemical industry, and now something of a rarity – small whites, brimstones, a pair of orange tips joined in conjugal flight, and peacocks, flaunting their rich, red-velvet wings, each adorned with a conspicuous round ‘eye’. Beck Brook is here, three miles upstream from my own Westwick Bridge, a mere runnel, barely flowing, overgrown, just a stone’s throw from its indiscernible and undefined source. This side of the A14 watershed, the western side, is a subtly different country. The soil is sandier, the trees taller, the land begins to rise. Properties are larger, farms are neater, hedges, some of them, are properly laid.

Today I hug trees. Not for comfort, nor in empathy, but in the interests of history. One way of estimating the age of a tree is to measure its girth, or waist, at chest height or 1.5 metres from the ground, near enough. But who in their right mind carries a tape-measure on their person when out for a walk? Not even a tailor. So you measure it with hugs, arms outstretched, from fingertip to fingertip, which of course is the fathom, one of the old human-based units of measurement. The largest and oldest tree I hug today is an oak, presumably an English or pedunculate oak, not especially ancient, but stately. It is 3½ hugs round, 3½ hugs old. That’s a girth of two inches short of 20 feet or just over 6 meters (5’ 8” or 173 cms, my hug, x 3½). According to the tables published by the Woodland Trust this makes it just over 400 years old, planted (deliberately, probably, in view of its location on a field boundary) about 1609, the year when Shakespeare first published his sonnets and Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope. It looks like it could easily live for another 400 years.

a three-and-a-half-hug oak

I tramp up the B-road to the edge of tree-lined Madingley, passed by open-top convertibles driven by career-women too old for their cars. Ride-on mowers purr behind shrubberies. The road verges are like lawns, the lawns like bowling greens. Shiny new Range Rovers are displayed in front of freshly-thatched cottages and converted farmhouses. We have definitely moved out of the fen-edge.

Turning towards home I hope to pick up a footpath further on down the B-road. A mile on I find the sign and stile, but no path. According to the map, it runs through the middle of a field, but the farmer has simply expunged it. It has been obliterated by beans. Not wanting to trample the little plants, I am forced round the edge of the field in order to reach the gap and wooden footbridge over which the path once led. The stretch across the next field has also been ploughed over, and on the far side I can see where the line of the path meets the embankment of a very busy road. Eventually I get there, climb over a wooden fence and up the bank, onto the edge of the two-lane northbound section of the A14 where it feeds into the M11, no hard shoulder, just crash barriers. Traffic bearing down on me. The sign’s still there – Public Footpath to Madingley 1½, Dry Drayton 2 – but the Highways Agency, the County Council and the local farmers have conspired to wipe this ancient right-of-way off the land, if not the map. The public path continues eastwards towards Girton, but it has been severed at this point by no less than three murderous roads. Of course, only a fool would attempt to use this footpath now. So in the interests of my mission to walk every yard of my 12½ square mile patch, especially each designated footpath, bridleway, byway, and lane, I must soldier on. In any case, the nearest safe crossing is miles away.

The traffic is relentless. It’s the Friday evening exodus. Patience, patience…  it’s just a matter of waiting. And soon, indeed, there is a break in the flow, and I manage to cross without being blown away by the blare of truckers’ horns. I dive through 50 yards of scrubby woodland and emerge onto the M11. This is a different kettle of fish. Six lanes of manic motorway traffic, hurtling. But it’s a pretty constant flow – 60 mph in the slow lane, 80 at least in the central lane, 100 + in the fast lane – which means it’s predictable. The mind, unconsciously, calculates, the decision is taken (by whom?), and the body moves. Bismillah! There’s no turning back. To hesitate is to die. I reach the central reservation and the safety of the barriers. Next carriageway. I peer into the distance of the oncoming traffic, 200, 300 yards upstream, looking out for the gaps. But, if anything, this southbound traffic is even denser. I’m stuck in the worst place imaginable – the central reservation of a motorway at peak hour on a Friday evening. Relax… what’s the worst that could happen? And then, magically, the traffic parts, and I take the plunge. It’s a stroll in the park actually, and I’m over. Nearly there, just two lanes of east-bound A14 traffic to negotiate. Again, it’s just a matter of timing then acting like lightning. It’s a doddle. I’m over. Yes, no doubt there are a number of very alarmed drivers and passengers out there, some of whom might well be on their mobiles to the police right now, but I feel it has achieved one small victory against the machine, one small assertion of a priceless historic right on behalf of every free Englishman and Englishwoman. Though I shan’t be making a habit of it.

I follow the continuation of the public footpath to the east, leading into the tree-lined and lovely Washpit Lane and Duck End of lower Girton. Grey squirrels precede me, taking the aerial route. I am, again, trudging on tarmac. My feet and ankles are protesting in earnest against this obdurate, unyielding surface. I leave the road to escape the traffic and give my feet a break, turning onto a footpath towards Histon, the neighbouring village. But this is a new path, constructed not worn, and its makers, who are not walkers I’ll warrant, have seen fit to surface it in a concrete-hard clinker, which is worse even than tarmac to walk on. At Histon I’m on real concrete, pounding the deserted guided-busway towards the north, my feet feeling heavier and heavier with each step. It is only when I reach the main road that I can branch off along a grassy field track and retouch the ground. It is late in the evening, growing dark.

And it is here that I meet a remarkable young woman, a girl in fact. She is the second today. On this long walk, apart from 1000 motorists and truck-drivers, with whom I  have made only the slightest and briefest of eye-blinking acquaintance, I have encountered only two other humans. Both have been girls, perhaps 14 or 15 (though it’s difficult to tell), both out riding alone, both straight-backed, open-faced, cool, confident, assured. That’s what sitting on a horse gives you, I guess. The first, near Madingley, ambles round the corner of the track on a well-groomed, shiny bay. I am consulting a map. “Are you lost?” she asks. Am I lost? I want to tell her that, existentially speaking, yes, we are all lost, but cannot lay such a burden on so young a heart. “No, no. Thanks. I know more or less where I am.” “OK. Enjoy your walk”. She passes on, without breaking stride. The second is here, between Histon and Oakington. She is riding towards me on a beautiful skewbald. She stops beside me. “What are you looking for?” – this in the sweetest of well-spoken voices. What am I looking for? What is it with the deep questions today, from such unlikely quarters? Then I realize she must have noticed my binoculars. “Oh, anything living… you know, foxes, owls….”, I reply. “I’ve seen lots of pheasants”, she says. Then, as she nudges her pony forward, a benediction. “Well, I hope you find what you’re looking for”. They must be angels, these two, slipping into and out of my life with such questions. Are you lost? What are you looking for? Questions to last one a lifetime.


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April 20th and 21st, 2010. Not really a proper walk today, just a saunter round the southern edge of the village. Another brilliant day, but now in the late afternoon there is a coldish north-west wind, from Iceland way, but without a trace of volcanic dust to sully the clear blue sky. I go to the brook hoping to see the grass snake again, but find instead a mother duck and five very young, dark-coloured ducklings cruising slowly upstream. I assume she is a wild mallard but I can’t see her clearly. A common enough sight on any river in England in the coming weeks for sure, but the brook here is only 4 or 5 feet wide and not more than a foot deep, and the water is barely flowing. It is set deep between steep grassy banks and there is really nowhere to hide. Yet she keeps them tucked in to the side, taking advantage of any sheltering waterside plants, and at times they seem to disappear altogether.

A kestrel is perched on a post, facing the sun, the first time I’ve seen this little hunter close to the village. Edgy, glancing this way and that, but intent on savouring the last of the day’s warmth. When it shifts slightly and the sun catches its dark spotted, rich rufous back I see what a truly exquisite creature it is. It doesn’t tarry long though… perhaps I am just too close for comfort. With rapid wing-beats it arcs over a sheep pasture and is gone. But here come the swallows, three of them, the first of the season, swooping low over a field of rape. At least I think they’re swallows… they’re some distance away, but they don’t seem to have the white rump that would mark them as house martins. One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day, according to Aristotle, in Greece that is, but three swallows and five ducklings in Oakington?  Surely that makes a sprung spring at last.

April 21st, 2010. 7.30 a.m. A short walk yesterday so I do it again today, retracing my steps, to get a morning perspective. Another superb day, and not a cloud in sight. Nothing unusual or extraordinary to report, but I realize now that there are some creatures so familiar or so commonplace that I have hardly mentioned them. So here’s to the unsung  – the waddling magpies, the soft, mewing collared doves, the skulking and scuddering streamside moorhens, the squawking pheasants, and the choristers who belt it out morning and evening, the blackbirds and robins. And to the rabbits, of all sizes, a-bounding.

A few bumblebees are active at this hour, but I see only a single butterfly – an almost pure white female brimstone, with a faint touch of green. A grey squirrel dashes away up a limb. Incredibly, this is only the third grey I’ve seen this year during some 30 walks. What you don’t see is as significant as what you do see (and I haven’t seen the buzzards for a while). A wide-legged rook stands in the shallows of the stream, like a matron wading at the seaside, bracing herself against tiny waves. Lost lambs and anxious ewes holler to each other across the pastures.

Some people walk to think, but I find that I walk to unthink. In stalking the world the mind empties out and the chatter is silenced. There is no place for thought when you are purely attentive, alert to the slightest of movements and sounds, and open to all possibilities. You are, then, also, forgetful of self. And in that you are no longer apart. You are a child, or a hunter. People say they need time to think, when they really need time to unthink. Thinking is what’s got us into this mess, thinking the unthinkable.

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April 18th 2010. Sunday. It’s been a sunshiny day, but by late afternoon the sky is half covered with scattered, indistinct clouds. A breeze blows out of the east. I need to explore one of the few remaining untrodden tracts at the far south-eastern edge of my patch, between Histon and Girton villages, abutting the A14 highway to the Eastern ports.

At the village recreation ground I watch a blue tit ferrying wisps of nesting material into a pre-drilled hole near the top of a tall steel pole supporting a floodlight. The hole (and pole) is big enough to accommodate a much larger bird, even a woodpecker. I wonder how this slightest of birds has managed to appropriate such prime, penthouse property, against all comers, and how it could possibly construct its cup-shaped nest in what must be a very deep, hollow tube. I have read somewhere that long-tailed tits use spiders’ silk to weave their nests, and it may be that this blue tit has woven a silken hammock to cradle its own. We’ll never know.

In the water of Beck Brook, as it flows past a coppice, I encounter, for the first time, a creature as thrilling as any I’ve yet come across – a grass snake. It is on the surface of the water, insinuating slowly through the scum and weed at the edge of the stream. It is dark and slender, not more than two feet long and about half an inch thick, with a conspicuous creamy-yellow collar just behind its head. Its forked black tongue flicks in and out. This is but a brief encounter… it disappears into some water weed, and though I keep watch for a good ten minutes, it doesn’t emerge. I notice too, for the first time, tiny fish, fry the size of paperclips, in the water. This is good news for what I took to be a pretty dead field-drain. If there are snakes and fish, there’ll be other creatures too.

The planted cherries in the coppice are a snowstorm of blossom. Horse chestnuts are now fully clothed, the greenest trees around, though the leaves of hawthorns in the hedgerows have emerged almost overnight. Rich glossy yellow flowers of lesser celandines line the brook while the yellow starbursts of the despised and downtrodden dandelion light up the verges and field edges. The lion’s tooth leaves (dents de lion), roots and flowers of the latter are one of nature’s forgotten wonder drugs, especially as diuretics, hence its folk name ‘piss-a-bed’. One has already completed its cycle and formed the familiar, delicate, spherical ‘clock’ or seed-head. It occurs to me that the earliest wild-flowers are all yellow, but actually the red deadnettle has been out for a while and I notice now the tiny white and purple pansy, and the white flowers of cow parsley, just beginning to emerge. Soon there will be too many trees in leaf and too many plants in flower to mention.

I walk up the track of the guided busway towards Histon, past bright fertilizer-green fields of wheat, still only some six inches high. On the eastern horizon the rape field is now a broad splash of yellow. At the far end of the fallow on the edge of Histon, beside the busway, is a motley crew of creatures co-mingling in Edenic bliss – rabbits old and young, pheasants, wood-pigeons and magpies, starlings and larks all move amongst each other or simply rest in the sun. And sitting in the midst of them all, incongruously, is a magnificent, imperious, long-haired tabby.

Further on is what I believe is called a ‘community woodland’. Each village round here – Oakington, Cottenham, Girton and Histon – has at least one, planted perhaps five years ago in a flush of EU funding, several acres in extent. They already provide good habitat, for dogs and their walkers, though I do see a couple of jays, with their pink bodies, white rumps, black tails and blue flash of wings, one of our most resplendent birds. Each tree in these coppices, however, has been cosseted in a corrugated plastic sleeve and planted in a mulch of black plastic sheeting, which nobody bothers to remove when their job is done, resulting in a drift of shredded plastic worthy of any motorway ditch. Still, mustn’t carp… in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time they’ll be proper woodlands.

At the southern end of Histon, I enter a quasi-industrial zone. There is a waste recycling plant, a very large factory with hoppers and steel silos, and an electricity sub-station, all protected with rigid steel fencing, the uprights bent outwards and as sharp as medieval pikes. This is clearly no place for pedestrian trespassers, and once again, in my quest to discover where I live, I am straitened and trapped. At last there is a slight gap between the fencing of the sub-station and the hedge of an experimental farm, and I squeeze through and along a footway that runs between them. I emerge into the open fields of NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, one of Cambridge’s many genetic research facilities. A concrete field-road leads south beside a ditch, and I figure this is the best way to make a speedy exit.

Half a mile down the road, my eye is drawn to a dense flock of birds – rooks and pigeons – gathered in the corner of a large, open, ploughed field. A few are flapping on the ground, but most are uncannily still. In fact they are dead. From one hundred yards I survey the macabre scene through binoculars, somewhat perplexed. What is going on here? Then a paramilitary figure emerges from a ditch, in full camouflage outfit, including balaclava and cap, carrying a shotgun. He glares at me, I wave to him, and approach. He is tall, very tall, and intimidating. He is also irate.

“What the f*** do you think you are doing here?”

“Walking… to Girton”, I splutter.

“This is private land! You people think you can walk anywhere! You come in here with your dogs, and break down fences, leave gates open, turn on the taps, and…”

“Hang on there. What do you mean, you people? As you can see, I don’t have a dog, I haven’t broken down any fences, nor turned on any taps. I’m sorry. I’m just out walking. I’m not doing any harm, am I? ”

“You are!” He is incandescent.

“What harm am I doing? Tell me, please.” He strides onto the killing field to dispatch an injured pigeon which is in convulsions, flailing its wings against the earth. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your sport” I say to appease him.

But this is no sport at all. He is not a farmer; he is a hired gun, a contract killer. This is not his land after all. I can’t keep my eyes off the carnage. There must be at least 100 dead woodpigeons and the same number of rooks strewn over the ground. His method is devious, and deadly. The shot birds are propped up with clods and stalks, arranged as if still alive, set up as lures to fool others into thinking that here, where many of their kind have gathered, there must be a plentiful supply of food. He hides in a ditch and shoots the incoming birds as they land from a range of ten yards. I want to take a photo, but fear this would be a step too far. I cannot understand why he is quite so aggressive towards me. I am clearly in the wrong place, trespassing, but why the anger? There is no chance that I could have walked into his line of fire, given the open terrain and the fact that I was approaching from the side and slightly behind him. Perhaps it is that my binoculars mark me out as a bird-lover, a soft-hearted townie with no understanding of the realities of farming or country life, and he is on the defensive. Or that I have caught him in the act of slaughter, of which he is a little ashamed, maybe. Or he is just an angry man. I want to suggest that he take up fishing, but think better of it.

“Just get out of here”, he shouts. “And keep walking!”

Which I unreluctantly do. The mass of dead birds posed in grotesque parody of the living, the killer’s concealed face, the paramilitary uniform, and the slight stench of genetic research all leave a foul taste in the mouth. Some places are tainted. But it does get me thinking about the creatures I crave to seek out – some are undoubtedly pests, and destructive in large numbers, in conflict with the great human project. Do I not kill slugs, and the caterpillars of cabbage whites, in my vegetable patch?

Happily, it is all worthwhile. I follow the concrete road as directed, but it soon swings round to the east, and I need to head west, towards Girton, so I leave it and plunge into scrubland bordering the A14 and there, not 10 yards away, is a pair of reddish muntjac deer. The buck sees me and freezes as I freeze, but the doe is oblivious, a few yards in front of her mate, defecating. He is caught between fascination and flight. His eyes are fixed on mine, and so long as I don’t make a move, he is under my spell. Close up, I see these deer are more beautiful than I had previously thought. He has small, straight, backward-pointing horns, she has none that I can see. Nor do I see the protruding canines or tusks of the male, perhaps because he is looking directly at me. But the V-shaped black marking on his forehead, running from between the eyes to each horn, is distinctive. As are the enlarged tear ducts, which give him a sad-eyed look. She finishes her business, I make a move, and they are gone, diving into the safety of a dense bramble patch. I find her droppings. They are glossy, dark brown to black, the size and shape of roasted coffee beans, but smaller than I expected.

A ditch and dense hedge prevent me from gaining the thundering A14, even if I wanted to. So I have to make my way round the edge of great fields, which eventually lead me away from the highway. I am acutely conscious, though, of the eyes of the shooter, who, from his position, can follow my slow progress through his gunsight. I half expect some stray pellets to pass my way. I find an overgrown green lane and finally achieve the village of Girton, emerging onto the community woodland and playing fields. I rest in the churchyard. The sun is close to the north-western horizon, the sky has clouded over, but it is a fine, tranquil evening. A coal tit, the first I’ve seen in these parts, with black crown and bib, and white neck patch, without the yellow underparts of the great tit and blue tit, is plying to and fro. I walk back along the main road. The dandelion flowers have folded up for the night. As I enter the village, a heron lifts off from a runnel, with huge, slow-beating wings. It is the first I’ve seen for some time.


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April 17th, 2010. 7.30 am. I step out into early morning sunshine in a pristine sky but within minutes I am walking through cloud. A wash of grey fog has mantled the land, quite suddenly, reducing visibility to about 200 yards. Trees and buildings lose definition, headlights flick on. The fog layer is several hundred feet thick, veiling the sun, which is now but a diffuse luminescence above the south-eastern quarter. In places the grass is heavily frosted. The cold slab of earth has chilled air into water, conjured cloud out of emptiness, made visible that which was invisible.

I walk the B-road to Lamb’s Cross, then north up Cuckoo Lane, the medieval track, to Rampton Drift, then west to the guided busway and south towards home. It’s been a week since I was last out, but the spring has been slow to advance. True, the hedgerows are denser, and some trees have now begun to leaf over, acquiring, from a distance, a fresh yellow-green fuzz, like lichen. Blackthorn is in full creamy-white froth, though leafless, while hawthorn is leafing bright green without blossom. In the gardens, plum and cherry trees are spectacular. The field rape has begun to flower yellow, here and there, above leaves drooping heavy with frost.

It is a quiet walk, with no incidents or encounters. The barking dog at Lamb’s Cross farm is nowhere to be seen, and even the jingle-jangle radio in the barn is silent. There are small birds along the way, greenfinches being the most noteworthy, but also chaffinches, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, etc., though they are few in number. I flush a single pair of mallard from the brook, where I would expect half a dozen. The water is empty. I see no lapwing, barn owl, kestrel or buzzard on the wing. The fog slowly disperses but it is not till after nine that it lifts completely. I walk back in sunshine, through a soundscape composed by rooks and skylarks, with occasional contributions from far-off woodpeckers and pigeons.

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April 10th., 2010. Saturday. A high, empty, silver-blue sky, with just the faintest smear of cirrus over the west. I walk in sunshine for three hours. Horned cattle and their calves graze the old airfield. Horse-chestnut leaves have emerged, hanging limp like newly-hatched butterflies. I take the old track towards Histon accompanied by yellowhammers and reed bunting. A woodpecker drills wood somewhere far off, the sound carrying on the air as if amplified. I disturb two cock pheasants duelling at the entrance to a field. As they scuffle and scrap they growl at each other, like dogs, then catapult away when they see me, in opposite directions, protesting to the heavens. Skylarks are singing above both the rape and the wheat fields.

I walk through the northern part of Histon village. The allotments here are the centre of earnest activity. Old men arrive on bicycles armed with rakes and hoes, like peasants going to war. Plots are groomed and fretted over, laid with strings, and parted with drills as straight as arrows. Seed potatoes are lovingly placed in the bottom of trenches. Grown men (for it is mostly men, there being but a single female amongst them) are down on their knees, with a pinch of seed between finger and thumb, engaged in delicate operations.  Each works to his own, proud of his patch, eyeing his neighbour. Long live the allotments.

I cross the Histon-Cottenham road and walk on baulks between big fields. A lone tractor-driver, cocooned in his cab, is harrowing a field that stretches to the horizon. Man and machine move very slowly across the landscape, not much faster than a team of horses. It’s a more lonely life now, for sure, out in the fields. Skylarks still sing somewhere above my head.

I cross back over the road, to head home. I chance on a drove that tunnels through trees and leads to a travellers’ settlement, hidden well back from the mainstream. Drew is fixing a hole in the track and eyes me suspiciously. “What is it that you’re looking for?” he says, first off. This throws me. The directness of it. But the Irish countryman in him comes out when I talk of animals and birds and he recalls how last year he took the little children in the pony and trap down to the end of the drove so they could catch lizards in nets. We talk horses. I like this man. He shows me the way ahead over the ‘moor’ to meet up with the ‘Roman’ road back to Oakington. His ‘family’ spread consists of one fixed abode – a small brick bungalow – and about a dozen caravans. There are white vans of course, smart new sheds, chicken coops. Two coloured ponies are tethered nearby, cocks crow, fires burn rubbish, a dog barks, washing flaps on a line.

There are small overgrown pastures here, and I have difficulty getting through to open land. I bushwhack through a bank covered with fallen trunks, last year’s brambles and emerging nettles, collecting thorns and tears along the way. It’s worth the struggle, for on the other side a green lane runs along a field, and there, in an old gnarled, oddling apple-tree are a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers, working the bark, tapping here and there quite gently. Unlike green woodpeckers, which are extremely wary, these seem unconcerned by my presence. I watch them for some minutes, barely 20 feet away. Through binoculars I see every feather. They are strikingly black and white, these birds, the male with a crimson nape, both with bright crimson rumps under the tail, as if they had sat in a spill of red ink. This is a noteworthy encounter for me, having seen this bird before only fleetingly.

I now recognize this tract, having been here not long ago, stalking buzzard. I look up and sure enough, there they are, a pair of buzzards circling upwards, 200 feet, 500 feet, higher and higher, round and round they go, not a flicker of a wing, soaring elegantly with outstretched wings on a thermal fountain rising from the warmed earth. From my earthbound position, they are both moving clockwise, opposite each other, as if fixed together on a slowly spinning arm. As they rise their circling becomes tighter and tighter, the birds closer and closer, until at one thousand feet or more, reduced to mere specks in the heavens, they reach the apex of their flight and merge together as one.

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April 8th, 2010. A glorious spring day, with the first real cumulus clouds of the year ranged evenly across the sky, their flat bases all at the same height above ground, like meringues, suspended. It’s past six before I get out and now the sun is lowering and has lost its heat, and clouds have coalesced across the eastern sky. House sparrows twitter in the eaves of village houses, something not worth mentioning a few years ago, so common were they then, but now, it seems, they are as rare as hedge sparrows. These are the first I’ve noticed this year.

I head for the big western fields – noisier, being nearer the river of traffic, but slightly elevated, more open and expansive. Besides I want to check on the lapwings. Their field has not yet been ploughed, I’m glad to see, and there are at least seven of them on the ground or making short swooping flights. So far, so good.

No buzzards to be seen, as I had hoped, but a flock of some 40 small waders, flying fast with very rapid wingbeats, passes over, then wheels round, and flies back, over and over again, across the sky, reluctant to leave this great stretch of fallow. I cannot identify them – they are small, grey, with no distinguishing marks on the tail or underwing. Their wings are relatively long for their body size, and pointed, swept-back like those of swifts, and their tails are tapered. As they pass overhead, I can hear their gentle mutterings. They are unremarkable birds – except that their synchronized flying is mesmerizing. I sit down on a bank and watch them for a good twenty minutes. It is not just that they all turn abruptly together and dive, or wheel in perfect harmony, or now bunch together then spread out to advance in echelon formation, it is that all of a sudden, and all together, with split-second parade-ground timing, they cease beating their wings as one and hold them outstretched, gliding, gliding, gliding, then just as suddenly, resume rapid wingbeats together. The Red Arrows are impressive alright, but this is an astonishing virtuoso display, and one that is probably played out every evening over thousands of fields, or mudflats, or beaches all over the country, by many different species of birds.

I walk back with the sun behind me. The land is almost autumnal with breaking colour – shimmering catkins, fattening buds and bursting sheaths, unfolding leaves and a flourish of blossom bathe the hedgerows and copses in a haze of silver green, ivory, copper and rust, with here and there the deep purple of last year’s bramble leaves and the pure white of cherry and blackthorn.

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evening ramble 27

6th April, 2010. It’s dry, and not especially warm, with the sun veiled behind thin cloud and a steady breeze blowing out of the south-west. Still, it’s a fine evening to be out. I head for unexplored ground at the southern edge of my territory, a 6 mile round trip. I cut through the rec and the planted copse onto the guided busway. Spent catkins from the poplars that line the brook are strewn over the ground like purple fire-crackers. An enormous field of rape has seemingly sprung up overnight, so fast is its growth at this time of year. It has already formed tight green florets, like mini-calabrese, which taste good, I find, even raw. It won’t be long before this part of the parish, like large swathes of England, turns bright yellow, inducing allergies, hay fever and asthma among some unfortunates living nearby. Most of it will end up as cheap blended vegetable oil on the bottom shelf in the supermarkets, but cold-pressed rapeseed oil, if you can get it, is as nutritious and tasty as olive oil – without the air-miles.

I walk up the track of the still idle guided busway, and further on, past the built edge of Histon. An ungainly dog-like animal the size of a spaniel lopes across the pasture about 200 yards away. It is a muntjac deer, its white undertail flashing with each bound. It disappears into the hedgerow at the far end of the field. A few minutes later it is followed by another, but this one is sauntering. It trots, then walks, with head down, rump up, wandering here and there, in no hurry. It hangs around at the edge of the field with the rabbits and pheasants. I hear a short bark, and then another, so dog-like I’m sure it’s not muntjac … but then again they are also called barking deer so it might be them. They are not often abroad in the daylight.

A green woodpecker is on the ground in a paddock. It’s looking up into the sky, quizzically, as if waiting for an answer. It continues thus for five minutes or more. For the first time I get a really good look at this omnipresent but elusive bird with the maniacal laugh. Its back is pure olive green, its crown crimson, and its face black, which gives it a fierce demeanor. But the most noticeable thing is its long, black sword of a beak… it is, after all, a woodpecker. Only when it loops away in flight is its bright yellow-green rump conspicuous. Along the way, a greenfinch wheezes, while a chiffchaff endlessly repeats its squeaky-wheelbarrow song, perhaps the most irritating in bird-dom. A pair of courting collared doves mew hoarsely before alighting on top of a telephone pole.

I head across fields to the village of Girton along signposted paths. This is dog country, and they are out in force today, followed by attendants desperately trying to assert some control as they climb all over me (the dogs). I should know better. I vow to avoid all designated footpaths leading out of villages – they are invariably fouled. I walk through lower Girton and down tree-lined Washpit Lane, which leads along a tiny brook, presumably at one time ponded to provide a dip for village sheep. I am approaching the A14 at its juncture with the M11 and the roar has been gathering. Suddenly I am on the highway, in the thick of it, and forced to walk on the footpath facing three lanes of hurtling oncoming traffic. The air is sour with overheated rubber. Two of Eddie Stobbart’s juggernauts, ‘the future of multimodal logistics’, blow my beanie clean off my head  in quick succession. The deep ditch and shelter belt beside the road is awash with litter – bits of vehicles, gaping tyres, plastic sheeting, bottles, truckers’ jetsam. It really is a most unpleasant place, and I cannot escape.

A little further on, however, Beck Brook, that runs north-east like a silver thread through the whole of my patch, from one end to the other, and which is here a mere slip of water, emerges from underneath the carriageway and there is a break in the fencing. I clamber down the bank and away from the maelstrom. I follow the rill, and every step brings relief. Here, upstream, the brook is not so deeply set in its banks; it is more meandering, and shallower of course – a natural stream at last, though tiny.

A black squirrel bolts for the safety of a tall waterside tree and corkscrews up it as I move round to get a better look. At about thirty feet it dives into a hole, then pops its head out to see what I’m up to. Its eyes bulge blue from its pure black face. I’ve seen black squirrels bound across the main street in Girton in previous years, and a friend reports seeing them in Cottenham, a neighbouring village, but I’ve not seen them in the countryside before. They are mutants and localized, favoured, apparently, by lady grey squirrels, and thus spreading rapidly though the eastern counties.

I make my way homeward across big open prairie fields, mostly down to winter wheat. The sun is low on the horizon, still hazy. A buzzard launches off from an isolated tree – even at 300 yards I am too close for comfort. It flies with slow, laboured wingbeats as if they are waterlogged, and lets out one plaintive, wilding cry. It is well within range of previous sightings, so is probably one I have already encountered. Over the next field it is mobbed by a lapwing, which flies up fast to meet it, much smaller of course, but also more agile. The buzzard moves on. I find the lapwing, and its mate, in the middle of an open fallow field, thinly stubbled violet-grey from some previous crop. They are probably nesting, given the fierce territorial attack on the buzzard. This is one of the few yet unploughed fields in the neighbourhood, and I fear the farmer will soon get round to it, burying the scrape and its eggs beneath a weight of cold sod. It is indeed a most precarious existence.


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God’s Grandeur

Although this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins has found a rightful place in many an anthology and is therefore well-known, and the last thing I want to do is put together another Poetry Corner of favourite poems, I just had to post it here anyway, so that I could read it once again…. and again, and again.

                           The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
                                It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
                                It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
                           Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
                           Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
                                And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
                                And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
                            Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

                           And for all this, nature is never spent;
                                There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
                           And though the last lights off the black West went
                                Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
                            Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
                                World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’, 1877

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