April 2nd 2010. Good Friday, Great Friday, or, better, Black Friday. 6.30 a.m. The sky is low, broken, sunless. The land is still. The roads and ruts are pudged and plashed with yesterday’s rain. A Venetian jackdaw greets me from a chimney pot – ciao! I peer over the bridge and a moorhen skitters up Beck Brook, walking on water. A pair of mallard sit in the middle of the sheep field as if about to take tea. There is a great hullabaloo over at the Westwick rookery, and 40 jackdaws burst out of the canopy protesting loudly. Their relationship with rooks is complex and intriguing. I don’t understand it.
Birds are more active and vocal today. Among those spotted for the first time this year are several pairs of goldfinch, a single resplendent male bullfinch, and a number of amorous, black-faced reed buntings chasing tail, literally. True to form, they flit up and down the sunken, flag-filled ditches and rarely venture beyond. This is not to say that these birds have not been here awhile, just that I haven’t noted them before. Worth mentioning too are song thrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tits (bumbarrels, colloquially), and the precious little jenny wren. Green woodpeckers are ubiquitous, heard rather than seen, and woodpigeons spill out of every tree at my approach. Pheasants, now the shooting season is over, are strutting abroad and reckless.
I find new ways of traversing old ground, and venture out to the south-east fields and remnants of apple orchard. I walk the edges, headlands, boundaries, banks and ditches. I am a trespasser, I know, but no-one notices, or cares, and none has yet objected. A farm-dog barks from afar, but this is more in greeting than warning. Here and there, in hedgerows and on the verge of copses, the white blossom of the cherry plum or myrobalan draws me over. It is still the only blossom out, though willow, alder and poplar catkins also catch the light. Elder leaves are now unfolded, the earliest of all the trees, closely followed by horse-chestnut, now bursting out from fat, sticky buds like glacéed Turkish sweetmeats. The black velvet buds of ash-trees, too, have peeled back to reveal incipient flower clusters like deep purple raspberries. One could concoct a high cuisine based on buds and catkins.
A buzzard sees me and flies off with deep, slow wing-beats. It glides very low across a field, a foot above the ground, then settles in a little apple tree on the edge of an open orchard. It is 400 yards off but I can see its hunched, dark shape quite clearly without binoculars. It is far too big for the tree, out of all proportion, and looks comical. It doesn’t move for 10 minutes, then flits down onto the smooth, bare ploughland and vanishes, as if pulled underground. I search the spot through the binoculars but the bird has simply disappeared, merged with the freshly turned earth. I carefully work my way round to the place, detouring a good half-mile to make a less direct approach, watching closely all the time. Nothing moves, and there is no bird to be seen when I get there.
It is past eight before the sun breaks through. For a while, the land sings. I walk towards Histon, then through the old medieval holdings of Abbey Farm. One field has reverted to scrub, its edges invaded by dense stands of sycamore, willow, and ash saplings. There are some venerable trees here too, one broken-backed and hollow (an oak, I think), garlanded with plastic rope, its heart burnt out by heartless boys. Yet it still stands, supporting weighty boughs and a universe of creatures.
Hidden in a dell within a sheltering copse of tall trees is a secluded proving-ground (and trysting-place, no doubt) where village boys and bikes are tested to destruction – an impromptu landscaping of dirt runs, ramps, steep slopes, pits and suicidal drop-offs, sculpted from the earth by years of daring and attrition, and littered with scrap, broken BMXs, dens, fire-holes, ropes to swing on…. No grown-up could or would plan and construct such a place, and I get the feeling few grown-ups even know about it. It is a secret world created by kids for kids, organically and spontaneously, out of the earth. There is yet hope… for Histon boys and girls at least.
In the parkland below Abbey Farm several thousand naturalized daffodils of the smaller more delicate kind are in bloom, better than any municipal display. Of the truly wild flowers only lesser celandine or pilewort is out, with small, rich yellow, 9-petalled flowers and heart-shaped leaves, which line the water’s edge of the brook all the way to Oakington.
Three boys on bikes – 10 or 11 year-olds – race past me, with hearts full of thump and mouths full of shout, with the wind in their hair and a whole day ahead of them. They are flying. And I know exactly where they’re headed. In a flash, I’m ten years old again and cycling beside them. I am hurtling down a hill in Africa, early on a sunny morning, in the shade of towering eucalyptus trees, my friend beside me, hollering, open to adventure.
Besides these lads however, during these three hours of walking on what is, after all, a dry and pleasant Public Holiday, I have seen but one other person, from afar, a dutiful dog-attendant, with plastic bag at hand, and have been passed by a single runner on the road. Back in the village, a near-neighbour is out weeding her front yard with a table knife. She is Cambridgeshire through and through, born in Bottisham, married in Cottenham, and has lived here in the village for 56 years, the last 17 on her own. That means she has lived her whole life, well over 70 years (she didn’t say exactly, and I didn’t ask), within a compass of less than 10 miles. She is a Hedger. I like the name. Her ancestors would have known a thing or two about laying hedges no doubt. Unlike today, when a man in a tractor, without leaving his seat, can butcher a hedgerow in five minutes flat , leaving a trail of destruction behind him.