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.