Monthly Archives: May 2010

buttercupwalk42

May 19th, 2010. Evening. After a cold snap since the beginning of the month the weather has warmed over the last few days, with some fine sunny spells. Today is mostly overcast, but I can at last walk out in the evening without jersey or fleece. I follow a route I’ve taken many times before, up the B-road towards Cottenham, branching southwards along the medieval trackway here called Gunn’s Lane, then through the meadows and woods of Abbey Farm at Histon and back along tiny Histon Brook to Oakington.

It’s a fine walk, with the countryside at its freshest and greenest and densest. Spring at its height, just before summer sets in. The season of green, in every hue and depth and texture. All trees in leaf at last, though some oaks and others are only just so. Foliage is still whole and pristine, unblemished yet by insects, disease or decay. Hedgerows are dense, unseethroughable, paths and watercourses encroached, vistas curtailed and horizons lie just round the corner… the world’s close at hand. Short-cuts I used before, or field gaps I slipped through, are now overgrown with nettles. Few birds are to be seen though the hedgerows and coppices are full of alarm calls and cadences, most of which I cannot identify because I can’t see the singers. Birds have a trick of throwing their voices. Your ears pinpoint the source of a song in a tree or bush but you will search in vain for the bird, which is invariably some feet away, sometimes in a different place altogether. Anyone who has sought out birds will will have been frustrated and puzzled by this cunning display of ventriloquy.

I meet Mrs. Botanical, with whom I cross paths now and then. Local girl, who’s walked this district since childhood, noticing nature. A real naturalist. It turns out she is the daughter of the wild-gardening couple who were so welcoming on one of my earlier walks. I should have known… of course. They have infused in her their wonder of the wild. A very precious gift this, from parent to child, it seems to me…. better by far than a trust fund. She tells me of her own recent encounters – just this last week, in the little brook/ditch that runs from Histon to join our Beck Brook at the coppice, she has come across water voles, then the largest grass snake she’s ever seen, then some eels. She is so thrilled that it’s as good as seeing these creatures with my very own eyes. And it confirms my earlier sightings of grass snake and eel. The presence of the fast-declining water vole here is an unexpected surprise. Even though I regularly scan the banks of our various watercourses I have never even seen their tell-tale holes, just above the waterline.

Hawthorn blossom, though still not fully out everywhere, adorns the hedges and banks and woodland edges …. in fact the whole green countryside, wherever you look, is splashed with white. It reveals itself as the dominant hedge tree round here by far, with blackthorn less common. When hawthorn grows naturally, without hacking and topping, it throws out long arched sprays of blossom, with flowers all the way down to the tips. The red hawthorn seems later and is just breaking bud. Horse-chestnuts still in flower, lit with great, upright pinkish-white cones, evenly spaced over each tree. But the season really belongs to the wild flowers and flowering grasses, which are now in a rush, coming too many and too fast for me to identify. Sometimes their foliage is more interesting than their flowers. Lacy white cow-parsley, up to four feet high, is dominant now, along with the feathering grasses and uncoiling thistles. Big ox-eye daisies or moon daisies, two inches across with gold eyes, each one on a tall slender stem, have come up in the disturbed ground along the guided-busway. They are the loveliest of flowers and I want to gather them up and take them home, they’re that sort of flower. But of course there are too few about to pick even one, they might even be endangered, and it’s probably illegal.

At the ancient Abbey Farm, adjacent to Histon church, are retained some small pieces of old woodland, meadow, and an overgrown scrubby tract – some of the few places in the neighbourhood that are a little bit wild, or not overly managed at least. Sauntering some 50 yards in front of me, on a footpath winding through the latter, is a muntjac. Yes, it’s just the sort of place I would expect to see one, with plenty of open grazing close to cover. It trots like a dog, and curls its broad tail upwards, flashing the flat white underside like a banner. It disappears into a thicket. I emerge onto a broad sloping meadow, ungrazed and uncut, full of flowers, especially the buttercup. I’ve never seen so many buttercups – a field of buttercups. Not good for grazing stock perhaps, but perfectly harmless when cut and dried in the process of hay-making. I walk back along Histon Brook, with the setting sun in my eyes, looking for water voles. But nothing disturbs the water, which lies black and still and silent.

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brookside41

May 13th, 2010. Evening. Coldish, dry, mostly overcast. In the verges, the pastures and the meadows the first blow of dandelions is over. They have been superceded by rich yellow buttercups and constellations of white, star-like daisies. More hawthorn or whitethorn out in the hedges, though not all. Rooklets have left the nest but stay close on nearby branches; they communicate in high-pitched, adolescent screeches rather than caws.

I disturb a Little Egret from the brook… pure white plumage, elegant, with black legs trailing back in flight, and distinctive orange feet. It has brought a bit of the Nile to this part of Cambridgeshire. It moves up the stream, out of sight. It makes me wonder whether it wasn’t two Little Egrets I saw last weekend, rather than the Great White Egrets I thought they were. It is difficult to judge size in some lights and weathers. Things look bigger at dusk. I sit for a while on the grassy nettle-bank above the brook, facing west to catch the last rays of the sun, a field of young green wheat behind, and a field of rape in full flower before. There are a couple of whitethroats about, nest-building still. One returns to the same patch of cow parsley and last years’s dry stems time and time again to select grassy wisps and carry them back into an ivy-clad ash on the edge of the brook. Half a dozen blue-backed swallows flit fast and very low over the rape, twisting and turning and doubling back. They disappear for ten minutes or so, then come back, then disappear again. They seem to be following a cyclical pattern, working the fields methodically. The Little Egret flies across, nonchalantly, to another arm of the brook. It is a lovely sight in the evening to see birds flying home to their roosts. And it is heartening to know, now, that this little Beck Brook, in a stretch of less than half a mile, is home to several families of mallard, to moorhen, heron and egret, possibly eels, a grass snake, and miniscule fish. No doubt a lot more besides. More and more I find myself drawn to the stream. We are all ineluctably led back to water, like children, like mallard.

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buzzardwalk40

May 10th, 2010. 5 miles. Late afternoon… still cold… big clouds spaced evenly across the sky, sun streaming through as they pass slowly southwards. I sit by a field gate to the west of the village, watching two buzzards circling high up above. I thought they had moved on a long time ago, but no, they are still here in the district, or they’ve returned. Farmer Giles No 2, silver-haired and stout, pulls up in his car, barely returns my greeting, opens the gate, and drives into his field. After some time he comes out again. I mention the buzzards, and this sets him off. He talks for an hour. Of rabbits and myxamotosis (still present though not so virulent now), badgers (rare – there used to be a sett in the brook, somewhere over there, jerking his head vaguely towards the south-west), and hares (very few nowadays, leverets killed by the extra wide modern agricultural machinery, unable to move out the way, he reckons; he remembers shoots when hundreds of hares were killed). He moves onto the subject of the old Oakington airfield and the great loss of young lives in the planes (2nd WW), and then the monologue begins to slide down a slippery slope into grievance and bigotry – the Germans, immigrants, Muslims breeding like rabbits, the Germans again (1st WW), hard-working Poles, lazy Italian P.O.Ws, Liberal Democrats who don’t have a clue, and if he was younger he’d emigrate (to New Zealand if it wasn’t so far away), and England is not the place it used to be, worse luck. I couldn’t wait to get away.

I strike down a public by-way leading from Long Stanton towards the west. It is without doubt the finest green lane in the district, yet it leads nowhere. It ends at a locked gate that opens onto the dual-carriageway of the A14. You have to turn back, or risk death. It starts wide, as an avenue of young mixed trees, with fields of rape on either side, then wheat and rape, then beans, becoming a narrow green tunnel riddled with burrows, then a causeway built up above what once must have been marshy land. Goldfinches accompany me. Tall trees, including some fine oaks, line the lower end, from which first one, then another, buzzard lifts off and beats into the blue. They seem ragged and not clearly marked, as if they are moulting. But it is good to see them still here, the largest birds of prey on our patch. They’ve just shifted about a mile north-westwards, that’s all. There’s the hind half of a baby rabbit on the path, ripped clean in two, with no sign of the head or upper torso, still fairly fresh, in a puddle of grey fur. Would a buzzard tear prey in half like this, or is it the work of a fox perhaps? I retrace my steps to join a newly-made footpath that leads south to the Dry Drayton Road and back home. I walk beside wide open fields, between barbed-wire fences, on uncomfortable clinker. Wheatears, with a black and white wedge of a tail, cheer my way.

The End

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egret evening 39

May 8th and 9th, 2010. A series of short walks and long sittings. First, mid-afternoon, tucked into a bank of Oakington Brook where it is most secluded, on the only nettle-free patch, carpeted with the tiny mauve-purple speedwell. Behind me, the ivy-covered mound of a rabbit warren (abandoned?) and a belt of mixed trees. In front, to the south, the shallow rivulet barely flowing from right to left, four feet wide, at the bottom of a deep and wide ditch whose steep sides are now knee-deep in herbage. Across the brook a field of oilseed-rape whose rich yellow flowers are above my eye-line. I have a limited field of vision and cannot see upstream or downstream, but it is sheltered, unobtrusive, and comfortable. I wait. It is cold and grey, without sun, very quiet. No swallows over the rape field. No butterflies even. Occasionally, woodpigeons in ones and twos pass over fast, veering away when they see me.

Ripples on the water warn me of something approaching. Two bite-sized ducklings cruise into view and immediately spot my alien presence. They power downstream on furiously paddling feet, half lifting out of the water. Three minutes later another three arrive, with the same instant reaction. How come they are so alert, at just a week or two old, so mindful of danger? I am pretty much hidden, silent and still. A good five minutes later the female mallard appears with a straggler, clocks me in an instant, and they both shoot off downstream, with much splashing, and her quacking in protest. This mallard family must have been spread out over 50 yards of brook, the lead ducklings forging ahead, quite on their own, far from their mother’s protection.

A hawk crosses my field of vision, with quick, shallow wingbeats, for all the world like a pigeon, only more streamlined, and buff-brown in this light. Its grey rump identifies it as a kestrel. It shears off to my left and over the trees. I set off in pursuit and disturb it in a dead tree some 200 yards away. It takes off immediately, flies over a sheep pasture and lands on a bare patch of earth beneath the guided-busway. It remains on the ground for some time, then glides up to roost in a small tree between the busway and Beck Brook, 200 yards further on. I follow, cutting through the coppice, where I am hidden from hawk eyes, and emerge onto the busway, downwind. But I do not get within 100 yards before the bird takes flight again, and heads back to where we’ve just come from, disappearing over the trees. I double back and finally find it again by the brook where our paths first crossed. But it won’t tolerate my presence at all and flies back towards the busway again. I leave it be. I have seen this kestrel (or its mate) in this locale before, and am beginning to know its range and its habits. I am hoping it will begin to accept me.

Dusk, the end of the day. I want to taste this place at all times of the day and the night. We have been treated to a little winter for the past week or so, since the beginning of May. It’s cold this late evening. The sky is uniformly grey, without highlights, dim but not yet dark. I sit on the uprooted trunk of a great willow where it arches across the stream that comes from Histon and beyond. In front of me is park-like meadowland, scattered with fine isolated horse-chestnuts, elms, and oaks, all with parallel browse-lines, rising gently towards Westwick House and its farm buildings on the near horizon. Sheep and their now stocky lambs are lying in greensward, still hollering, but less persistently so. The clamour from the Westwick rookery continues, as it will, more or less, throughout the night. A few rooks remain in the pasture, mingling with the sheep. A black-and-white magpie flies over. It begins to rain, gently, washing through the willows above and around.

Egret evening. Further on northwards, on the guided-busway itself, facing east. Hand-rubbingly cold. They have doused the busway and verges with poison, and all is undone. Where before was a fine crop of wild flowers coming up, between and beside the concrete tracks, now is a desert of dead and dying plants. Young thistles lie limp on the ground like seaweed left stranded. Even the beautiful white campion, all but one plant, has been done in. Now the darkness begins to descend… though I can still see afar –  an unbroken sweep of very gently undulating land stretching from the north to the south, two to three miles in every direction, the black line of the horizon just broken by the trees of the villages on their slight gravel ridges – Willingham, Rampton, Cottenham church in the distance, the hamlet of Westwick, and Oakington itself, screening Histon and Girton beyond to the south. Two miles is not a long way, but here, today, in spite of the cold, the damp and the drabness of light, there is something magnificent in this modest prospect, something lovely lying over the land. It is very quiet now, very still. Serene even. Out of the dark emerge two pure white great egrets, flying close together, towards the north, with languid strokes of the air, silently, as if out of Egypt.

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owlwalk38

May 7th, 2010. A dull day, weather-wise, chilled by a north-easterly breeze. I set out in a fleece, coat and cap on a clockwise circuit of the old airfield and barracks, a route I’ve followed many times before. In the Drift (a variant of ‘drove’, down which cattle were ‘driven’), a tunnel of green leading out to the pony paddocks on the western edge of the village, butterflies soodle up and down the cow parsley verges, sniffing each cluster of flowers in turn but rarely alighting. Warblers are out and about – chiffchaffs chiff and chaff endlessly, and a female blackcap (rich chestnut cap, not black) is busy debugging the hedgerow.

I meet Ron and his wife – 70-somethings, in rude health – half submerged in greenery, at work in their cottage front garden. I hail them, they me, beaming. We talk butterflies and they straight away invite me, a passing stranger, to take a look at their garden ‘out back’, almost leading me along by the hand. I expect an immaculate show garden, of the National Garden Scheme type that opens to the public once a year in aid of charity, or a self-sufficient cotter’s backyard laid out to vegetables and soft fruit, with chickens, bees and a pig perhaps. In fact it’s a wilderness. It spurns all garden conventions – there’s no lawn, no clipped hedges, no patio or decking, no flower beds, no garden flowers, roses or shrubs, and no vegetable patch to speak of. It’s unrepentantly naturalized, turned over to nature,  full of wild plants and flowers – white hedge garlic, pale blue forget-me-nots and red campions now – and what most people call weeds, under a canopy of apples and other small trees. Not overgrown or neglected, just … ungardened. Ron leads me along a path of sorts between brick outbuildings (swallow nesting) and wooden sheds, a caravan, greenhouse, various middens, overgrown ponds, and, here and there, small clearings planted with beans and peas and strawberries, like patches of swidden in a rainforest. He now and then points out plants, and gently runs his hand over leaves. Their work is limited to some judicious thinning out and pruning,  the sowing of wild flower seeds, and nurturing what’s there, whatever it is. They nurture the wild.  He shows me a couple of old horse-ploughs, used by his father-in-law up until the early nineteen-fifties, near enough a hundred years old, he says, and the iron still as good as when it was forged. I don’t know what to make of it all. It’s a haven for wildlife, and a haven for Ron and his wife. An island of heresy in a sea of suburban conformity. It’s a surprise. More surprising though than the garden are the gardeners. Their welcome, their joy in sharing, and their love of the wild are as rare as their garden. It has been, for me, an uplifting, humbling and salutary meeting.

I take the lane to Longstanton. The hawthorn, whitethorn or may is finally in flower, here and there. Soon the countryside will be sprung again with its white festoons and honeyed scent, just as all the other brightening blossoms – cherry plum, cherry, apple and blackthorn – have faded. A second coming. Blue flowers have arrived over the past few days – bluebells here and there in coppice and woodland, the pale forget-me-nots, and bluest of all, alkanet or bugloss, a traditional dye-plant, a naturalized garden escape (the name is Arabic – from Middle English, from Old Spanish alcaneta, diminutive of alcana, ‘henna’, from Medieval Latin alchanna, from Arabic al-hinnā’, ‘henna’, apparently because it was used as a substitute dye).

A songthrush is giving voice at the end of a barely-leaved oak branch. I count a series of at least seven different combinations of notes and sounds, brief  liquid stanzas, each one enunciated clearly, in turn. Not so much a song as a vocal exercise. There is a commotion of geese coming from the hidden lake on the airfield, now completely screened from the road. As I contemplate negotiating the easiest access point (see pic) a large bird flies off, away from me. At first I take it for a heron, it’s that sort of size, then as it banks I know it’s a bird of prey, brownish, with somewhat ragged wings. I get about 3 seconds before it disappears over some trees. Are there buzzards here still? I have a feeling, though, that this is no buzzard at all but a bird unknown, and I set off in pursuit. It has flown towards the village, but when I get there I am unable to find it. It’ll draw me back another day soon.

The breeze picks up, suthering through the trees (one of Clare’s words), and the air turns damp. Longhorned cattle hunker down in a field, with their backs to the wind. There’s a smell of rain before a skat or light shower wets the land and my coat. It’s soon over, but the sky is darkening. Not since the snow have my hands been so cold. They plunge into pockets. More like the end of winter than the middle of spring. From the vantage point of the guided-busway embankment I watch a hovering kestrel, hanging in the air, facing into the wind, beating its wings deeply, head down, tail fanned out and depressed, remaining exactly in place for minutes at a time, then sliding sideways, and hovering anew. In ten minutes of hovering, it does not stoop or plunge once.

Then, an unexpected encounter, a first. About 20 yards from the track of the guided-bus-to-be, within the old airfield and out in the open, is a large, triangular, wooden nestbox set on a post about ten or twelve feet from the ground. I’ve watched it many a time and never seen the slightest sign of occupation. As I pass by I don’t even give it a glance. But out of the corner of my eye, there’s a movement, a blur, a glimpse of something alive. By the time I turn, it has slipped away silently. I instinctively know it’s a Little Owl, though I’ve not seen one for years. I settle down behind a screen of bushes to await its return. Five very still minutes later I’m rewarded. A second owl emerges from the hole of the nestbox onto the landing platform, and scowls straight at me. It knows I am here. The frowning eyebrows are comical. It gives me a definite ‘look’, reprimanding, then launches into the greyness and is gone in the blink of an eye.

A final encounter on the guided-busway, this cold evening, as I approach home. A mother mallard is waiting on one side, looking back anxiously, accompanied by a single duckling. Four others are coming up behind, but they are stuck behind the concrete ledges that form the sides of each trackway, six inches high, three times the height of a duckling. They have to overcome four of them. Time after time they attempt to climb, clamber or fly up the sheer, smooth wall in front of them. The mother duck clucks out quiet instructions, and at one point she is on the point of going back to give them a hand. Then one manages it and achieves the next one with relative ease. The others, one by one, get the hang of it and struggle over each obstacle. It’s a slow, painful process, with many a fall. Eventually they’re all over, she gathers them together and dusts them off, and they all head off through a gap in a fence. They’re going east, towards the brook. They’re a hundred yards from the water, over a ditch and a meadow, and they’ve come from the airfield. It must be their very first walk, from the field where they’ve hatched to their new home on the stream, as is the practice among mallard, a journey of at least 200 yards, full of hazard and drama, as we’ve seen. They’re half way there and night is falling.

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maywalk37

May 4th, 2010. For the sake of brevity, notes, not notions or narrative, I tell myself. The best thing about England, surely, is the weather. Other places have wilderness, we have weather. Loads of it. It deserves to be celebrated. For the past month – dry and warm, with many glorious, sunshiny days. For the last few days – spring showers, during the day and night, big clouds, and a sudden fall in temperature. It has been cold, jersey-and-coat cold, even scarf-cold, if you’re out, borne on a chilly north-easterly blow. All’s been in motion – clouds, trees, grasses, litter. Then this afternoon – calm, a mostly blue sky, and sun again, warm in the lee of a hedge. Summerish even. I’m out.

I check first the lapwings in the fallow to the south-west of the village, fearing that it might have been ploughed and the birds displaced. It hasn’t and they’re still there, though I can only see two on the ground, in different parts of the field. They must be nesting by now. Their long crest plumes are blown over sideways, giving them a rakish, dissolute air. A male blackcap, the first I’ve seen this year outside the garden, is busy deep in a hedgerow, sounding like a loud, very squeaky wheelbarrow being pushed at a run. A scarlet-faced goldfinch, with brilliant golden wing bands, sits on the topmost twig of a bush.

I follow the brook for a mile upstream. The water has risen a little. My sudden appearance flushes a pair of mallard. Then, at the confluence by the copse, cruising, is a mother mallard with four ducklings, surely the same family I’ve seen before on this stretch. If so, they have all somehow survived. 100 yards upstream, seven more ducklings, excitedly scooping up insects from the surface, whirling around like bumper cars. Strangely, no parent to be seen. They are alone, but not abandoned I hope. When they become aware of my presence, they bunch together and remain quite still on the water, unsure of what to do next. Pale yellow faces and breasts, with a dark band running back from the brow, over the head, and down the back, with an elegant black eye-stripe and single spot on the cheek by way of mascara. Dark bodies blotched pale yellow. Then one breaks away from the group, heading downstream, and the others all follow. A flotilla of fluff. Upstream, another female with four ducklings, and further on again, three drakes splash off and wing away muttering. These are wild mallard, not city park or village pond ducks, on a quiet, unfrequented stretch of the brook. How can this sunken slip of a stream support so many wildfowl? Next a grey heron lifts heavily out of the ditch, is mobbed by a rook, and circles wide over adjacent fields, slowly, legs trailing behind and great wings flapping untidily like washing on a line. I’ve seen one before in this neck of the woods so it might well be locally resident. It seems to be waiting for me to move on, which I do.

The lush growth of grass and herbage make for more difficult walking. A few butterflies ply the stream edge – Orange Tips, a single pale lemon-green Brimstone, and a lovely brown Speckled Wood, with creamy yellow markings and ‘eyes’ with black centres. I am growing fond of butterflies. Their vulnerability to the human enterprise and consequent scarcity, their role in the web of life, and exquisite coloration and detailing make them worthy of our closer attention.

A strange scent has been nagging at my nostrils, at once sweet and sour. Lightly rancid, you could say, faintly flowery, faintly foul. Of course! It must be the oils emitted by the rape-seed flowers, in huge fields all around. Some people loathe the smell, others react to it badly, sneezing and streaming. En masse, the bright yellow flowers dominate large swathes of countryside at this time of year, a yellow invasion, reviled by some as a blot on the traditional landscape. But up close, in small doses, the plant is showy enough to earn a place in the herbaceous border, I’d say, if I had one. Swallows, swooping low over the flowering sea, seem undaunted, and skylarks still lark in the crop.

The big winter flocks have long since dispersed, but a sizable gang of starlings or starnels, some 30 or 40 strong, work through a pasture, rising and settling as one. When they glide down together on short triangular wings, they’re like miniature delta-winged aircraft. I walk an asphalted footpath that leads along the back gardens of Histon and its conjoined twin Impington, urbanised villages, dissected by traffic. Chain-link fencing, four-letter surveillance. Neighbourhood watched. A collared dove, with round black eyes outlined in white, blinks a white eyelid. Terraced streets, then onto the main road to Cottenham. Even at 6.30 the commute’s still in full flow.

I branch off down a long Mill Lane into clear country. I’m at the eastern extremity of my territory here. It feels good – expansive, open, quiet, uncluttered. The farmer at Mill Lane Farm has been good enough to lay out a network of ‘permissive pathways’ (strange choice of word), in the absence of any public right of way, allowing walkers to tramp through his extensive lands stretching almost to Cottenham. Big fields, no hedges or ditches, wide skies. Too much for me today. I leave the pleasure for another time and turn homewards. It’s been a warm walk, and therefore especially delicious to slip through the dim, sub-aqueous, yew-shaded churchyard at Histon. In the meadows below the village, I stretch out in thick grass and look up into unbroken blue.

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northwalk36

April 30th, 2010. 5 miles. It occurs to me that my posts, like the evenings, are getting longer and longer, so this will be brief(er), I promise. I leave at 6 for new ground in the north of my patch, up the no-through road to Longstanton. The sky’s full of cloud, of every hue, shape and species. Late April showers, in the afternoon, yesterday and today, have left the land wet for the first time in over a month. Grass and foliage hang heavy with water. Now that the hedgerow and woodland birds have more or less total concealment they sing more it seems, and are heard more often than seen.

I check out the progress of ash trees and oaks to test the folk wisdom of ‘oak before ash we’re in for a splash – ash before oak we’re in for a soak’, which forecasts a relatively dry (‘splash’) or wet (‘soak’) summer to come. My notes record ash trees in leaf on the 25th April, but I’ve subsequently seen some that aren’t. Also the flowers from a distance can look like newly sprung leaves so I might have been deceived in some cases. Similarly, the veteran oak at Histon Manor was definitely showing leaf on the 27th while the younger tree in my garden, and others today, show no sign of green. Time of leafing of individual trees must depend on a number of variables such as aspect, age, soil, shelter, etc. so it’s not easy to ascertain when trees as a species have started to leaf. According to the Woodland Trust ash leafing before oak has occurred only four times in the last 44 years, the last time being in1986.This year, however, there seems to be no significant difference between the two, so I can confidently predict that we’re in for a sploak.

I walk the signposted footpad that skirts round the western edge of Longstanton. On the map it leads through open fields but I find myself channeled through a new toy-town estate of cheek-by-jowl ‘executive’ homes that looks like the set of a soap. But I do see here a single white or pied wagtail (not easy to tell apart), the first of the season, a bird that seems especially fond of tarmac and car parks. Outside the village, I turn south and head back through a herbicidal ‘golf academy’ comprising weed-free fairways  and immaculate greens inhabited by small groups of males in spring plumage. They go in for some interesting rituals and rules of etiquette that I would like to check out but the distant thwack of club against ball sends me running for cover. A cold wind blows up and I have to button my coat. Horses in paddocks have thrown on yellow-checked blankets. In the meadow beside the Detention Centre ancient English longhorn cattle and their calves ruminate on the gathering storm while an even more ancient heron buffets into the headwind. A dark wave of cloud is rolling down from the north.

Nearer home a dozen swallows stitch the high air and a couple of all-dark swifts, devil-birds (Clare calls them develings), scythe through the gloom. They arrived in the village yesterday (my first sighting, at least), after their incredible 7000 mile migration from southern Africa, ahead of their u.t.a. (usual time of arrival) around 10th May. Ten days early! What does that mean? They are astonishing birds, not least because they eat, drink, preen, sleep, court, mate and gather nesting material on the wing, yes, in the air, only stopping to nest, lay and incubate once a year. A young swift, having fledged, may live in the sky for two or three years without perching once. It’s true. If they could lay eggs in the air and catch them, and cradle them till they hatch,  they will have broken free of the earth altogether.

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