June 8th, 2010. Late afternoon. It’s been a grey, damp day, with breezes and occasional showers. The sky is layered in cloud, the lowest being dark and big-bellied. When the sun does from time to time emerge, it turns warm and sultry. The water in the brook has risen a little over the past few days, brownish, the bed obscured. No mussel hunting today. I decide on a longer walk, following the brook downstream into the parish of Cottenham, further than I’ve been before in this direction, hoping to catch sight of the barn owl that is known to frequent these parts.
At Westwick, on the edge of Oakington, a single little egret starts from the brook and veers off out of view, legs trailing like a ballerina. It is at least half a mile downstream from my previous sightings of a pair. Still here … that’s good … summer residents now, impossibly exotic in our English meadows. A little further on, a female mallard with at least 6 ducklings. A late brood, surely, for the ducklings are still infants compared to others I’ve seen hereabouts. Moorhen skulking by the water’s edge. And in the loft above, a lone buzzard is being harrassed by a rook half its size. The rook is dogged in its pursuit, scolding and lunging at the larger bird, slowly driving it out of this bit of airspace.
I walk through Lamb’s Cross Farm. Thin radio music drifts from the barn as usual. The farmer emerges – 50’ish, wiry and stubbled, unsmiling, but talkative. He is a grass farmer, breeding steers for the table, and growing some barley and silage to feed the cattle in winter. Tried potatoes but the lumps of ironstone in the ground broke the harvester. He tells me of a field on the left of the Oakington road as it leaves Cottenham where lightning often strikes because of the presence of ironstone. We talk soils, and how they vary from field to field, and even within fields. He and his wife also run several small factories elsewhere, processing kidney beans, chick peas and other pulses, some of which, surprisingly, are grown locally here in East Anglia. Chick peas in Cambridgeshire?
Scarlet field poppies line the verge between road and unfenced field, interspersed with pink, purple-veined mallows, two feet high. Along the steep, deep inner bank of the brook downstream, where it has been canalized, species are ranged in strict succession from the water’s edge. First rushes and reeds, then sedges and grasses, and then ox-eye daisies half way up the bank. The latter are not as scarce as I had thought. They also occur in drifts on the edges of fields and along the guided-busway. But now is the season of the pink-flushed, deliciously scented dog-rose adorning every hedgerow, individual flowers spaced evenly over each bush. Some of the briars clamber high into trees. There will be plenty of hips to gather in the autumn.
This part of my patch is inhabited by at least one pair of green woodpeckers and the ash-trees hereabouts are neatly drilled to prove it. The distinctive undulating flight of these birds seems to be caused by their intermittent wing movement: they scull hard for 4 – 6 wingbeats, ascending slightly, then they fold their wings in and coast head-first, bullet-shaped, losing height as they do so, then scull again, and rise. As if riding waves.
I follow Beck Brook, here called New Cut, downstream beyond the Rampton – Cottenham road. One bank is almost wholly colonized by hawk’s beard, a bright yellow, dandelion-like flower, but tall, on a stalk. The only patch of this I’ve seen. Many wild flower species seem very localized, confined to particular spots with a certain desirable combination of aspect, soil, shade, dampness, drainage and plant association. Such as the silver-veined milk thistle, encountered only at one corner of one particular field.
It’s too early for barn owls, so I turn back through the village of Rampton. A light shower sends me scurrying. I take shelter under the trees at Giant’s Hill just outside the village, not far from the church. Essentially a substantial, irregular, treed island mound, hardly a hill, surrounded on one side by a wide, overgrown moat and on the other by an outer bank. The site of an unfinished 12th century castle apparently, though the genius loci and popular name suggest a site much more ancient and mysterious. A magical place indeed. I straddle a great horizontal trunk of willow, overlooking the moat and reedbed. There is a promise of kingfishers but in spite of the rare wetland habitat I see nothing worth noting. Wrong time of day, perhaps, or weather. I must come back at dawn or dusk and wait.
The wheat is still very green, fully grown at 18 inches, with big tight ears of seed, the barley light golden green, with long awns splayed out like a fan. Now that the crops have grown up, I see that there is almost as much barley as wheat grown in the district. John Barleycorn is still alive and well. Returning along the dormant guided-busway track I’m glad to hear skylarks still singing defiantly above the yet-to-be-built new town of Northstowe. There is no sign of the little owls nesting in the airfield, though I don’t tarry long.
And then a newcomer crosses my sky, just as I approach home and wonder at the absence of birds. It is large, dark, with big wings, flying at about 50 feet. Gooselike but differently shaped. As it passes I can see its yellow hook-tipped bill, its white chin and cheeks, all black body and wings, and wedge-shaped tail – a cormorant. Far from any coast or estuary, or any large river or wetland, it seems out of place. It appears lost too, unsure of what direction to take, almost doubling back on itself. The evening has cleared and the sun comes out, low now, highlighting banks of cloud stretching to the horizon. The cormorant flies on, into the sun.