July 28th, 2010. 5.30 a.m. A beautiful, beautiful morning with a dazzling sun in the north-east balanced by a white moon in the south-west and a huge curve of clear blue sky in between. In the still water below the bridge at Westwick I am so pleased to see, once again, a couple of large(ish) fish – this time a pair of the same, idly finning around. I don’t know my freshwater fish at all but having consulted some charts I’d say they are chub. They must be 8 to 9 inches long, with silver bodies meshed in diamond-shaped scales and distinctive dark or black dorsal fins and tails. No sign of the pickerel.
The great field of oilseed rape that reaches as far as the next village was harvested two or three days ago leaving a prairie of tough 6 inch stubble strewn with finely chopped straw. It is as if the landscape had been thrown open. I can see what I couldn’t see before, and walk where I couldn’t walk before. The gentle swell of ground is studded with rooks and wood pigeons, pheasants and rabbits. I circle around its three mile perimeter. Four green woodpeckers loop across to inspect a line of wooden telephone poles, working up each in turn, then passing on to the next. They clamp onto the smooth vertical surfaces like geckoes, and lean out as if they were abseiling. They are a bird that prefers to hang rather than sit.
Then a special surprise – a pair of kestrels or windhovers. While not uncommon round here seldom have I seen two together. One is on the ground, in the stubble, though it doesn’t appear to be feeding. The other swoops low and they both fly up and start hunting in earnest. They do what kestrels do best – they hover, with their backs to the sun, tails fanned out and pressed down, and wings steadily beating. They shine with light. I can see every one of their eleven splayed tail feathers, barred black and rust-red with a wide black terminal band. When they slide through the air to hover anew, I see their pale deeply spotted undersides and closely barred wings. Occasionally they drop lower, ten feet from the ground, but not once do they stoop for the kill. After fifteen minutes or so they abandon the hunt, and take to playing instead, swooping and gliding and cavorting together, and eventually settle in the dead branches of a tree at the edge of the field. I can do no better than quote Gerard Manley again, who said that this, The Windhover, was the best thing he wrote:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
Oh yes. My heart in hiding stirred for a bird….
On my way back, coming straight towards me through the stubble is a lone, dog-like muntjac, looking lost now its cover’s been blown. I am downwind and it doesn’t seem to notice me. It ambles along, head down, sniffing at the ground. The sun polishes its red-brown coat as it moves through the morning. It is as smooth and shiny as a Hungarian Vizsla. I can just make out its short backward-pointing horns. At about 50 yards it looks up, sensing my presence, then changes direction and wanders off over the rise, looking dazed and confused. A morning of green woodpeckers, kestrels and muntjac, three creatures that above all others seem especially at home in this landscape, and which, for me, have come to particularize this patch of England.