Monthly Archives: July 2010


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.


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23rd/24th July, 2010. I walk hard to reach Giant’s Hill before nightfall. A downpour two days ago has left the land softer, rounder, and more odorous. At Lambs Cross Farm the sweet tang of farmyard hangs in the dusk and detains me awhile – the irresistible aroma of calves’ breath, molasses and hay. Aromatherapy, country-style. It is a warm, still, cloud-hung end to the day. High above, ten gulls fly northward but down below the land is at rest. No birds to be seen or heard, nor wild creatures, nor people even.  High summer seems to be the season, above all, of stillness and silence.

On the moated, flat-topped earthwork called Giant’s Hill I can’t find two suitably-spaced trees from which to suspend the tarp, and the light is fading fast. I work my way round the adjacent pastures to a spinney on the northern side of the moat and find a good enough spot – well-hidden, reasonably flat and soft underfoot. I notice some fairly fresh cow pats nearby, though I’ve seen no cattle around and am not unduly concerned. Nevertheless, having set up my shelter, I feel compelled to investigate further. Sure enough, three fields away is a herd of young steers…. and all the intervening gates are wide open. I have, inadvertently, set up camp in a cow-field – no docile milkers these, but frisky, inquisitive young bullocks who will surely come over to see what I’m up to. This is, after all, their home turf. They could easily, unwittingly or not, trample all over me in the dead of the night. But it’s too dark now to find an alternative site. From afar, I ask them politely to leave me alone.

I doze fitfully. Friday night through-traffic on the village road a hundred yards off continues till midnight. Three transport planes rumble across the night sky. Moonlight breaks out and sifts through the tarp. Bullocks are on my mind. I get up and go for a stroll. The night sky has cleared. The yellow moon is waxing, just two days from full, lying high to the south, dimming the stars. I locate the Plough and the North Star to orient myself more exactly. I listen for owls but all is quiet. Nothing’s going on so I climb back into the warmth of my sleeping-bag. At some point in the night I hear irregular, muffled explosions like far-distant fireworks which turn out to be raindrops hitting the tarp just inches above – the briefest of showers. At 4 a.m., an hour before sunrise, dawn is announced. First up today is a rook – kraa-kraa, kraa-kraa – repeated again a few minutes later. Then a cock crows from the village beyond. Woodpigeons begin to croon softly, then at last the usual dawn songsters – blackbirds and song thrushes – start into song, accompanied by unidentified pipings from the reeds in the moat. But the chorus is thin on the ground, or thin in the air, this particular morning.

Then a terrific short sharp bark rips through the dawn, not 100 yards from where I am camped. It is loud and emphatic. I take it at first for a fox. Then another bark, and another, and another, all at the same volume and pitch – a call of the wild repeated over and over. I count 40 barks in succession, at 4 to 5 second intervals. Not a fox, no. The sound is stationary, coming from the midst of a thicket of bramble. Now and again it is answered by another slightly higher-pitched, more abrasive bark from perhaps 100 yards further off. A mate, probably. I very slowly move forward, step by careful step, using the cover of bushes until I am within 50, then 20, then 10 yards of the source of the sound. Then it stops. I see nothing, though the creature has no doubt seen me. Roe deer bark in this way, but this must be the voice of the now ubiquitous muntjac. They are also called barking deer, for good reason. That such a forceful sound should issue from such a small and diffident deer is surprising and baffling – what was that all about?

The dawn sky is, illogically, lighter in the west and the north. The eastern quarter is dark with cloud, except for a thin band of orange and pink above the horizon. Just after five, a blaze of sun heaves briefly over the skyline but never achieves full roundness. It is sliced off at the top by low-lying cloud and soon disappears up into darkness. I dismantle the basha, say goodbye to the cattle (who have been well-behaved) and set off homeward. A heron, legs stretched out behind, long neck tucked back into an impossible Z-bend, flies lazily my way, circles in front to the left, then to the right, and finally flies back the way it had come. The inexplicable, maundering flight-paths of birds. The barley has been harvested and rooks and woodpigeons are having a field-day in the golden stubble. Rabbits too, by the dozen, are feasting on the fresh green aftermath in the hay meadows. One youngster stands out – it is pale, creamy even, in contrast to the darkish, grey-brown agouti coats of the others. The steep inner banks of Beck Brook/New Cut, recently thick with wild flowers and flowering grasses, have been mown to the ground. I cannot understand this, not from any point of view. It is not until after six that the sun finally lifts clear of the cloud and floods the land with light. Suddenly the hedgerows are full of birds, mostly finches – chaffinch, greenfinch and goldfinch – blue tits, and yellowhammers. A single skylark calls down from on high, and all around is the soothing, stereophonic susurration of woodpigeons and doves.

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21st July, 2010. 6.30 a.m. Through the fields to Girton, across to Histon by way of a footpath, then back to Oakington on the track beside the guided-busway. A great wave of deep purple cloud, twenty miles long from east to west, rolls out of the north like a breaker, its advancing front curling dark against the light, its trailing edge thinning and foaming until it dissolves in the early morning sky. Within half an hour it has vanished over the southern horizon, leaving in its wake a blue day of sunshine.

I explore a narrow strip of abandoned, overgrown orchard sandwiched between the plastic-wrapped tunnels of a strawberry outfit and a field of fallow. A potential bivouac site for the future. Attenuated apple and plum trees reach for the light above a thicket of brambles, nettles and thistles. Hard nuggets of jade-green plums, powdered with bloom, hang overhead. Blackcap, chaffinch and greenfinch skip through the interlaced branches, and I fancy I see a dunnock or hedge sparrow, a rarity now. Rabbits scupper ahead. But I can go only so far, without a machete, and have to back through a blackthorn hedge into the light and air of open country. It’s no place to sleep.

Across to the roaring fields, roaring, that is, with the black noise of A14 traffic a mile away. The lapwing field has been turned and broken, its greasy, grey-brown clods faceted and glinting in the sun. Ploughing delayed, and a crop relinquished, I’m certain, for the sake of the birds. I’d like to meet this farmer. In fact I catch sight of him later from afar, already hard at work harrowing the other lapwing field below Girton, but it’s out of my way and I’ve no wish to stand in front of oncoming agricultural machinery in the middle of a field flapping my arms up and down like a lunatic. Not today. Interestingly, the adjacent field is sown to wheat, and between the crop and the grass verge is a bare strip of ground a couple of feet wide which here and there along its 300 meter length is populated with borage, the well-known culinary and medicinal herb. It must have been sown deliberately, surely?  Its sky-blue, inverted, down-turned flowers are truly extraordinary. The plant hails originally from Aleppo, Syria, according to Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, and is now naturalized across most of Europe. Gerard tells us that “Those of our time do use the flowers in sallads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde … Syrup made of the floures of Borage comforteth the heart, purgeth melancholy and quieteth the phreneticke and lunaticke person”. Natural Prozac then. I must return to gather a bag-full some time.

At Girton the bed of Beck Brook is as dry as a rambla in the Andalusian hills. Lying on the road is a baby hedgehog, just five inches long, dead, blood still leaking from a wound in the neck. One black shiny eye looks up at the sky. Its nose is still moist. I pick it up by one of its damp, putty-soft feet and lay it down in the shade of a hedge. It’s the first hedgehog I’ve seen this year, dead or alive. One used to frequent the shed in the garden and join the cats at their bowl but it hasn’t appeared for a while.

The gentle, murmuring collared doves are everywhere now, always in pairs, always in love. A couple is dancing, on the ground, in a farmyard. They circle each other closely, spreading and flattening their wings, then they spring up together, a few feet into the air, clapping their wings noisily as they do so. This is repeated over and over every ten seconds. The courtship of doves is a prolonged, intense, energetic affair – fifteen minutes later, when I must move on, they are still dancing, showing no sign of fatigue.

It is a brilliant morning, the sun now at about 40 degrees from the horizon, pouring down a pure light that sharpens the mind as well as the eye. I can see further today, and deeper. The far horizons, where the land lifts gently to the sky or where trees break the skyline, are as clear as the flowering grasses before me. Near at hand, windrows of golden hay lay soft on the land, still to be gathered. Butterflies are out and about, including a Peacock, almost black on the wing but spreading its rich red-velvet wings when at rest, revealing the four large peacock-feather eye-spots that give it its name. Also a single bright lemon-yellow Brimstone, not seen since mid-April. Underfoot, even the smooth concrete track of the busway sparkles with colour. As I near home, children are making their way to school, skipping and chasing and clapping and laughing. A day to be alive.


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July 18th, 2010. To Histon woods and back. Three hours, with much watching and waiting. A cool, quiet and lightly overcast Sunday morning, as gentle as a dove. Many small flocks about, family groups most probably. Yesterday, half a dozen rather scruffy long-tailed tits passed through my garden, practising acrobatics in the cherry and apple-trees. They worked each tree together, as a team, chattering in their thin, mousey voices, then moved on to the next. Today, three or four juvenile goldfinches (a charm of goldfinches?), with bright yellow wing patches but without the striking head pattern of the adult, are busy in a hedgerow hawthorn, and in the spinney by the brook, seven magpies fuss together – seven for a secret never to be told. A wedding party of swifts streaks over the road, squealing excitedly. I watch a green woodpecker fly up onto a wooden railing. It looks behind, as if waiting for something. Another soon flies up and joins it, a juvenile by the look of its indistinct, mottled plumage. The adult flies on, the juvenile following. I have the clear impression that some kind of lesson is going on here. I hadn’t realised just how familial many species of birds are  – parents and offspring, or just siblings perhaps, staying close together after fledging, at least during their first summer.

The ground that has been cleared by rabbits as they graze back the edges of the wheat fields is layered in droppings. They consume considerable amounts of grain to be sure, to the loss of the farmer, but in doing so they fertilize the land. Short-term loss, long-term gain, I’d say. All the road verges and many of the field verges round here have been shorn this past week, their wild flowers and grasses mown down in their prime. In a district of wall-to-wall field crops, species-poor pastures and manicured gardens the verges are often the only habitat left for many wild plants and the creatures that depend on them, not least the butterflies, bees and other pollinators, and the carnivorous insects that keep pests at bay. I am at a loss to explain this wilful vandalism, especially along roadside verges, but I think it may have something to do with a national obsession with tidiness. The countryside must be tidied up, i.e. controlled, at all costs. This is tragic. Both a short-term and long-term loss.

Having said that, I do see numerous butterflies today but mostly in the bramble patches of the scrubland below Histon and along the brooksides – Small Whites, Large Whites, Meadow Browns and Ringlets, a single Comma, and a couple of Red Admirals, the latter migrants from southern Europe and North Africa. To think that one of these may have sipped from a glass of sweet mint tea in Fez or Chefchaouen only days ago and is here now in front of me is more marvellous, to my mind, than men walking on the moon – and accomplished with more beauty, economy and panache. I find a new butterfly too – the small, brown-fringed, orange Gatekeeper.

In the lands of Abbey Farm at Histon are two groves of mature ash, linden, sycamore, oak and even a few pine trees. They are the closest we have in the district to woodland. Just as I’m about to enter the trees, a hawk dashes out and swerves back under the canopy. A two-second glimpse, a two-second thrill. All I see is a grey back and a heavily barred tail – it could have been a merlin, possibly a sparrowhawk, certainly not a kestrel. I quietly enter the wood and think I see it fly again, above the trees. Then again, just a flash of wing as it moves to another part of the copse. I follow. I spend so long looking straight up, through dark leaves into dazzling light, searching, searching, that I crick my neck and spin with kaleidoscopic retinal patterns. To no avail, it’s gone. Another tantalizing glimpse of the wild.

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July 15th, 2010. A day of wind, from start to finish, the windiest day this year. Clouds pour in from the west. Hats and caps fly, telephone wires thrum, big trees bend and bow alarmingly, roaring with pleasure. Jackdaws rush into the sky to ride the air-waves just for the hell of it, like surfers when the sea is up. Three black-headed gulls, the first I’ve seen for months round here, fly into the face of the wind, swooping low, tacking this way and that. It rained during the night – Oakington Brook carries water where it was dry a few days ago, and the main stream, Beck Brook, is up and flowing again. It is remarkable how quickly these little watercourses rise and fall during the year.

Spires of pink rosebay willowherb and bright yellow ragwort colour the corner of a field. The first thistles are over, the last of their down being dislodged by the breeze. A black cat, with white bib and front paws, incongruous in the scrub, freezes on seeing me, eyes widening. She crouches, slowly, lowering herself into the earth. We stare at each other, locked in the moment, until I move forward. In her own village territory or domestic setting she would probably ignore me, but here, out in the countryside, I am something to reckon with, to fear, and to wonder at. I often come across domestic cats on my forays, quarter of a mile, half a mile even, from the nearest habitation. I am always glad to see them. We have much in common – both interlopers, trespassers, wanderers from home, stalkers and hunters, seekers of the veedon fleece. They always seem surprised to see me, embarrassed even, as if I have caught them with their pants down, unmasked, exposing their truer, darker, wilder selves.

I disturb a heron in the sheep pasture below Westwick House. Its big wings unfold like umbrellas and fill with wind. It doesn’t glide far before settling again, easing down on its long, springy legs. It straightens up and stands as still as a post for ten minutes or more. From one hundred yards, it is a bare, dead stump in the ground – grey folded wings and back like fissured bark; the long, pale, serpentine neck like a bleached, twisted branch. I can just make out the black crest sweeping back from its yellow eye, watching me askance. On the brook, three mallard paddle down the runnel between the water-weeds. They are fully-grown but lack the markings of the male or the female so are probably juveniles, survivors from one of the many little flotillas of fluff I saw earlier this year. As I peer beneath the bridge at Westwick to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive pike, two dazzling blue bullets flash past me under the bridge, one behind the other, and disappear downstream. Kingfishers again! Three days ago I saw one for the first time ever in this district. Now two more, on the other side of the village, so probably not the same as the first. I couldn’t have missed them before – not in six months of watching and waiting. Surely not. Yet they are supposed to be more or less sedentary.

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July 13th, 2010. 7 a.m. Overcast and cool, with microdrops of moisture falling. All around, woodpigeons google tentatively, trying out their morning voices. I strike out before breakfast towards the outskirts of Histon, then across to Girton and back to Oakington, mostly along the hard surfaces of busway, cinder track and road. I want to check out Swan Pond, so named on the map, and its encircling disc of woodland as a possible site for a sleepover.

The busway has been deflowered. They have poisoned this stretch with weed-killer (sic: a marketing ploy this – in reality they’re all wild flower-killers of course but it wouldn’t look good on the tin) and strimmed down the verges, eliminating for several miles the feeding stations and nectar bars of untold numbers of caterpillars, bumblebees, honey bees, beetles and butterflies, and depriving, in turn, the insectivores who feed on them. Only scarlet poppies have managed somehow to survive the toxic onslaught, marking the graves of their fallen companions. At the same time, hundreds of saplings, sheathed in white plastic, have been planted up and down the line. Perverse environmental stewardship this. Beyond the reach of the knapsack sprayers, the pale lilac-blue pincushion heads of field scabious or gypsy rose, on long stalks, are abundant, used as a blood purifier and as a treatment for eczema and other skin disorders.

On either side stretch wheat fields, pale greenish white in the morning grey. Where they abut onto woodland or scrub they have been grazed back by rabbits, a hundred feet or more from the edge. At the approach of a dog and its walker the culprits scamper back to the safety of their burrows by the dozen. In a corner by the brook seven rabbits, a large old dame and her boisterous adolescent offspring, hang out with a wood-pigeon and a grey squirrel – cereal-killers colluding. In the fallow further up, five magpies (a tidings of magpies according to the 15th century Book of St. Albans), five for silver, fly away chattering, flashing black and white against the bleached land.

I dive through a low gap in a hedge and follow a field ditch to a patch of woodland, isolated in the midst of wheat fields, where Swan Pond should be. Actually I’ve been here before but at the end of a very long walk, with no time to explore. I make a complete circuit, looking for a way in through the dense undergrowth. The wood is encircled by a ditch, ashen-grey with dried scum. Eventually I find just one opening, beaten through by village boys no doubt, into the dim and silent interior, the floor strewn with broken branches that crack like bones underfoot. The trees are nearly all old willows in various states of decrepitude, some fallen and lying horizontal with roots in the air, one whose thick trunk has simply snapped through some ten feet up, most with dead boughs hanging like dislocated arms. Needless to say, there are no swans, and no pond. Bare dips and hollows in the ground mark the bed of the old pool but there is no trace of moisture, nor of moisture-loving plants. It has been dry it seems for many a year. Only the willows bear witness to a once watery place. No birds sing and nothing thrives except nettles in the more open spots. I have an uneasy feeling about this place and will not be camping out here.

In the fields approaching Girton are yellowhammers and skylarks. A cock pheasant rockets out of a hedge like a clockwork toy, winding down to a splutter. An outing of swallows skims low over the wheat, gulping down fast food, looping and diving with astonishing speed and whoopee. If birds can be joyful, then surely swallows must be the most joyful of birds. A kestrel appears out of the blue, fairly high, gliding and hovering, gliding and hovering, then slides out of view just as suddenly.

On the road back to Oakington I am assaulted by cyclists. The pavement has been converted into a cycle track and walkers now have nowhere to walk. They give no quarter, these iPod-obsessives, and apply neither brakes nor bell in their headlong rush to nowhere, especially dangerous when they attack from behind. More than once I have to flatten myself against the hedge at the very last moment. Achieving the village undamaged, I stop by what remains of the old village pond, now shrunken and half-smothered with reeds. Perched on a bare branch in the middle of the water is a living, shining jewel – there is really no other word that will do – a kingfisher, the first I’ve seen in the district. Just yards from nose-to-tail commuter traffic is a creature of heart-stopping beauty – iridescent blue back, dark turquoise wings, chestnut-red breast. It flies to the edge of the pond and is gone, a flash of electric blue light against the dark, still water. What a surprise, what a gift.

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July 11th, 2010. A short mid-morning walk, or rather stalk…. butterflies, as it happens. Warm, cloud-filled, and windy. Hot when the sun breaks through. The parkland below Westwick House is like dry-season savanna, so desiccated and sparse that the sheep have been removed elsewhere. Oakington Brook, which is more like a drain, is now dry where it runs past the rec. In winter it carries four feet of water within its deep-set banks. Today I pick my way down its damp, soft mud-bed, glyphed with the prints of unknown birds and small mammals, until I reach water – stagnant, moss-green puddles and pools in hiding between clumps of reeds. High above, the leaves of black poplars roar and rattle in the wind, releasing balsam scents into the air as they rub against each other, transporting me back fifty years in a matter of milliseconds, back to my boyhood in Africa, climbing tall, swaying poplars at the bottom of the garden. I think poplars may be especially musical because their leaves are relatively thick and clack against each other like castanets when bestirred. I would like to be able to recognize trees by the sounds they make in the wind, and by their woodsmoke smells in the winter… the kind of common knowledge, folk wisdom, held by all country dwellers and not a few townsmen in the past, now deemed useless, quaint, frivolous even.

This is not the season for birds. Only woodpigeons, rooks and a pair of green woodpeckers are out and about. The rookery at Westwick House, incidentally, which is usually a vortex of raucous sound, has been silent for a few weeks or more and appears to have been abandoned. It seems that once their offspring have fledged and flown, rooks disperse for the summer. They are still in the neighbourhood, hanging around, but less congregational, and less noisy.


No, now is the season of butterflies. I struggle up the steep bank of the brook onto the verge of the rape field, elbowing my way through shoulder-high grasses, willowherb, thistles and nettles, disturbing dozens of the beauties. I spend several frustrating and largely fruitless hours trying to photograph them but they are uncooperative and the breeze doesn’t help. For identification purposes most of the blurred images are fairly useless, but some I already know. The larger ones belong to just seven species – Large Whites, Orange Tips, Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Speckled Woods and one lobed and scalloped orange Comma – and further down the brook, several magnificent fiery Red Admirals. There are smaller ones too, whose names I don’t know. Mostly the butterflies work alone, alighting especially on the tufted purple flowers of thistles, but now and again they cross flight-paths with others of their kind, of the opposite sex no doubt, and spiral away, sometimes three or more together, in an erratic, zigzagging, ascending dance, now parting, now coming together to fleetingly touch, weaving invisible tapestries of pheromone trails.

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