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.