Monthly Archives: July 2010

pikewalk51

July 8th, 2010. A 5-mile walkabout before breakfast, north up the guided-busway, east by Reynold’s Drove, south by Cuckoo Lane, then west along the Cottenham-Oakington road. It’s been a while since I’ve taken this route.

It rained during the night and there are puddles again on pavement and road but I suspect it has only wetted the lips of the land. I walk out into light drizzle that soon peters out. From north to south and from east to west the sky is covered by one, unbroken, uniformly dove-grey layer of stratus. Slowly during the course of the walk dappled cloud formations emerge out of this undifferentiated ocean of vapour. They come into being from unbeing, bringing texture and hue and shape and movement to the overcast sky. So the world is made manifest from the unmanifest.

The moribund busway is fairly busy with commuter cyclists at this time of morning but few return my greeting. Most are plugged in to iPods and MP3s and simply don’t hear my g’mornings. Neither do they hear the skylarks, yellowhammers, jackdaws and collared doves that compose the soundscape around them. They are, for the most part, utterly un-plugged – disconnected from the world and the people around them – at least when they’re cycling. If I were king……

I am always thrilled to see a heron. They are such big birds. And they evoke the primeval. As one flies away from me, following the brook as it winds through the fields, its distinctive wing movement is all too apparent – deep, slow beats with the whole wing held stiff from the shoulder, mechanical, laboured, quite unlike the supple, bowed wingbeats of buzzards and rooks, for example, with their splayed and upturned primaries.

The wheat in the fields is yellowing in patches while the barley is all pale golden-beige, almost ripe for reaping. Hay-fields have already been cleared and present open expanses of closely-cropped stubble. Brambles are in violet-pink flower (rather than white), now dominating the hedgerows and waste grounds. Dozens of medium-sized, dark brown butterflies that I take to be Ringlets or Meadow Browns work the flowers along the steep bank of the brook, among which are occasional clumps of the lovely blue-purple meadow cranesbill. Of white flowers out now are large daisies and mayweeds, white campions still and yarrow emerging, but the largest and showiest are the pure white, trumpet-shaped bindweeds, three inches across, the scourge of farmers and gardeners, but surely one of our brightest flowers on a dull day.

Large Bindweed

As is so often the case, just as I come into the village at the end of my walk, lamenting the absence of wildlife, I am truly taken by surprise. I peer over the bridge into Beck Brook, as I customarily do, expecting no more than a mallard perhaps, or a moorhen. But today, here, where the brook is at its most streamlike, perhaps eight feet wide and a foot deep at this driest of seasons, I see something remarkable…..not one, but two, wild fish – proper fish, big enough to eat. How can I get so excited about fish? Well in six months I’ve never seen anything larger than a paperclip in this rivulet, not even a fingerling. The first is sculling slowly upstream, silverish with dark dorsal fin and tail. Allowing for the distortion of water and the exaggeration that fishpersons are prone to, I’d say it is about 10 inches long. I’ve no idea what it is – it’s shaped like a trout but is definitely not. Nearby, on the muddy bottom, lying as still as a corpse, as they do, is the unmistakable body-shape of a pike, or rather, a pickerel. It is slender, perhaps a foot long, olive green with dark, broken vertical stripes, and that distinctive, flattened snout like a dolphin’s beak. It barely stirs – it is in hunting mode. I don’t know why the discovery of two substantial fish in the stream should be so thrilling, so significant… perhaps I need to get out more …. but I know now why heron frequent this surprising sliver of water.

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bivouac50

July 4th/5th, 2010. Something of a milestone today. My 50th walkabout this year (and 50th blog) – that’s half the projected 100 turns around my block in just over six months. 50 more to come, God willing.

It is a sparkling, innervating, wind-charged day from start to finish – a day for cloud-watching, if nothing else. An ever-changing, never-ending parade passes over from the west – high clouds, low clouds, thin milky clouds and dense dark-bellied piled-up clouds, isolated oddling clouds and swarming gregarious clouds that seem to cover half the county, all moving through a deep azure sky at different speeds (the word ‘azure’ coming, apparently, from the name Lajward, a place in north-eastern Afghanistan that in ancient times was the main source of vivid blue lapis lazuli).

In hope of a storm I decide to sleep out and set off after sunset, heading for the scrubland previously mentioned in earlymorningwalk48, the domain of my kestrel family. This year has been exceptionally dry and drought is imminent. In the gloaming the sheep pasture below Westwick House looks as sere and pale as the African veldt. The brook is barely flowing. Field tracks are fissured and dusty. The land is yearning for rain and tonight there are rumours.

A brisk 45 minute walk brings me to this slightly elevated, semi-wild, overgrown tract and I have no difficulty finding what looks, in near darkness, to be the perfect site for a bivouac – a thick bed of clover. The sky is now almost completely overcast and I need the light of a headtorch to set up the basha. I sling the tarp between two young alders and secure the corners with bungees and pegs. The ground though is rock-hard, or underlain with rock, a few inches below the surface. The pegs are barely holding but there is no hammer-stone to be seen anywhere. The wind is still up and I envisage a debacle in the middle of the night.  Bismillah. Once inside, I discover my bed of clover is not quite what it promised. Underneath is broken, lumpy ground. It seems that this field had once been ploughed and was then abandoned before being harrowed or leveled, hence the corrugated, hummocky surface beneath the vegetation. I arrange my body round the lumps as best I can and settle down for the night. The tarp buckles and billows in the bluster.

my bed of clover

At about 2 o’clock I am awakened by silence. The wind has died. I lift the side of the tarp and look up into an indigo sky clear of cloud. No rain has fallen … the storm has blown itself out. The moon is high, waning, slightly tilted on its back. Stars emerge out of the darkness. I walk out into the night, accompanied by moonshadow. Everything is still, all is quiet … and not a single night creature reveals itself. It is a little chilly in tee shirt and kagool so I soon climb back into my sleeping bag. Somewhere far way a bell chimes thrice.

At a quarter to four exactly the first bird breaks into song – it is, unsurprisingly, a song thrush. It works through its repertoire for a full five minutes before it is joined by another, a blackbird. Soon others swell the chorus – blackcaps and robins – but it is not as full-throated an affair as in woodland or garden. Pigeons murmur their woodnote call. A cock pheasant cranks into life and a domestic cockerel answers somewhere in the village beyond. Greenfinches wheeze at each other from the tops of trees. It hasn’t rained but the land (and my tarp and sleeping bag) is drenched in dew. I wash with the last of my water, face the south-eastern quarter and offer my own song of praise.

cloudburst over the fen-edge

I wait for sunrise. The last of the night-flying insects seek cover, among them a striking Cinnabar Moth with black, red-spotted forewings and bright red hind wings. From the north-east skyline a great burst of cloud fans out into the firmament, flinging off cloudlets in a fountain of water vapour. At a quarter to five a shimmering ball of golden fire breasts the horizon and momentarily stains the lower sky apricot pink. It is an awesome sight but doesn’t last long. Within half an hour much of the sky has clouded over and the sun is hidden again. It turns cold as I make my way homeward along the old medieval trackway. Snails breakfast on thistles; an unlikely choice, it seems to me, for such soft-bodied creatures. Rooks on early morning missions, like Mongol couriers, race purposefully across the sky.

thistle-loving snail

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israh49

July 2nd, 2010. Not so much a night journey as a short walk and overnight bivouac. I leave the house at 10.30 p.m. A little light lingers still in the southern sky but the north and west is lidded with low, dark cloud that hides the moon. Except in the open there is barely enough light at ground level to see my way but I know where I am going and have trod this path many a time before. I make for an isolated copse of some half dozen ivy-wrapped ash trees on the edge of a wheat field – Woodpecker Copse I call it, on account of the great spotted woodpecker that nested there earlier in the year. It’s a good place to camp – sheltered, away from any habitation, unlikely to attract attention, with a trickling brooklet nearby providing water for washing if not for drinking (I daren’t drink any stream water round here). Inside is dense and dark, thick with undergrowth and fallen boughs. As soon as I turn on my head-torch there is a clatter of wings in the canopy above, then all is quiet. In no time at all I have set up the basha (a Malay word meaning a ‘shelter’ or ‘hut’, first introduced into British army vocabulary by veterans of the Malayan Campaign of the nineteen-fifties) – a light tarpaulin slung over a cord stretched between two trees, affording shelter from rain but open at the sides and ends. Perfect for this time of year.

First campsite : Woodpecker Copse, with meadowsweet and brook.

By midnight I am ready for sleep. It is immensely satisfying to stretch out on the earth in this way, in the dark, in the open air, with one’s head on the ground, as we so rarely do. The last remaining light has drained from the sky and a few stars are now visible. It has been a hot, muggy day but the open-sided basha lets the cool night breezes wash over me, carrying the scent of meadowsweet from the brook. I listen for night sounds but all I hear is distant traffic and the rumble of high-flying aircraft. No dog-fox barks, no hedgehog snuffles and snorts… though later I do hear, far far away, the long drawn-out call of a tawny owl. I doze fitfully. At about two a light shower passes over, and then another half an hour later. The gentle patter of rain on the tarp overhead is soothing and soporific. I drift off. Then at some time during the night I find myself surrounded by farmers with large dogs on leashes who metamorphose into a caravan of itinerant Romanian workers who urge me to join them. Field dreams. By three, the sky seems to be lightening somewhat – day is already dawning.

However, I then fall soundly asleep till six, missing both the dawn chorus and sunrise. It is lovely though to wake up in this early morning woodland. The sky is overcast and all is peaceful. Occasionally a magpie rattles nearby, and blackbirds scold. Woodpigeons clap their wings and fly into the day. But the silences are longer and sweeter. I am the first in the world to rise. I go to the brook and scoop some handfuls of cold water to wash away the sleepiness and welcome the day. Then a breakfast of hot strong coffee and a few dates. It doesn’t take long to pack up and I’m soon on my way. The first joggers appear over the horizon at seven. It has been a restless and uneventful first night out, but I’m already planning the next.

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