Monthly Archives: August 2010


August 31st, 2010. A two-hour stroll round the village bounds before sunset. The evening is dry, sunny and still, and after a wet and windy month all the more so. Only the faintest patterns and tracings of high cirrus cloud marble the pale blueness of sky. Gone are the dry acres, parched lawns and cracked ground of summer. The land is once again green. The gently rollicking pastures dip and rise under a close new turf. Verges and banks have sprung a thick crop of grass, field ditches filled, fulfilled, now falling, foliage washed clean, though there are very few flowers out at this time of year: amongst them, the flat off-white heads of yarrow, sometimes pink, the little two-toned yellow toadflax, the mealy, grey-green couscous balls of fat hen, and the clear yellow sprays of Canadian goldenrod, a garden escape; also, well into their season and still flowering, the lipped orchid-like mouths of the white dead-nettle, in whorls up the stem, the five purple-veined pink petals of the common mallow, and up the ravaged guided-busway still a few white campions and the last yellow flowers on the great spikes of mullein, with downy leaves as soft as lambs’ ears.

In the flat open paddocks to the west of the village a mixed party of wagtails flits nimbly about the horses’ hooves and blowing muzzles, picking off invisible insects disturbed by the great animals as they slowly tread forward, step by step, grazing green blades. I have hardly seen any of these ground-hugging birds this year. The five British species are difficult to identify, with summer and winter, and adult and juvenile variations in plumage. These are mostly, I think, grey wagtails, the first I’ve seen, with lemon yellow underparts, though they could be summer visiting yellow wagtails, or both. Amongst them is a solitary pied wagtail, or it could be a juvenile yellow. Who knows? What pleases me though is the way these slim, delicate creatures and towering muscled horses, unlikely companions, move forward together, at ease and as one.

Beck Brook is a respectable stream once again, knee-deep in water. Peering over the edge of a footbridge, a slow, jerky movement on the bottom catches my eye. And there it is, surely the weirdest creature in these parts – a crayfish, lumbering through the brickbats, lumps of concrete, bits of iron pipe and odd bicycle wheel that litter the muddy bed of our brook at this point. I had been told there were crayfish here, and I must have stared into this very same bit of water fifty times this year and never caught a glimpse of one. It is uniformly brown with a sheen of green, like the mud around it, with no distinguishing markings, about 6 or 7 inches long – a primordial iron-plated bulldozer with two enormous grabbing claws. The bulging eyes on top of its head, long black antennae waving around, multiple legs, segmented body and strange, blunt, fan-shaped tail-plate are grotesquely alien by any standard. This is probably the American Signal Crayfish (with bright red undersides to the claws, which I cannot see) that has almost wiped out our smaller native White-clawed Crayfish. I spot another, some six feet away from the first, but this one is missing a claw and about two-thirds of one antenna – a heron perhaps, or mugged by another male? It seems none the worse for wear. I toy with the idea of catching these two and having them for supper, if indeed they are Americans (the native English is protected) but, as hungry as I am, they are pretty repellent and ‘er indoors would be less than pleased with my foraging.

From a distance, the trees on the northern edge of Histon have taken on a bronzed, autumnal tint. But these are horse-chestnuts, their leaves curled and riddled and burnt with disease, prematurely aged by blight and the leaf-miner moth. It is the same everywhere now – you can pick out the horse-chestnuts from a mile away. Much of the wheat has been harvested (though still some stands), leaving great stretches of stubble studded with rolls of straw the size of small cars. Agricultural machinery grinds and trundles in a far field, and the village roads are busy with tractors. All this noise and activity however doesn’t disturb the smooth, mind-stopping tranquility of a late summer’s evening. Swallows still weave and loop through the air, a small flock of goldfinches dive into a hedge one after another, and a single grey heron lopes off into the pale lilac sky. Yet all is utterly still.


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20th August 2010, the tenth day of Ramadan. Windy days draw me out, and today is such a day. It is fine and dry with a strong warm wind coming out of the west – a kite-flying day, if I had one. At any one time a thousand separate clouds, equidistant from each other, all at the same height above ground, and all more or less the same size and shape, process steadily across a huge sky. Above them are stationery schools of mackerel clouds and gorgeous swirls of cirrus set in deep luminous blue. Between the running cloud-islands the sun pools down on the land, polishing every surface. The wind ebbs and surges, bowing the smaller trees and churning through the copses and woods. From a distance it really does sound like the sea.

The fine weather has brought out the heavy machinery. In the distance a tractor is dragging a disc harrow, slowly and systematically painting the dull earth a uniform rich cinnamon-brown and trailing a wake of white gulls. How do they know? How do they know that the earth will be opened today? Only very occasionally this summer have I seen gulls passing by, and then just in ones and twos. Now two dozen have materialized out of nowhere. Perhaps they smell it. The air is saturated with the odour of freshly-turned earth.

Butterflies are about again, after the wet weeks – mostly Large Whites though I come across one rather battered Painted Lady, orange and black with white-spotted wing-tips, the only one of this species I’ve seen this year. Migrating from the Middle East and North Africa they sometimes mass in their millions across Britain. Not so this year, not here. But today dragonflies abound. I see them everywhere, near and far from water. They glide effortlessly, it seems, without wing movement, until, against the light, you see their four transparent gossamer wings a-quivering at the very edge of perception.

I come across two dead rabbits, fairly fresh still and whole, with no obvious cause of demise. Then, on three separate occasions, a rabbit blunders towards me, blind and disoriented, eyes puffed, red, oozing puss. Myxomatosis. There is no known cure for this deliberately-introduced plague, first observed in laboratory rabbits (surprise, surprise), except long-term genetic resistance. Death takes, on average, 14 days.

On a happier note I discover another section of the old medieval track hedged with wild plum bushes laden with fruit – round red cherry plums, oval orange-yellow mirabelles and ox-blood red bullaces. For me these wild plums have been a real discovery this year – far superior to any supermarket plum, delicious raw or stewed, and abundant across the district. I pick several kilos of sweet cherry plums and mirabelles and throw in a few handfuls of sloes for bite, to be savoured later at fast-breaking time.

the startling blueness of sloes, fruit of the blackthorn

There are few birds about, except woodpigeons who seem to relish the wind, and a party of some dozen wittering swallows who ply back and forth over a bean-field. I sit by a field-gate and watch them for ten minutes or so. They swoop low along the edge of the field, in the shelter of a hedge, and when they reach the gate opening and the brunt of the wind they flick upwards and over, twisting back for the home run, all the while making small noises. When I stand up they fly within a few feet of my head.

I walk home with a bag of wild plums at my wrist, an exhilarating wind in my face, and the world all around me in motion.


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August 13th, 2010. The third day of Ramadan. A three-hour wander before sunset, when I can break my day-long fast. It has been noticeably cooler today, with dark, low clouds and intermittent showers. Not half a mile from home I am caught in a downpour. At ground level the air is still, but overhead the wind picks up suddenly, boiling through the high tops of trees. Then down comes the rain – a hard flung rain. Overarching trees provide little shelter. Five minutes later it’s all over, the storm passes, leaving a lingering drizzle and the land rilled, puddled and pooled. My cap is sopping, waterproof jacket soaked through, boots and socks cold and heavy with water. And I’ve only just started out.

Two wet weeks have re-sprung the land. The sere, bleached pastures and mown meadows now show a bright green sward beneath dry, brittle stems. Beck Brook’s the colour of milky tea, risen and flowing again. I hopscotch across a once more muddy yard at Lamb’s Cross Farm, trying to avoid the puddles. While a little wheat was harvested weeks ago in the long dry spell most is still standing in the fields, brown and drab, no longer golden, waiting for a break in the weather. Not so the fungi. This weather they love and now is the start of their season – a single large horse mushroom sports a head-dress of leaves borne aloft as it pushed up through the litter; a colony of slick orange-brown parasols on slender stems crowd the edge of the track; several tight white buttons hug the ground beneath horse-chestnut trees. This is a world I know nothing about, and must learn, before the year’s out.

As I top the rise on the old track above the farm, I feel the cold. The drizzle thickens, now slanting across my path. The distant evening is hazed with rain. Two hundred rooks with their sentinel jackdaws rise from a field like wet black rags, the only birds out and about. Intimations of autumn. Yet, despite the rain and the cold, and the fasting, or because of it more likely, I feel light-hearted, light-footed and, in truth, a little light-headed. So I decide on a longer route than I had planned, touching on the villages of Rampton, then Long Stanton, then back home to Oakington – some six sodden miles.

The lower end of Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway, is lined with wild plums, hawthorns and blackthorns. Here the damsons and cherry plums are not ready for picking, yet I gathered the same luscious fruits, ripe to bursting, one week ago not two miles further south along the same track. Similarly, the blackberries round here are still tight redddish-green knots. Purple-black sloes cluster along sprays of blackthorn, as hard as shot. Haws and hips are taking on colour. The flat heads of elderberries, swelling and blackening, droop in the rain. Crab apples, hard and green, are still not much larger than golf balls. Everywhere I go, I see fruits beginning to burgeon.

Detouring into a strip of orchard to check out the state of the plums, I actually fall down a rabbit-hole. Down to the knee at any rate. A large warren occupies a nettle-covered mound, riddled with burrows, but its black earth is so soft and loose, like the lightest of peat, worked by generations of rabbits, that I plunge straight through it into the tunnels beneath. I extract myself with some difficulty, for each time I try to step out my foot breaks through the surface again. I feel some remorse at my clumsy demolition but it appears that this warren has been fired quite recently and has probably been abandoned. I see no sign of rabbit.

The rain eases off again, and for a brief spell a weak sun shows through the cloud. Then a special gift is granted, as always on these walks, out of the blue. On passing a copse beside the Detention Centre I hear that old familiar mewing – the cry of a sparrowhawk, or what I think is a sparrowhawk. This is the fourth separate location in my patch where I’ve heard this distinctive, plaintive sound and the first time I’ve caught more than a glimpse of the bird. A pair of hawks is wheeling and diving low across the ground, buoyant and agile, then swooping up into a tall ash tree, then taking off again, chasing each other and mewing almost incessantly. As they turn in the air I see their closely barred underparts, banded tail and blunted wings. Unfortunately my way is blocked by an 8-foot chain-link fence and I cannot get closer. They must be 150 yards off, yet through the binoculars I get a pretty good look at the birds as they preen in the dead topmost branches of the tree, fluffing out their feathers and holding their wings out to dry. They look smaller and more slender when still. I watch for at least 20 minutes but the light is poor, and the distance great, and I am still not absolutely sure of the species.

On my long trudge home in the dying light, the rain starts again. A car pulls up, shuddering with the boom of drum n bass. A young couple. She lowers the window and asks if I want a lift. Brave of them I think, bedraggled and dripping as I am, and kind. But I cannot abandon the walk a mile from home, and tell them thanks, but I like to walk in the rain. And I do. And it’s not long before I burst through my back door, peeling off clothes like a wet-suit, just in time for a breakfast of dates and glass of cold milk, followed by spicy sambusas. Food never tasted so good.

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August 6th, 2010. 4 a.m. I walk out of the village through wet and deserted streets, King of the Road. It’s raining steadily. A low blanket of cloud covers the sky and eclipses the dawn. Except for a faint glow to the south from the lights of the city all is dim, as murky as pond water. A week of showers has softened the land and I can once again smell the earth, the odorous earth. I linger awhile beside Sparrowhawk Copse but there’s not a sound, not a peep. In the far distance the lights from a delivery truck strobe through a  hedgerow.

I walk up the guided-busway to Histon then along puddled tracks to my now favourite place, the scrubland. A single, disembodied kraawwk is shouted down from the cloud, close overhead, startling and pleasing. Who could deny that this is a greeting – from one creature to another, crossing paths in the wet, lonely dawn. It was a heron perhaps, for not long after I disturb one from a ditch and it flies low and slow up the black line of water, shedding raindrops. A cock crows somewhere far away. That’s it for the dawn chorus today. Ten Canada geese fly out of nowhere, heading south, very low and in close V-formation, uncannily silent. Out in the overgrown scrub I gather plump, glistening blackberries, oval blue damsons, ‘the plum of Damsacus’, and round cherry-plums full of juice. These last fall into my cupped hand with the lightest of touches. I am soaked through of course, but no fruit tasted better, wild and rain-washed and straight from the bush.

I make my way homeward. The rain eases off and the clouds disassemble, revealing clear blue sky high above. At my approach mute woodpigeons spill out of each tree in turn, in twos and threes. Their quills thrum with the first few wingbeats then ease into silent flight mode. As I pass Beck Brook, at one of its widest spots, a full four feet across, there are a couple of sploshes, loud in the dawn, and a V-shaped wavelet ripples the channel between blooms of pondweed – the bow-wave of a water vole, ever-elusive. Sometimes all we are offered is a glimpse or a trace – of vole, or sparrowhawk, or the divine. It is enough for now, enough to whet our appetite, to ramble on, seek further, drink deeper.

hedgerow harvest - blackberries, damsons, cherry plums


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August 2nd, 2010. Just after 5 – the sun’s up but shuttered behind a bank of lilac-grey cloud streaked with fire. The morning is hollowed by a massed choir of woodpigeons all round the village, each uttering its own unique version of the deep, guttural, five-note call of the species – coo-COO-coo, coo-coo. Individually, the voice of a woodpigeon sounds unpracticed and laboured, muttered rather than spoken, sometimes breaking off abruptly after the second syllable as if the bird just couldn’t be bothered. It is a coarse, rustic sound compared to that of the sweet-talking collared dove. Yet, en masse, in a thousand different pitches and tones, these woody breath-notes coalesce to a great soul-soothing murmuration that spreads peace and tranquility over the land. And this from a bird so commonplace that we barely give it a thought (except as a bane to the farmer, and as meat for the pot).

I am captivated by another bird sound this morning – that of the white-eyed jackdaw, one of my favourites, not least because each year a pair nests in my chimney. Jackdaws are sociable birds, always cheeky and cheerful. They remind me of Italians, with all due respect. They salute each other with sharp, staccato calls that have a distinctive echoing quality, ‘tchak-ak’, ‘tchow-ow’. I always assumed that this puzzling phenomenon was indeed an echo of some sort but I now think, in some cases at least, it is really a split-second response from another jackdaw. If so, this is truly remarkable. A gang swirls by, releasing a volley of greetings that sound like the shots fired in some old arcade game, a kind of fly-by shoot-up for fun.

A wandering muntjac breaks the curved skyline of the harvested rape field, making its unhurried way to the cover of an adjacent slip of wooded scrub where it will lie up for the day. It is probably the same animal I saw in this field some days ago. I come here because it is one of the few spots in this flatland where there is an uninterrupted view for several miles from south-west to south-east. In my corner of England, where we are usually hemmed in by hedgerows and windbreaks, a clear prospect of two or three miles seems like a blessing, as good as thirty miles elsewhere.

At my approach a kestrel breaks from the trees and circles round out of sight. From a distance its flight is like that of a woodpigeon, with deep rapid wingbeats, but its longer tail and more pointed wings give it away. I backtrack to find it, and as I turn a corner of the field it launches out again from the windbreak, some one hundred yards further off. It is very wary of me, this particular bird. It circles round in front again and settles in an isolated bush in the midst of the field. As it lands, the thin branch bends and springs back in slow motion. As I watch it through the binoculars, a commotion breaks out at the bottom end of the field. The noise is unmistakable. It is a green woodpecker, panic-stricken, and I just catch a glimpse of it diving low through a gateway being pursued by a shadow – a hawk-shadow hot on its tail. Then silence. I make for the opening, expecting, yes hoping, to see a hawk mantling over its prey. But the field is empty. It might though have killed on the wing and carried the limp green body into the trees. I am certain this is my elusive sparrowhawk. We are right by the willow copse where I think one rests up. I listen and listen, and then, from within, comes the faint sound of mewing – sparrowhawk, surely.  I have yet to get a clear sight of this bird.

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Sunday, 1st August, 2010. Out at 6 a.m.; 8 miles today – mostly, as it happens, on tarmac. A cool, grey morning under a cloud-crumpled sky.

As I pass by the wedge of willow copse and thicket between the guided-busway and Histon Brook, I hear an unfamiliar sound. I find I’ve become quite adept at this, with practice, being alive to faint far-away sounds and picking out the extra-ordinary, alien noises that now and then surface through the familiar everyday soundscape. We no longer cultivate the art of deep listening, active listening, of being attentive to the multiple layers of sound that surround us, as do hunters, or the blind; most of the time we are utterly passive when it comes to the auditory world. This is high-pitched and plaintive, like a kitten mewing, a kitten in distress even, not particularly loud but persistent, and it’s coming from somewhere high in the trees. I intuitively know it’s a hawk of some kind, though I’ve not heard it before. It repeats 4 or 5 times, then stops, then cries again. I scour the tree-tops but my field of vision is limited and I can’t see into the midst of the copse. Then, out of nowhere, a ripple of air, a blur of feathers, a flash of hawk-wing, a glimmer of joy and of hope, and it’s gone. The bird has glided out of the wood, seen me below, and in a split second has curved back into the thick mesh of branches and foliage. I listen awhile. The mewing resumes. Something tells me this is a sparrowhawk’s call, perhaps a juvenile still being fed by the parent (though it’s late in the season) – the habitat fits, and the elusive behaviour. To take up a better position I work my way round to the other side of the copse, leap the brook, and settle down in the sheep pasture. The sound seems to have sunk deeper into the understorey and through the binoculars I see only the dark, hunched shapes of woodpigeons sleeping. The sound dies away. I reluctantly leave it at that, and strike south towards Histon. But the quest is now on – the lure of a hawk is compelling.

In the scrubland of the old Abbey Farm I breakfast on the first wild fruits of the season. A single precocious bramble among thousands has ripened its fruits before all the others and is jewelled with glistening purple-black berries. They burst sharp in the mouth, full of flavour and juice. My fingers are soon inked and pricked with pleasure. Then on the old track that leads by, I notice a patch strewn with what look like large black grapes, squashed, split open, half-eaten. I look up into overarching branches bowed down with small, oval, purplish plums blue with bloom. It is a wild damson. I bite into fragrant green flesh, sweet and perfectly ripe.

I take the main road towards Cottenham, hoping to find a way across the fields back home. In the front yard of a humble old bungalow is a bizarre congregation of iron-plate figures, rust-red in the early morning sun – a whacky and slightly surreal bestiary of larger-than-life creatures and aliens. A pig, giraffe, deer, crocodile, sea-horse, owl and iron man jostle for suburban space. They are playful, caricatured, yet skillfully crafted. I meet Tony, welder-extraordinaire and keeper of this strange metal menagerie, late 60’s in age and provenance, as lean as a scarecrow under loose black clothing, bespectacled, with grey stubbled beard and long pale hands. He is gentle, with soft sparkling eyes, not at all how I imagined a welder, a worker in iron and steel, to be. He shows me round the tiny garage that is his workshop, and demonstrates the plasma cutter that he now uses to slice through steel like butter. He started off his artistic career with a hacksaw and a background in physiology. He points out his latest creation – a life-size Galapagos tortoise mounted above an inscription that reads ‘Yes, I remember Mr. Darwin’ – destined for the biology department of the local college. As I leave, he starts to weld spectacles and a bowtie onto a huge see-through skull.

unfriendly fire

I branch off the main road and follow the line of an overgrown lane that runs through an avenue of thornbush and willow. It has not been trod for a while. I am soon pushing through long grass, giant burdock and spent thistles, on one side a wheat crop, on the other a ditch. Soon I am thwarted and have to retreat. But all’s not in vain, for I hear once again, high in the windbreak of trees, that same insistent mewing of another invisible sparrowhawk. Are they then more common round here than I thought? I’ve only actually seen one once this year, and that a mere glimpse and a guess. Further on I attempt another farm track but it too soon peters out and I return to the main road. I tramp past makeshift paddocks, a roadside shrine to a fallen biker, unkempt lots and unfriendly bungalow homes. There’s nothing for it but to walk into the next village, then back along another long straight road to my own, succoured half-way by the sweet yellow fruits of the cherry plum or myrobalan, almost as good as greengages. These were the first trees in the district to blossom this spring, and now, with the bullace, the first to deliver their fruits.


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July 31st. 2010. Rain during the night, ending in a soft mizzle this morning. The ground has had a thorough soaking for the first time this summer. The evening is clear and very still. I walk along the guided-busway in twilight. As my dark shape breaks the skyline of the embankment forty rabbits streak from the middle of a stubbled field towards the edge, as if they had sprung from the earth and the clods themselves had grown legs. For a moment the ground shifts ahead of me.

In a corner, amongst a patch of teasels, is a twining white bryony with deeply-lobed, vine-like leaves and pale scarlet berries the size of peas, glowing in the half-light. They are the first berries of the season, but very poisonous. It is said that fifteen berries will kill a child, though I cannot imagine a child eating even one, so foetid the smell and bitter the taste, so I’ve read. It was often called mandrake in parts of Cambridgeshire, its enormous fleshy tuber credited with all the powers of the true mandrake and passed off as the real thing by unscrupulous hawkers. Like all the so-called poisonous plants it was a favourite amongst the old herbalists.

An unbroken ribbon of rooks passes over towards the south-east in ones and twos and small groups, muttering quietly to themselves. They fly high on a steady course, winging dark against the sky. After counting one hundred I give up, and still they come. Through the binoculars I can just make out, at the limit of vision some two miles away, those near the head of the column disappearing into the night. They could be streaming out from the rookery at Westwick but that is out of sight from where I’m standing. And where they are heading is a mystery. Perhaps to a funeral. It was a Fenland tradition of the last [19th] century that rooks always knew when a gamekeeper had died and would form into a long line to fly over his coffin as it was being carried to the church.

A tawny owl hoots from the trees that line the brook and a pale brown shadow flits down low over the ground and up onto a branch, but it is too far away to see clearly. Eight geese fly over from the north at about 50 feet, all abreast in close formation, silently, black against the deep indigo sky. Their pale rumps suggest they are Canada geese but identification is impossible in this light. As they pass overhead one calls down a single u-whonk in greeting. A farmer is harrowing a field in the dark, tractor headlights on. A babble of excited voices and shouts carries across the still night air from the detention centre on the other side of the old airfield – the detainees are either engaged in a spirited game of football or else they’re rioting, as they have in the past. I cannot imagine how they must feel, having ducked and dodged the authorities in a dozen countries and finally made it to the promised land, only to end up at Oakington Detention Center watching television and playing football, waiting to be deported back to what they risked their lives to escape from.

Back home, a single pipistrelle, no bigger than a wren or large butterfly, flickers up and down the dark garden, backwards and forwards, looping round at each end, twisting and turning through the apple trees, appearing, disappearing and reappearing at breakneck speed. At times it flies within two feet of my face and I try hard not to duck. Two hours later it’s still at it, weaving the air.

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