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.
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.