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.