Monthly Archives: October 2010


October 30th, 2010. A beautiful afternoon, the finest of mares’-tails flicking a high blue sky, sunny. Yet in a three hour walk I see little of note. The land is lit, warm, coloured by autumn, and empty. Almost. I am just outside the village, on a track behind the last row of houses, when a large bird flies slowly overhead, not high, dark against the light. I know it from its unmistakable profile. It’s a cormorant. Only the second I’ve seen in these parts. To see one even is remarkable  – for we have no large inland waters nearby, only the small forbidden lake on the airfield and four miles away, out of my range, the flooded gravel pits at the Country Park. Could the cormorant be flying between the two? There are geese I know on the forbidden lake, and then there’s the great crested grebe I found the other day, wounded, beyond the horse pastures, that could only have wandered from there. Perhaps there are cormorants too, and other unknown treasures. I must find a way to visit.

I edge along the side of a large ploughed field. It has been worked right up to its bounding ditch and hedge, leaving no verge at all. The soil is wet and I am soon carrying a slab of mud on each boot. In the shade of an ash-tree, silver mushrooms have pushed up through the dark clod. I’ve never seen anything like them – brushed-metal capsules, immaculate. They only occur close to the ash – beyond, there are none. They must live together in some sort of symbiotic relationship. Out in the bare expanse only a few rooks, pigeons and gulls pick at the ground. I turn into Gun’s Lane, medieval mudway to Cambridge, lined with pale yellow blackthorn and reddening hawthorn. Up ahead a flock of two-dozen migrating redwings settle into a tree-top, but as soon as I get near, they take off and fly up the track into another. They are very flighty these birds, and won’t let me get anywhere near to get a close look. They keep to the tree-tops.

I walk through the scrubland, a pasture, the badger dell, and back down the long, straight line of water euphemistically called Histon Brook without seeing or hearing anything except for one or two woodpigeons. Not even a rabbit. Extraordinary. The fields should be flocked with migrating birds. The landscape has not been so empty all year. As I near the village, though, there is one single eruption of life. The sun is balanced on the western horizon, a blinding white light. I am surprised to hear, half a mile away, a once familiar hubbub. The rookery at Westwick is loud again. I thought it had been abandoned some time ago but I’ve not passed by for awhile. There is a commotion of rooks above the trees, restless, excited. Then they begin to stream outwards in small, loose groups, flying westward, straight into the sun, group after group, until the last one leaves the rookery and there are one hundred and forty rooks ( I count them) in a long, straggling column, making their way slowly across the evening sky. I go to the rookery and look up into the tall stand of sycamores, studded with nests. It is utterly quiet, deserted. Not a single bird remains. Why would rooks leave their rookery just as the sun is about to go down? Don’t they roost here at night? And where do they go? Not that I really, really want to know. I’m just glad to report that there are mysteries still in the world.

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October 29th, 2010. Pre-breakfast, 2 hours. I walk out into a dim, mild morning. The wind is up, blowing steadily from the south-west, and the leaves are coming down. Windfall. Pavements and paths are strewn with yellow hearts and orange lozenges. The wind has stirred the birds and a swirl of jackdaws and rooks, a hundred strong, are romping and roiling in the turmoil, climbing and plunging, surfing the airwaves, purling round and round against the pink south-eastern sky. The tall poplars by the brook howl with wind-music. I go north up the misguided-busway, still bus-less, a year overdue and who knows how many millions over-budget. A steady stream of gulls, in ones and twos and small parties, meanders southwards, flying low, labouring against the buffeting wind. This evening they’ll fly back north again, fast and easy with the wind behind them. A flight of ducks, necks outstretched and muttering quietly, passes rapidly over towards the east then veers round to land up ahead, gliding in smoothly on outstretched wings then all stalling suddenly with a flurry of wing-beats before gently setting down in the grass. A lovely sight. I soon catch up with them. They are sixteen mallard, sitting together in pairs, the females petite and polite next to their magnificent mates. Are these the ducklings I saw in late spring, scattered up and down the brook, now come together, fully-grown? They just sit there, all facing into the wind, not feeding or preening, just sitting it seems.

I turn onto the stony track of Wilson’s Drove. The wind drops. There is colour once more in the land, the trees turning in earnest over the last couple of days, in tune with the first of the frosts. Field maple and sycamore, blackthorn and wild plum, linden and poplar, beech and birch are all now mottled yellow and gold, amber and orange, mustard, copper, brick-red, rufous, russet and rust, each to their own and beyond description. Mineral colours, matching the smooth brown fields all around, combed to perfection. A hedgerow sycamore, tall and proud, has cast a perfect half-moon of lemon yellow shards at its feet, on its north-eastern side, opposite the wind. Homeward, along Cuckoo Lane, muddy still. A covey of red-legged partridges whirs low over the earth, a cock pheasant torpedoes out of a hedge in high protestation, the flick of a hawk-wing sends me reeling again. Small, green crabs still hang from a bush, crisp and sharp at first bite, then furring my mouth. Fifty migrating fieldfares, undulating in flight, flash their grey rumps in passing. Down now though the farmyard at Lamb’s Cross, negotiating puddles and tractor-churned mud. A shorthorn bull with curly woolly coat, heavy and knee-deep in mud, shows the whites of his eyes. The radio still plays to an empty barn.

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October 24th, 2010. Late afternoon, again. A bright cold day, with high cirrus and even one or two piles of cumulus in an autumn-blue sky. I take the long muddy track past the spent strawberry tunnels – half a square mile of plastic slowly deteriorating, muffled snatches of Slavic from the last lonely workers within – and across the green weed-field beyond, one of the few to have lain fallow all through the year. A family’s out walking, the small boy behind pushing his bike through the grass – it’s rare to see anyone venturing out off the roads or paths. The big lapwing field is now down to rape, striped with seedlings. This western side of the village is bathed in the wash of A14 traffic but it’s open and I can walk in the last of the sun, now just a finger or two above the horizon.

Skirting the deserted golf course I strike south towards Girton, perched on its slightest of ridges. From this direction you can see why it was settled, just a few vital feet off the fen. A strip of sown borage between the verge and the field is still in striking blue flower. I disturb a kestrel from its post in a hawthorn and it quietly flips over the hedgerow into the golf course. A hundred yards further up, I unnerve it again, and this time it flies low and slow across the sweep of brown field in front, barely two feet above ground, sharp-winged in the light, eventually settling into the earth itself, looking small and insignificant in the clod. It defecates forcefully, ejecting a hot squirt of mouse and small bird, then flies up to its watch in the hawthorn once more. But the fields are otherwise utterly empty. It is only on the closely-mown turf of the driving range, just below Girton, that I see a few birds. A handful of fieldfares and redwings, last seen in mid-March, and a scattering of active black-and white wagtails. Migrants, taking a break. Among them a resident green woodpecker, its black mask gazing at the sky, red nape and olive-green back lit by the lowering sun.

I pass through the churchyard at Girton as a single tolling calls the villagers to evensong. Feral pigeons, white and grey, huddle on the shutters of the squat stone tower. The church is white and lit within, as empty as the fields. In the recreation ground only a teenage girl sits still and solemn on a swing. I cut through the ‘community woodland’, with paths and benches set in an impenetrable thicket of ash saplings, and set off along a very muddy and slippery ‘permissive footpath’, between wire fences, across the fields towards Histon. A woman and her dog pass hurriedly by. Nothing moves in the fields. Over in the west, the far horizon is a Chinese landscape of castles on forested mountains set between deep plunging valleys. The sky behind is softly layered in a spectrum of colours – deep orange merging up into yellow, then into green, then into indigo blue. Dusk soon overtakes me and the light is sucked from the land. It is a long three miles back home without the company of light or landscape or creatures, but I pick up on the concrete strips of the guided-busway, which will guide me, if not buses, back home. In the east, not high above the heave of the earth, a more-or-less full moon appears, bright but tiny, a mere farthing in the darkness. I hear only the sound of my breathing and tread of my feet. I become aware of a vague shape in front, a figure approaching, a man in fact, who soon emerges round-faced and stocky, of oriental extraction, beside me, and without breaking stride we exchange a ‘gd’evening’ and pass on, each fading back into our separate black nights as if we had never existed.

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October 19th, 2010. Late afternoon. Cold, grey and damp. The sky is uniformly overcast, except at the lit edges of the world where cloud-shapes take form, rimming the pale horizon. It’s autumn. Days of wind and rain have dislodged leaves which now lay brown and black and wet on the ground. Trees are turning – the sycamores burnt orange, field maples pale yellow, limes browning at the edges, while the silver birches have shed most of their foliage. The sky is alive with autumn migrants.

In the village I meet Bob the thatcher, bespectacled and beaming, in spite of the weather. He and his mate are repairing the roof of a cottage and have already put up a new ridge, the crowning glory of the thatcher’s art. Some of the decayed thatch is reed and some of it is straw, and has to be replaced like with like. He’s only been thatching for five and a half years and it takes five years to pick up the basics he reckons. Still, they’ve done a beautiful job. It will last 50 years. They’re booked up till next August, all over East Anglia. The techniques, tools, materials and artistry have not changed for several thousand years, except now the reed is imported from Eastern Europe and China whereas before it was local.

I set out for the big open fields on the western side of the village, where the winds sweep through unchecked. My hands are soon chilled, my nose running. But there are birds about. Following Rose’s directions, I soon find the buzzard’s nest in one of a pair of small, lonesome ash-trees, an untidy pile of sticks in a flimsy fork not fifteen feet above ground. It hardly looks big enough to accommodate a fully-grown buzzard and offspring. But it must be the place. I can see why a buzzard would nest here. It is about as far away from any road or track or footpath that a bird could find round here, almost completely undisturbed I would think, except three or four times a year when the farmer comes to sow or reap or plough, cocooned and remote in his tractor. Within one hundred yards I find four pools of feathers – pigeon kills. And then, further off, the slow brown weight of a buzzard lifts into the air, beats its great wings three or four times, then glides, beats again three or four times, and glides again, and settles into a hedgerow tree. I follow. It’s soon on the wing again, and joined by its mate. A pair of buzzards! They don’t fly far, and soon perch, four feet apart, in the bare branches of a dead tree overlooking the empty fields…hunched shapes, tawny against the evening. I approach across the open, just to see how close I can get. Not far. Within two hundred yards, one of the pair sails off, effortlessly, winging low over a field, scattering pigeons and starlings by the hundred. The other sits still, unmoved.

Parties of gulls, slim-winged and fleet, fly north in untidy formation, ten, twenty, fifty at a time. Underneath them, flying south-west and low, thrushes and larks, unidentifiable, pass by in successive small flocks. The autumn migration is on. The big fields here are in stubble still, unploughed, perfect for stop-overs. Far away, at least two hundred lapwings sit in a field amongst rooks and pigeons and seagulls. I approach along a field-track to see what else is aground. All of a sudden, the lapwings rise as one, four hundred black and white wings (at this distance) beating slowly upwards. I fear I have been incautious and spooked them. And then a small dark hawk-shadow passes through them, like an arrow, low and intent, focused on what I don’t know. It disappears in a flurry of birds. It was not me after all, but the thought of a hawk that set off the lapwings.

I am on my way home when a strange goings-on catches my eye. I am passing along the edge of the horse pastures and notice five ponies together, noses down, following a tumbling, whitish, indistinct shape that is, with difficulty, trying to escape their attentions. I take it for a large cat, perhaps. The creature, and the ponies, reach the edge of the field not far from where I am standing. The ponies stretch their necks through the railings, uncommonly curious. What could it be that has so mesmerized them? I have never seen horses behave in this way. And then I see what it is. Crouched in the grasses and brambles beyond the railings, on the edge of an overgrown ditch, is a large bird, grey and white, with a long powerful bill, lungeing fiercely at the snuffling muzzles. The bird struggles to get away, pushing through the tangled growth with difficulty, probably injured. That would explain its strange tumbling gait across the pasture – it can’t fly. It settles, half-hidden in the ditch and I get a closer look. It is a great crested grebe, perhaps 18 inches long, an immature adult, with grey back, white neck and face, long straight pinkish bill, and a distinctive dark head-crest, parted in the middle to form two stylish tufts. Being immature, and outside the breeding season, it lacks the handsome chestnut ruff of the species. This is the first great crested grebe I’ve seen here, and being a water bird it could only have come from the forbidden lake on the old airfield, half a mile away. What is it doing here, and how was it injured? Its story though will never be told. My impulse is to catch it and hold it, but it is inaccessible from my side of the ditch without considerable effort and it would try to escape from me anyway, making its injury worse. Besides, it would not hesitate to take out my eye with its dagger. Reluctantly, I leave it. A fox will eat grebe tonight. Perhaps I’ll come back in the morning and see how it (or the fox) has fared.

Postscript: I did in fact return next morning but there was no sign of the bird, not a feather…

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October 16th, 2010. Three hours. Late afternoon. It’s bright, clear and cold. A light breeze out of the north has driven the clouds over the city to the south, unveiling the sun, though I still need a jersey and jacket, a cap and scarf to keep warm. I meet Rose, walking her collie. She gives me her news. The buzzards on the west side of the village are still there, having nested this year. One day in August she counted eight water voles in the ditch that runs from Histon, before they cut and cleared it. In the brook, the six crayfish are down to two, both males she thinks (the two I saw back in August?), the females apparently gone. And she’s seen goldcrests by the rec. I have little to offer in return… three juvenile swans, that’s about it. A lifetime of walking these fields has opened her eye as well as her heart.

I set out for the scrubland and woods below Histon. On either side, the rich brown ploughland is studded with gulls, shining white in the lowering sun. I haven’t seen so many since winter. The clear weather has brought out the dogs too, and their walkers. Fifty feet above the scrub a kestrel quivers in the clear air, in front of a pale three-quarters moon. A gang of long-tailed tits works through the bushes, always busy and sociable. There are still some late blackberries on the brambles, but small, soft and insipid. Not so the acorns, fresh-fallen and green. I crack one underfoot and it releases its plump, moist, ivory seed, as sweet and fresh as a brazilnut.

Colonies of mushrooms have hatched from the deep, all very localised. In a grassy field the white flaky cylinders of Shaggy Inkcaps unfurl into black-fringed bells on very tall stems. True to their name, their spores have been found in the ink of medieval manuscripts. In the litter of a plantation outside the village, Wood Mushrooms abound at all stages of growth, the newly-emerged as tight and white as golf-balls. Very good to eat apparently …but the fungal world is full of deception… caution is called for. The more open areas in the scrubland are strewn with Milkcaps of a kind, with wavy orange caps slick with mucous. Once you accustom your eye to these strange and beautiful creatures they’re all over the place at this time of year.

I have discovered what I think is an active badgers’ sett. It is on the side of a hollow in the middle of a small circle of woodland, betrayed by conspicuous yellow sand that has been excavated from the tunnels and strewn round the entrances. I enter the wood as silently as possible. The soft, damp ground muffles my footfall. I take up my position, well-hidden, some 80 yards from the sett. I wait. And wait. There’s no movement, no sound, no shuffling shape. It’s now so dark in the wood that I can barely see anyway. Losing patience, I go to inspect the sett at close quarters. It seems that someone’s been at them. The sand is patterned with bootprints and a great log has been thrust down one of the entrances, effectively blocking it. Kids or vigilantes? As far as I know there are no cattle within range so there should be no persecution.

I emerge from the night of the wood into dusk. On the western horizon a strip of pale orange and yellow cloud reflects an inglorious sunset. Trees are silhouetted black against a green ocean of sky. A few late flocks of seagulls head north, high and silent. I set off home through a deserted and soundless landscape. Long-gone are the dog-walkers. But where are the birds, where are all the creatures? All is still, all is quiet. Only the water in the ditch, trickling through a culvert under a bridge, is alive. The great rookery at Westwick is utterly silent, as if abandoned, and even the parkland below the big house has been emptied of sheep. Dusk falls fast at this time of year. It’s soon quite dark, in spite of a now bright-shining bitten-off moon. As I near the village I catch the smell of someone else’s supper. Slabs of yellow light fall through uncurtained windows. Somewhere far off, a dog barks.

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October 13th, 2001 – the first time I’ve been out in this poor patch of England for six long weeks. Poor because it has been largely deprived of its natural wealth – its variety, complexity, fecundity, wildness – and reduced to something considerably meaner and less productive, or so it seems to me. Still, as I have discovered over the year, there are remnants of glory even here, unveiled on occasion, when you least expect them, though perhaps not today.

I walk fast for five miles, up the no-through road to Longstanton, along the green ways and droves to Rampton, through the village, then upstream along the high bank of New Cut/Beck Brook to the medieval trackway called Cuckoo Lane which takes me over the only rise in the district and down through Lamb’s Cross farm to the Cottenham-Oakington road and back home – a route I’ve taken many times before of course, all on road or track. No furtive fence-hopping or field-creeping today, no bush-whacking, ditch-leaping or tree-climbing today, no idleness, recklessness, no derring-do.

It is a dull, overcast day, dry and cold. It has, evidently, been somewhat wet this past month. Pastures and meadows carry a lush pelt of green, growth having outpaced the grazers. In places the track is still muddy and puddled. Water in the open ditches is hidden under a loose skin of algae, electric green with nitrogen run-off. In the brook it lies milky and still. Apart from the cold, not much has changed. Only the horse-chestnuts, diseased, have turned and shed most of their leaves prematurely. From afar they autumn the green with orange and bronze. On the ground their leaves lie curled and brown and gather in drifts. Field maples are beginning to yellow. Haws have softened and coloured a deep wine-red, while the flask-shaped hips remain firm and crimson, awaiting the frost. Most of the elderberries are spent – I have missed their harvest. On the verges the occasional white yarrow and a few yellow hawkbits, dandelion-like, are still in flower. In the hedgerows the late-flowering ivy has finally opened its yellow-green globes, unleashing a strange, potent musk.

A herd of two dozen geese (Canadas) crop the turf in the old airfield, all facing the same way, long black necks arched to the ground. I nearly fall over a diseased rabbit, drunk and disoriented on myxamatosis, its bulging skull visible under a thin membrane of skin. I look around for a weapon with which to despatch it but it creeps away out of reach. Later I come across an injured wood pigeon, broken-winged, but such is its fear of humans that it beats frantically through the hedge to escape my kind clutches, and I leave it be to avoid further distress. It will probably not last out the day. A handful of goldfinches, with red, black and white face-masks and bright yellow wing-flashes, is flung up into the air, like a magic trick. A kestrel beats over, long-tailed, and then, in an adjacent field, another hovers above the brown earth before sliding away on the slope of the air.

All the arable here, in the lower part of the district, has been ploughed and harrowed and worked to a more or less fine tilth, ready for sowing. The sight of bare soil, beautifully combed and even and smooth, wrapped round the land, fills me with a strange delight. I think because only thus, cleared of crop and cleaned, do we see what a truly wondrous creation it is. Only thus is its glory revealed, as a living, breathing organism, and its potential unearthed. The soil hereabouts varies subtly from adjacent field to field, and sometimes within fields – from rich chestnut brown through to a yellowish ochreous tan and a paler, more greyish khaki – not though the black fenny soils that lie a few miles to the  north. The grey shapes of wood pigeons hunch in the ploughland, amongst them a single, pure white dove. Spurning the comfort and predictability of some suburban dovecote, it has decided, or been persuaded, to go native. There is much activity in the fields today – farmers dismount from their 4 x 4s and kick a clod or two, great yellow sacks of seed, like giant punch-bags, are hoisted by tractors into hoppers, machinery is trundled and dragged across the land. Only the fields by Rampton Drift which bore barley this year have already been sown, with rape, now six inches high and here and there precociously flowering.

On my way back along the high bank of New Cut that channels Beck Brook towards Rampton, three silent shapes sit on the stream. They are juvenile Mute swans, the size of large geese, with smoky grey plumage blotched white. Black tear-tracks curve down from their eyes to the base of their pale beaks. There’s no sign of the adults. They show some momentary interest but are unperturbed by my presence and continue bobbing for black strands of weed on the bed of the stream. Now swans are commonplace, I know, especially on the larger rivers and waterways, but this is the first time I’ve seen them on our little Beck Brook. So I sit down and watch them awhile. They are surely the most placid of birds.

Further along, walking up Cuckoo Lane, I am alerted by the unmistakable cry of a bird of prey. A hundred yards away, two shapes dash and duck and jink through the air just above the ground, a couple of feet apart. A wood pigeon is being hunted down by a hawk or falcon of sorts. I get a two-second glimpse, that’s all, before they are hidden by trees. But in those two seconds a door is opened and wildness floods the world. My heart races. Then all reverts to normality. I don’t know the outcome. But surely a kestrel, the most common bird of prey in these parts, would not take a pigeon. It must have been a larger hawk of some kind, though I have only seen snatches of what I take to be sparrowhawks. The thought that this might be a peregrine will keep me out and about till the end of the year.


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