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.