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squirrelwalk75

November 27th, 2010. 7.00 a.m. A grey weight of cold hangs heavy over the morning. Everything is dusted with snow, the ground hammered with frost. There’s more light below than above. Ragged flights of gulls – common and black-headed – emerge out of nowhere, in twos and threes and dozens, sculling steadily overhead towards the dull bloom of light in the south-east. A pair of jays retreats into a thicket of hawthorn. A fox sees me first, and bounds away over the pasture, as if the ground was too cold for her paws, her thick brindled brush, white-tipped, almost as long as her body, flowing behind. At three hundred yards, she stops and turns to look back at me. For a few moments we are two beings conjoined. Now, at the beginning of winter, she is well-fed and in fine fettle.

It is very cold, cold and still. I am ill-dressed for the weather. My ungloved hands find cold comfort in pockets. The dense mesh of hedges and bushes harbour small birds – blackbirds, chaffinch, a greenfinch and goldfinch, I’m happy to see. But it’s too cold to linger long. Water in the ditch is frozen over, the ice powdered with snow and marked by the drama of slid prints, the larger probably rabbit, the smaller probably stoat. Cock pheasants strut gingerly across frozen ploughland. On the ice-rutted droveway, a young lad approaches, eight or nine, struggling with his bike. He stops, wants to talk, share his early morning adventure. We have a strange conversation.”Nice day, in’ it”? “Yes, very cold though”. “Not very nice if you have to bike 30 miles”. “30 miles? Where on earth are you going”. “Three times round the village”. More like 3 miles, but for him it’s probably closer to 30. “Why?” I ask. “I’m having a race with my friend”. “And where is he?”, I ask, looking up the track. “Oh, he’s still in bed”. And off he goes.

At the farmyard, Longhorn cattle bellow into the morning – foghorn cattle. They stare at me, pointed horns curving crazily in drunken asymmetry. Collared doves, as smooth as milk, purr round the barns. In the next field, Belted Galloways, black barrels of beef with white midriffs, as woolly as sheep, huff clouds of warm cow-breath into the cold. I walk a slippery road through Longstanton. On the gates of a house – NO COLD CALLERS. That counts me out, then. Back down the no-through road towards home. Out in the open fields, a buzzard is on the tail of a rook, not hunting I’m sure, probably just irritated by the smaller bird. They twist and turn a few feet above ground until the buzzard gives up the chase, flaring its great wings in a banking glide and settling onto a fence post. It broods… a brown, indistinct shape hunched against the cold haze.

In the hedgerows and trees I notice nests everywhere, betrayed by the fall. A branch trembles in front. Not six feet away a squirrel is easing through the dense tangle of stems and twigs. A large grey, wrapped in fabulous fur, with shiny black almond eyes. It swims through the thicket, sometimes over-reaching itself and swinging down on one hind claw, its tail entwined on a nearby branch. It slips into a briar, picks out a rose hip, and holding it in both paws gnaws at it tentatively. I watch closely. How will it deal with it? But it is not to its liking and it chucks it away. Further on, two more squirrels, smaller and paler, are wrapped, like lemurs, round stems of young ash-trees. They skip up to the very ends of the slenderest twigs to pick the last of the ash-keys and break out the seeds. I don’t see many squirrels round here. They’re a treat to watch, and worth a little more time in the cold.

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grebewalk68

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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peewitwalk46

June 15th, 2010. Late afternoon/evening. Cold for June, but the evening sun is out and I am soon warmed. The willows by the brook are shedding downy seeds by the thousands, which drift to earth like snow falling in slow motion. Milk thistle is in purple flower, and mallow. White clover is out, and the first scraggy bramble blooms. Dog rose and elder still dominate the hedgerows.

I go west to the big open fields between the village and the A14. It is unusually, and disturbingly, quiet. The river of traffic a mile away is barely audible, for the breeze is blowing from the east and I am upwind. With some trepidation I make my way to the lapwing field, a great stretch of fallow stubble, set aside it seems, where I have been keeping an eye on a few pairs of this red-listed bird since March. I don’t know what to expect. Through a gap in the hedge I slowly scan the field from one side to the other, astonished. There are at least three dozen iridescent dark green and purple lapwings on the ground (which constitutes a desert of lapwings, according to the the 15th century Book of St. Albans), and a few are wheeling and plunging about in the air. Many are juveniles, half the size of their parents, but fully-fledged and airborne. They have, evidently, bred with some success in this bare, open, unfrequented spot. Mingling with the lapwings (or peewits or green plovers as they are sometimes called) are gangs of starlings. A hare, the colour of the earth, lopes across the field unhurriedly, stopping frequently, followed by another. Three mistle thrushes, the first I’ve seen hereabouts, stand upright at the edge of the fallow, gazing at the sky. Their chestnut-spotted breasts shine like shields in the sun. I break cover to continue my walk and as soon as I move the lapwings take wing, shrieking one-note alarm calls instead of their characteristic two-note pee-wit, pee-wit. They hang suspended in the air till I’m gone.

I turn south and make my way through the wheat fields, along banks, ditches, verges and the occasional hedgerow. No footpaths here. Meadow Browns precede me, though they rarely alight long enough for me to get a good look. I should carry a butterfly-net. Here and elsewhere the wheat has been grazed back ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty feet from the edge of the field, as neatly as if it had been mown. The depredations of rabbits. The loss to the farmer must be considerable. Approaching Girton I come across another lapwing field, the same as the first, unploughed and unsown, largely bare earth, stubbled with the weak stems of some previous crop. Here there are at least 75 lapwings on the ground, sitting or standing. This little district seems to be something of a lapwing haven and I wonder if these two fields have not been especially prepared and set aside for the bird. They are curiously free of all vegetation. A wild far-carrying cry from above heralds a cruising buzzard, on the look out for young lapwings no doubt, and several adults spring up into the air to chase it away. The buzzard flaps on, lazily, shrugging off its persecutors.

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buzzardwalk40

May 10th, 2010. 5 miles. Late afternoon… still cold… big clouds spaced evenly across the sky, sun streaming through as they pass slowly southwards. I sit by a field gate to the west of the village, watching two buzzards circling high up above. I thought they had moved on a long time ago, but no, they are still here in the district, or they’ve returned. Farmer Giles No 2, silver-haired and stout, pulls up in his car, barely returns my greeting, opens the gate, and drives into his field. After some time he comes out again. I mention the buzzards, and this sets him off. He talks for an hour. Of rabbits and myxamotosis (still present though not so virulent now), badgers (rare – there used to be a sett in the brook, somewhere over there, jerking his head vaguely towards the south-west), and hares (very few nowadays, leverets killed by the extra wide modern agricultural machinery, unable to move out the way, he reckons; he remembers shoots when hundreds of hares were killed). He moves onto the subject of the old Oakington airfield and the great loss of young lives in the planes (2nd WW), and then the monologue begins to slide down a slippery slope into grievance and bigotry – the Germans, immigrants, Muslims breeding like rabbits, the Germans again (1st WW), hard-working Poles, lazy Italian P.O.Ws, Liberal Democrats who don’t have a clue, and if he was younger he’d emigrate (to New Zealand if it wasn’t so far away), and England is not the place it used to be, worse luck. I couldn’t wait to get away.

I strike down a public by-way leading from Long Stanton towards the west. It is without doubt the finest green lane in the district, yet it leads nowhere. It ends at a locked gate that opens onto the dual-carriageway of the A14. You have to turn back, or risk death. It starts wide, as an avenue of young mixed trees, with fields of rape on either side, then wheat and rape, then beans, becoming a narrow green tunnel riddled with burrows, then a causeway built up above what once must have been marshy land. Goldfinches accompany me. Tall trees, including some fine oaks, line the lower end, from which first one, then another, buzzard lifts off and beats into the blue. They seem ragged and not clearly marked, as if they are moulting. But it is good to see them still here, the largest birds of prey on our patch. They’ve just shifted about a mile north-westwards, that’s all. There’s the hind half of a baby rabbit on the path, ripped clean in two, with no sign of the head or upper torso, still fairly fresh, in a puddle of grey fur. Would a buzzard tear prey in half like this, or is it the work of a fox perhaps? I retrace my steps to join a newly-made footpath that leads south to the Dry Drayton Road and back home. I walk beside wide open fields, between barbed-wire fences, on uncomfortable clinker. Wheatears, with a black and white wedge of a tail, cheer my way.

The End

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mornwalk26

April 2nd 2010. Good Friday, Great Friday, or, better, Black Friday. 6.30 a.m. The sky is low, broken, sunless. The land is still. The roads and ruts are pudged and plashed with yesterday’s rain. A Venetian jackdaw greets me from a chimney pot – ciao! I peer over the bridge and a moorhen skitters up Beck Brook, walking on water. A pair of mallard sit in the middle of the sheep field as if about to take tea. There is a great hullabaloo over at the Westwick rookery, and 40 jackdaws burst out of the canopy protesting loudly. Their relationship with rooks is complex and intriguing. I don’t understand it.

Birds are more active and vocal today. Among those spotted for the first time this year are several pairs of goldfinch, a single resplendent male bullfinch, and a number of amorous, black-faced reed buntings chasing tail, literally. True to form, they flit up and down the sunken, flag-filled ditches and rarely venture beyond. This is not to say that these birds have not been here awhile, just that I haven’t noted them before. Worth mentioning too are song thrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tits (bumbarrels, colloquially), and the precious little jenny wren. Green woodpeckers are ubiquitous, heard rather than seen, and woodpigeons spill out of every tree at my approach. Pheasants, now the shooting season is over, are strutting abroad and reckless.

I find new ways of traversing old ground, and venture out to the south-east fields and remnants of apple orchard. I walk the edges, headlands, boundaries, banks and ditches. I am a trespasser, I know, but no-one notices, or cares, and none has yet objected. A farm-dog barks from afar, but this is more in greeting than warning. Here and there, in hedgerows and on the verge of copses, the white blossom of the cherry plum or myrobalan draws me over. It is still the only blossom out, though willow, alder and poplar catkins also catch the light. Elder leaves are now unfolded, the earliest of all the trees, closely followed by horse-chestnut, now bursting out from fat, sticky buds like glacéed Turkish sweetmeats. The black velvet buds of ash-trees, too, have peeled back to reveal incipient flower clusters like deep purple raspberries. One could concoct a high cuisine based on buds and catkins.

A buzzard sees me and flies off with deep, slow wing-beats. It glides very low across a field, a foot above the ground, then settles in a little apple tree on the edge of an open orchard. It is 400 yards off but I can see its hunched, dark shape quite clearly without binoculars. It is far too big for the tree, out of all proportion, and looks comical. It doesn’t move for 10 minutes, then flits down onto the smooth, bare ploughland and vanishes, as if pulled underground. I search the spot through the binoculars but the bird has simply disappeared, merged with the freshly turned earth. I carefully work my way round to the place, detouring a good half-mile to make a less direct approach, watching closely all the time. Nothing moves, and there is no bird to be seen when I get there.

It is past eight before the sun breaks through. For a while, the land sings. I walk towards Histon, then through the old medieval holdings of Abbey Farm. One field has reverted to scrub, its edges invaded by dense stands of sycamore, willow, and ash saplings. There are some venerable trees here too, one broken-backed and hollow (an oak, I think), garlanded with plastic rope, its heart burnt out by heartless boys. Yet it still stands, supporting weighty boughs and a universe of creatures.

Lucky Kat

Hidden in a dell within a sheltering copse of tall trees is a secluded proving-ground (and trysting-place, no doubt) where village boys and bikes are tested to destruction – an impromptu landscaping of dirt runs, ramps, steep slopes, pits and suicidal drop-offs, sculpted from the earth by years of daring and attrition, and littered with scrap, broken BMXs, dens, fire-holes, ropes to swing on…. No grown-up could or would plan and construct such a place, and I get the feeling few grown-ups even know about it. It is a secret world created by kids for kids, organically and spontaneously, out of the earth. There is yet hope… for Histon boys and girls at least.

In the parkland below Abbey Farm several thousand naturalized daffodils of the smaller more delicate kind are in bloom, better than any municipal display. Of the truly wild flowers only lesser celandine or pilewort is out, with small, rich yellow, 9-petalled flowers and heart-shaped leaves, which line the water’s edge of the brook all the way to Oakington.

Three boys on bikes – 10 or 11 year-olds – race past me, with hearts full of thump and mouths full of shout, with the wind in their hair and a whole day ahead of them. They are flying. And I know exactly where they’re headed. In a flash, I’m ten years old again and cycling beside them. I am hurtling down a hill in Africa, early on a sunny morning, in the shade of towering eucalyptus trees, my friend beside me, hollering, open to adventure.

Besides these lads however, during these three hours of walking on what is, after all, a dry and pleasant Public Holiday, I have seen but one other person, from afar, a dutiful dog-attendant, with plastic bag at hand, and have been passed by a single runner on the road. Back in the village, a near-neighbour is out weeding her front yard with a table knife. She is Cambridgeshire through and through, born in Bottisham,  married in Cottenham, and has lived here in the village for 56 years, the last 17 on her own. That means she has lived her whole life, well over 70 years (she didn’t say exactly, and I didn’t ask), within a compass of less than 10 miles. She is a Hedger. I like the name. Her ancestors would have known a thing or two about laying hedges no doubt. Unlike today, when a man in a tractor, without leaving his seat, can butcher a hedgerow in five minutes flat , leaving a trail of destruction behind him.

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dusking25

31st March, 2010. 6.00 p.m. It’s blowing a cold gale out of the north-west and the sky is full of low, driven cloud. I follow a hunch that I’ll find a buzzard out in the open paddocks to the west of the village where I’ve seen one before. I’m rewarded with two, the first time I’ve seen a pair together in these parts. For ten minutes they engage in what I can only describe as air-play. They’re not hunting, they’re just flying, cavorting, enjoying the wind in their feathers. They stay low, about 40 – 80 feet above the ground, facing the rush, beating their great wings just enough to stay in place, without being blown backwards, occasionally swooping down low, and gliding round in a loop. They look more streamlined, with more pointed wings, than the stiff, heavy, broad-winged birds of the books. In fact they are remarkably agile and buoyant. They don’t stray too far from each other, and twice they make contact in mid-air, one rolling sideways, momentarily touching talons, like two bros bumping knuckles in greeting, before peeling away.

The buzzards drift towards the airfield, and I follow them on foot. When I get there, they are mobbed by a rook and drift lazily back to the paddocks. I think they like the terrain here – it is open, there are no trees, and there are plenty of rabbits… perhaps it reminds them of moorland. I get a good look at both birds, and I’m certain that neither is the gap-tailed buzzard I’ve seen to the south of the village. If there are indeed three birds, or even two pairs, in this small district, and they manage to breed, it indicates a remarkable change in fortune – it was only in 1999 that the first breeding pair in the whole county was recorded, after the toxic disasters of DDT and myxamatosis.

I leave the buzzard grounds and work round the back of the tomato ‘farm’ – in reality a ramshackle, polythene agro-outfit running on imported plants, imported growbags, and imported East European labour. These lithe and cheerful spring migrants have yet to arrive in great numbers, but dozens of broke-down caravans are lined up out back to receive them. Just before sunset, the wind drops, the sun breaks through the cloud, and the land glows briefly. The season has been slow to turn, but everywhere leaf-buds are ready to burst with excitement. A great weeping willow beside the allotment gardens seems, from afar, to be the first and only tree to have come into full leaf, dripping long golden-green tresses almost to the ground, but close-up they turn out to be catkins not leaves, a profusion on every branch and twig. A dusk chorus breaks out, led by the blackbirds. The willow catches the last rays, flares in glory, then merges back  into the dusk.

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eveningwalk23

27th March, 2010. Late afternoon. The sky is full of blown clouds. I climb over a field-gate to visit one of the oldest inhabitants of the village – an ash tree that lives in a pasture, all alone, in front of my house. I have no way of knowing for certain, but, judging by its girth, it must be 200 years old or more. Like many ash trees round here it has lost its head completely (possibly pollarded in the past?). One side of its massive trunk is black and spongy, half-rotted away, and its base is a hollowed-out cave just big enough to crawl into on a wet and windy night. Yet it supports great boughs of healthy wood that have grown into a new crown. Its silver roots shoulder the ground like outcrops of polished rock, or a pod of dolphins breaking water. I fear the first great storm will bring it crashing down.

A buzzard quarters the south fields, not high, perhaps 50 feet, then 100 feet, stalls against the steady breeze, then turns and surfs fast on the rushing wave of air, passing directly overhead. I am looking straight up, neck bent back, and nearly lose my balance. It has a gap in its flaring tail, missing feathers, and a conspicuous, large brown patch on its left-side underwing. I should be able to recognise it again. It is only when we begin to know them as individuals that wild creatures become our companions, our fellow travellers.

I walk the bank of Beck Brook, scanning the water for signs of life, hoping to catch again a glimpse of eel. But in 500 yards I see nothing – no fish, no eels, no voles, no insects, nothing. There are various types of water plants swaying in the gentle flow, but no visible creatures. I find this puzzling. Many of the winter-fallow fields have been ploughed and harrowed this past week, transforming silver stubble into smooth, raked, seed-tilth the colour of ochre. But along each edge of these fields is a strip of stunted grass, of a strange chemical colour, red and orange. My first thought is of herbicide, weed-killer. If so, how much is washing into the brook?

Evening presses in as a light shower unlocks the earth’s scents. I cut westwards towards the A14, then north, then east to Long Stanton. The fields too are empty today. In 4 miles I see only pheasants, partridges, rooks and wood pigeons – though rabbits are with me all the way. Night falls fast, and the last straggling rooks lurch back to base camp.

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springramble22

24th March, 2010. A fine, warm, hazy afternoon. Several bright yellow brimstones flit along the hedgerows of the pastures on the edge of the village (though not the first I’ve glimpsed – one meandered through the garden two days ago). I decide to go where I have not been before and head out towards the south-west. I stop and talk to John, working his allotment – “Greensand – it’s alright if you hit it right”. Denims with big turn-ups, baseball cap, camouflage jacket. He tells me there are red deer near here. That’s a surprise …. though he seems to knows his onions.

I strike off down a farm track which leads past acres of empty aluminium-framed tunnels, disrobed and open to the sky. Further on they are planted with rows of unpruned raspberry canes. A final section is plastic-wrapped and under cultivation – baby strawberry plants in thousands of gro-bags, slung precariously between piled-up plastic crates. No high-tech, computer-controlled, automated horticulture here. This is a slapdash, shoestring operation. And, surprisingly, there’s not a soul in sight. Behind the tunnels is a wastelend of discarded plastic sheeting. A mile away, across a green desert of sprouting winter wheat, a never-ending slurry of traffic sluices along the A14.

I head south beside a long hedgerow, heading up to the village of Girton. The buds of blackthorn are just showing green, and elder thrusts out tiny fists of leaves. On the other side of the hedge are the close-clipped fairways and greens of a golf course, with waste-bins placed thoughtfully near each teeing ground. On my side, round, white, dimpled eggs nestle here and there amongst the green blades of wheat. I pick them up and soon have pocketfuls of golf-balls. I don’t know why, I have no use for them at all, and know no-one who plays the game. There is a noticeable absence of birds in the great fields, but a pair of lapwings make up for it with a joyous, flamboyant, aerobatic display. Reaching Girton I am desperate for water but, in mid-afternoon, the village shop and both pubs are closed. I cut across towards Histon on a cindered foot-path that runs beside Beck Brook. Here we are upstream and the brook is more like a gutter in deep-set banks, with barely-flowing water. I leave the path and follow the water all the way back to Oakington through open fields. It slowly gathers strength and vitality, fed by field drains. Some sections are four feet wide and gravel-bottomed, about a foot deep, with gently undulating weed. The water looks clear, but I dare not drink it. I scan it for signs of life, but see nothing. Then, further on, there is a disturbance. A slick brown muscle is writhing and slithering on the surface of the water, where the weed is thickest. I cannot see a head, nor dorsal fin. It is, I guess, an inch thick and about a foot long but I cannot see the whole of it. As I try to get closer, it and another one nearby give a final startled thrash and disappear under the weed. Are there eels in little Beck Brook? This discovery throws a whole new light on our one and only watercourse.

I’m too warm, and stop to shed some clothes. Only then do I appreciate the extra weight I’ve been hauling. My pockets are bulging with golf-balls. I hadn’t realized quite how many I’d picked up. But I can’t just chuck them down, in the middle of nowhere … can I? It doesn’t seem right.  So I shoulder my burden and trudge on. A large bird settles in a bare hedgerow tree half a mile off. It is a buzzard. The first time I’ve seen one on this side of the village. As soon as I stop and raise the binoculars, it’s away. It flies unhurriedly and disappears over the trees at Westwick House, putting up hundreds of pigeons from the fields beyond. I find myself on the wrong side of the stream. There is no bridging point nearby and the banks are too steep and densely vegetated to try a flying leap, fully-loaded as I am. I really don’t want to wade it. I find a sturdy branch and throw it across. It holds, and I clamber up the further bank, through thick undergrowth, to emerge on the village rec, startling several mums and kiddies in the playground.

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springwalk21

21st March, 2010. First day of (astronomical) spring, and a fine, blue, shiny Sunday morning it is. Contrails stretch like bunting across the sky. I head west through the village into the prairie fields towards the A14, lawns of winter wheat as far as eye can see. No paths or tracks here, I follow ditches and hedges, hoping for a break. Every bank is riddled with rabbit holes. They scatter this way and that. Two palm-sized kits are scrapping in the sun, running at each other, leaping into the air, arm-wrestling. A buzzard cruises over the hedge and circles round, not 20 feet from the ground. A kill lies at the edge of the field – a smallish rabbit – several days old, head and neck untouched and staring at the sky, tail erect, belly cleaned out, exposing white ribs and backbone. Skylarks chase each other up into the firmament. I pluck a sprig of pussy willow and lodge it in my button-hole as a symbol of spring.  Deciding to make my way back through the old airfield, I clamber through the fence. I know the gaps now. There is a lot of waterfowl activity on the lake, but I can’t get near enough to get a good look. A black security truck prowls slowly round the perimeter road, stopping yards from where I’m hunkered down in leaves and mud and fresh green shoots. I edge round a tree to keep out of sight as it moves off at snail’s pace.  In the open parkland beyond I spot a fox, sauntering about in the sun. I like the irony – he is a lot less wary (and fearful) than I am.

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walkabout 15

2nd March, 2010. Walked out in the afternoon to Lamb’s Cross, then up Cuckoo Lane to Rampton, Rampton Drift to the guided-busway, then south to Oakington, 5½ miles. Like yesterday, a glittering spring-like day, brimming with light. The sky is high and clear and blue. More birds are about, and there is rejoicing in the air. A buzzard wheels slowly round and round very high above the village. Through the binoculars I can just make out its distinctive underwing pattern – brown then white then black wing-tips and trailing edges. A green woodpecker flies across a meadow and clamps itself to a telephone pole, halfway up, as if it was a fridge magnet. This is the second I’ve seen today – there was one in the garden earlier. Because of the distance between sightings I think they must be different birds, and different too to the one I saw the day before yesterday up on Cuckoo Lane by the brook. If so, they are doing well in these parts. Three tiny long-tailed tits flit about in a roadside tree. The farmyard and its hedgerows are alive with little birds – robins, blackbirds, blue tits and great tits, peach-breasted chaffinches, greenfinches and others too small and too brown to identify. There are larks on and above the fresh green fields, singing their hearts out, but difficult to see clearly and identify, just disembodied voices calling down from the sky. Much of the water has drained from the fields, and Beck Brook has fallen at least 5 feet since the day before yesterday, though it is still flowing steadily. As usual at this time of day gulls are streaming north-west, but today they are flying very high. I only notice them because the lowering sun catches their white underwings on the upbeat, so they flicker on and off like silver fairy lights in the heavens. A small flock of fieldfares flit by. No sign of my kestrel though. Wherever there is pasture there are individual song thrushes and redwings here and there on the ground – I watch one lean forward then pivot right back on its tail, head held high, steadily pulling a reluctant worm from the earth. The wartime pillboxes along the eastern edge of the old airfield, protruding from low mounds like strange grey mushrooms, have been squatted by rabbits. Each has become a warren to which its denizens scamper back when disturbed. In every direction rooks, in ones and twos and small gangs, are about their purposeful and mysterious business, running errands, hurrying to appointments and trysts this way and that across the sky. Suddenly all is in motion again – winter is receding and the earth rolls on.

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Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature