July 4th/5th, 2010. Something of a milestone today. My 50th walkabout this year (and 50th blog) – that’s half the projected 100 turns around my block in just over six months. 50 more to come, God willing.
It is a sparkling, innervating, wind-charged day from start to finish – a day for cloud-watching, if nothing else. An ever-changing, never-ending parade passes over from the west – high clouds, low clouds, thin milky clouds and dense dark-bellied piled-up clouds, isolated oddling clouds and swarming gregarious clouds that seem to cover half the county, all moving through a deep azure sky at different speeds (the word ‘azure’ coming, apparently, from the name Lajward, a place in north-eastern Afghanistan that in ancient times was the main source of vivid blue lapis lazuli).
In hope of a storm I decide to sleep out and set off after sunset, heading for the scrubland previously mentioned in earlymorningwalk48, the domain of my kestrel family. This year has been exceptionally dry and drought is imminent. In the gloaming the sheep pasture below Westwick House looks as sere and pale as the African veldt. The brook is barely flowing. Field tracks are fissured and dusty. The land is yearning for rain and tonight there are rumours.
A brisk 45 minute walk brings me to this slightly elevated, semi-wild, overgrown tract and I have no difficulty finding what looks, in near darkness, to be the perfect site for a bivouac – a thick bed of clover. The sky is now almost completely overcast and I need the light of a headtorch to set up the basha. I sling the tarp between two young alders and secure the corners with bungees and pegs. The ground though is rock-hard, or underlain with rock, a few inches below the surface. The pegs are barely holding but there is no hammer-stone to be seen anywhere. The wind is still up and I envisage a debacle in the middle of the night. Bismillah. Once inside, I discover my bed of clover is not quite what it promised. Underneath is broken, lumpy ground. It seems that this field had once been ploughed and was then abandoned before being harrowed or leveled, hence the corrugated, hummocky surface beneath the vegetation. I arrange my body round the lumps as best I can and settle down for the night. The tarp buckles and billows in the bluster.
At about 2 o’clock I am awakened by silence. The wind has died. I lift the side of the tarp and look up into an indigo sky clear of cloud. No rain has fallen … the storm has blown itself out. The moon is high, waning, slightly tilted on its back. Stars emerge out of the darkness. I walk out into the night, accompanied by moonshadow. Everything is still, all is quiet … and not a single night creature reveals itself. It is a little chilly in tee shirt and kagool so I soon climb back into my sleeping bag. Somewhere far way a bell chimes thrice.
At a quarter to four exactly the first bird breaks into song – it is, unsurprisingly, a song thrush. It works through its repertoire for a full five minutes before it is joined by another, a blackbird. Soon others swell the chorus – blackcaps and robins – but it is not as full-throated an affair as in woodland or garden. Pigeons murmur their woodnote call. A cock pheasant cranks into life and a domestic cockerel answers somewhere in the village beyond. Greenfinches wheeze at each other from the tops of trees. It hasn’t rained but the land (and my tarp and sleeping bag) is drenched in dew. I wash with the last of my water, face the south-eastern quarter and offer my own song of praise.
I wait for sunrise. The last of the night-flying insects seek cover, among them a striking Cinnabar Moth with black, red-spotted forewings and bright red hind wings. From the north-east skyline a great burst of cloud fans out into the firmament, flinging off cloudlets in a fountain of water vapour. At a quarter to five a shimmering ball of golden fire breasts the horizon and momentarily stains the lower sky apricot pink. It is an awesome sight but doesn’t last long. Within half an hour much of the sky has clouded over and the sun is hidden again. It turns cold as I make my way homeward along the old medieval trackway. Snails breakfast on thistles; an unlikely choice, it seems to me, for such soft-bodied creatures. Rooks on early morning missions, like Mongol couriers, race purposefully across the sky.