23rd/24th July, 2010. I walk hard to reach Giant’s Hill before nightfall. A downpour two days ago has left the land softer, rounder, and more odorous. At Lambs Cross Farm the sweet tang of farmyard hangs in the dusk and detains me awhile – the irresistible aroma of calves’ breath, molasses and hay. Aromatherapy, country-style. It is a warm, still, cloud-hung end to the day. High above, ten gulls fly northward but down below the land is at rest. No birds to be seen or heard, nor wild creatures, nor people even. High summer seems to be the season, above all, of stillness and silence.
On the moated, flat-topped earthwork called Giant’s Hill I can’t find two suitably-spaced trees from which to suspend the tarp, and the light is fading fast. I work my way round the adjacent pastures to a spinney on the northern side of the moat and find a good enough spot – well-hidden, reasonably flat and soft underfoot. I notice some fairly fresh cow pats nearby, though I’ve seen no cattle around and am not unduly concerned. Nevertheless, having set up my shelter, I feel compelled to investigate further. Sure enough, three fields away is a herd of young steers…. and all the intervening gates are wide open. I have, inadvertently, set up camp in a cow-field – no docile milkers these, but frisky, inquisitive young bullocks who will surely come over to see what I’m up to. This is, after all, their home turf. They could easily, unwittingly or not, trample all over me in the dead of the night. But it’s too dark now to find an alternative site. From afar, I ask them politely to leave me alone.
I doze fitfully. Friday night through-traffic on the village road a hundred yards off continues till midnight. Three transport planes rumble across the night sky. Moonlight breaks out and sifts through the tarp. Bullocks are on my mind. I get up and go for a stroll. The night sky has cleared. The yellow moon is waxing, just two days from full, lying high to the south, dimming the stars. I locate the Plough and the North Star to orient myself more exactly. I listen for owls but all is quiet. Nothing’s going on so I climb back into the warmth of my sleeping-bag. At some point in the night I hear irregular, muffled explosions like far-distant fireworks which turn out to be raindrops hitting the tarp just inches above – the briefest of showers. At 4 a.m., an hour before sunrise, dawn is announced. First up today is a rook – kraa-kraa, kraa-kraa – repeated again a few minutes later. Then a cock crows from the village beyond. Woodpigeons begin to croon softly, then at last the usual dawn songsters – blackbirds and song thrushes – start into song, accompanied by unidentified pipings from the reeds in the moat. But the chorus is thin on the ground, or thin in the air, this particular morning.
Then a terrific short sharp bark rips through the dawn, not 100 yards from where I am camped. It is loud and emphatic. I take it at first for a fox. Then another bark, and another, and another, all at the same volume and pitch – a call of the wild repeated over and over. I count 40 barks in succession, at 4 to 5 second intervals. Not a fox, no. The sound is stationary, coming from the midst of a thicket of bramble. Now and again it is answered by another slightly higher-pitched, more abrasive bark from perhaps 100 yards further off. A mate, probably. I very slowly move forward, step by careful step, using the cover of bushes until I am within 50, then 20, then 10 yards of the source of the sound. Then it stops. I see nothing, though the creature has no doubt seen me. Roe deer bark in this way, but this must be the voice of the now ubiquitous muntjac. They are also called barking deer, for good reason. That such a forceful sound should issue from such a small and diffident deer is surprising and baffling – what was that all about?
The dawn sky is, illogically, lighter in the west and the north. The eastern quarter is dark with cloud, except for a thin band of orange and pink above the horizon. Just after five, a blaze of sun heaves briefly over the skyline but never achieves full roundness. It is sliced off at the top by low-lying cloud and soon disappears up into darkness. I dismantle the basha, say goodbye to the cattle (who have been well-behaved) and set off homeward. A heron, legs stretched out behind, long neck tucked back into an impossible Z-bend, flies lazily my way, circles in front to the left, then to the right, and finally flies back the way it had come. The inexplicable, maundering flight-paths of birds. The barley has been harvested and rooks and woodpigeons are having a field-day in the golden stubble. Rabbits too, by the dozen, are feasting on the fresh green aftermath in the hay meadows. One youngster stands out – it is pale, creamy even, in contrast to the darkish, grey-brown agouti coats of the others. The steep inner banks of Beck Brook/New Cut, recently thick with wild flowers and flowering grasses, have been mown to the ground. I cannot understand this, not from any point of view. It is not until after six that the sun finally lifts clear of the cloud and floods the land with light. Suddenly the hedgerows are full of birds, mostly finches – chaffinch, greenfinch and goldfinch – blue tits, and yellowhammers. A single skylark calls down from on high, and all around is the soothing, stereophonic susurration of woodpigeons and doves.