May 8th and 9th, 2010. A series of short walks and long sittings. First, mid-afternoon, tucked into a bank of Oakington Brook where it is most secluded, on the only nettle-free patch, carpeted with the tiny mauve-purple speedwell. Behind me, the ivy-covered mound of a rabbit warren (abandoned?) and a belt of mixed trees. In front, to the south, the shallow rivulet barely flowing from right to left, four feet wide, at the bottom of a deep and wide ditch whose steep sides are now knee-deep in herbage. Across the brook a field of oilseed-rape whose rich yellow flowers are above my eye-line. I have a limited field of vision and cannot see upstream or downstream, but it is sheltered, unobtrusive, and comfortable. I wait. It is cold and grey, without sun, very quiet. No swallows over the rape field. No butterflies even. Occasionally, woodpigeons in ones and twos pass over fast, veering away when they see me.
Ripples on the water warn me of something approaching. Two bite-sized ducklings cruise into view and immediately spot my alien presence. They power downstream on furiously paddling feet, half lifting out of the water. Three minutes later another three arrive, with the same instant reaction. How come they are so alert, at just a week or two old, so mindful of danger? I am pretty much hidden, silent and still. A good five minutes later the female mallard appears with a straggler, clocks me in an instant, and they both shoot off downstream, with much splashing, and her quacking in protest. This mallard family must have been spread out over 50 yards of brook, the lead ducklings forging ahead, quite on their own, far from their mother’s protection.
A hawk crosses my field of vision, with quick, shallow wingbeats, for all the world like a pigeon, only more streamlined, and buff-brown in this light. Its grey rump identifies it as a kestrel. It shears off to my left and over the trees. I set off in pursuit and disturb it in a dead tree some 200 yards away. It takes off immediately, flies over a sheep pasture and lands on a bare patch of earth beneath the guided-busway. It remains on the ground for some time, then glides up to roost in a small tree between the busway and Beck Brook, 200 yards further on. I follow, cutting through the coppice, where I am hidden from hawk eyes, and emerge onto the busway, downwind. But I do not get within 100 yards before the bird takes flight again, and heads back to where we’ve just come from, disappearing over the trees. I double back and finally find it again by the brook where our paths first crossed. But it won’t tolerate my presence at all and flies back towards the busway again. I leave it be. I have seen this kestrel (or its mate) in this locale before, and am beginning to know its range and its habits. I am hoping it will begin to accept me.
Dusk, the end of the day. I want to taste this place at all times of the day and the night. We have been treated to a little winter for the past week or so, since the beginning of May. It’s cold this late evening. The sky is uniformly grey, without highlights, dim but not yet dark. I sit on the uprooted trunk of a great willow where it arches across the stream that comes from Histon and beyond. In front of me is park-like meadowland, scattered with fine isolated horse-chestnuts, elms, and oaks, all with parallel browse-lines, rising gently towards Westwick House and its farm buildings on the near horizon. Sheep and their now stocky lambs are lying in greensward, still hollering, but less persistently so. The clamour from the Westwick rookery continues, as it will, more or less, throughout the night. A few rooks remain in the pasture, mingling with the sheep. A black-and-white magpie flies over. It begins to rain, gently, washing through the willows above and around.
Egret evening. Further on northwards, on the guided-busway itself, facing east. Hand-rubbingly cold. They have doused the busway and verges with poison, and all is undone. Where before was a fine crop of wild flowers coming up, between and beside the concrete tracks, now is a desert of dead and dying plants. Young thistles lie limp on the ground like seaweed left stranded. Even the beautiful white campion, all but one plant, has been done in. Now the darkness begins to descend… though I can still see afar – an unbroken sweep of very gently undulating land stretching from the north to the south, two to three miles in every direction, the black line of the horizon just broken by the trees of the villages on their slight gravel ridges – Willingham, Rampton, Cottenham church in the distance, the hamlet of Westwick, and Oakington itself, screening Histon and Girton beyond to the south. Two miles is not a long way, but here, today, in spite of the cold, the damp and the drabness of light, there is something magnificent in this modest prospect, something lovely lying over the land. It is very quiet now, very still. Serene even. Out of the dark emerge two pure white great egrets, flying close together, towards the north, with languid strokes of the air, silently, as if out of Egypt.