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.