Tag Archives: guided-bus

lastwalk81

December 31st, 2010. Misty, mild, damp and dull. A dismal winter’s afternoon for a final walk. I go north. On the edge of the village starlings whistle from treetops. Collared doves fan their pale wings and croon. A heron lifts off from a garden gnome-pond, majestic against the paltry, painted statuary. Each time I look up, lines of gulls furrow the cast of grey high above – all flying northwest, as they do at this hour each and every day. Still they come. Far out in the foggy fields, gunshots empty the afternoon. There are few creatures about. The way is muddy, black with sodden leaves. No snow remains, and only the deepest ruts still hold ice. From a hidden coppice an eruption of jackdaws crackles like fireworks and subsides just as suddenly. The Detention Centre lies desolate behind barbed wire and playing fields, closed down, the seekers of succour sent elsewhere or back home, where they least want to be. A graveyard of dreams. No more the sound of Iraqi, Kurdish, Afghan and Somali tears and laughter here. Mute wood pigeons roost in leafless trees like strange grey fruit. The hedgerows too are silent.

I reach the guided-busway, busless still, two slick concrete tracks curving off into the dimming afternoon, a swathe of folly through the countryside. Somewhere far off, a pheasant hiccups into life then winds down, answered by others across the track. On my right, the old airfield, fenced and forbidden. No Northstowe new town yet, thank God, a brief reprise – there is perhaps one more skylark spring to come. The flashing orange light of a security truck creeps past in the gloom, defending the ill-gotten gains of the land-grabbers. On my left, from the curl of the stream beyond, an excitement of ducks breaks the silence of the fast-falling dusk. First one, then two, three and four parties of mallard, five to nine in each band, fly west, overhead, dark duck shapes pinned against the sky. Spring’s last wild brood.

A year has passed since I first set out on this journey round the village fields. A year to discover what was here, and what was not. We’ve come full circle now, the seasons and I, back to the beginning, where we started. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time”. Knowing nothing when I first set out, I had few expectations, and I can say that now I know a little for the first time. I had prayed for some special encounter, some final revelation, some hope to end the journey but this has been one of the emptiest, most uneventful walks of the year. It is as it should be, for I do not want to give the impression of a place brimming with beauty and light and life, although, at times, it did briefly seem so. This poor patch of England, let’s face it, is an undone place, impoverished, bereft of almost all that is wild and worthy and free. The natural has for the most part been emasculated, suppressed or banished altogether. It has been replaced by the bland and unbeautiful, an ersatz and infertile reality. Only fleet remnants remain, caught out of the corner of the eye, when least expected. It breaks through, despite the weight of arrogance and ignorance and greed. It will abide. But for now, it is a flight of ducks against a darkling sky. That’s all.

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autumnwalk70

October 29th, 2010. Pre-breakfast, 2 hours. I walk out into a dim, mild morning. The wind is up, blowing steadily from the south-west, and the leaves are coming down. Windfall. Pavements and paths are strewn with yellow hearts and orange lozenges. The wind has stirred the birds and a swirl of jackdaws and rooks, a hundred strong, are romping and roiling in the turmoil, climbing and plunging, surfing the airwaves, purling round and round against the pink south-eastern sky. The tall poplars by the brook howl with wind-music. I go north up the misguided-busway, still bus-less, a year overdue and who knows how many millions over-budget. A steady stream of gulls, in ones and twos and small parties, meanders southwards, flying low, labouring against the buffeting wind. This evening they’ll fly back north again, fast and easy with the wind behind them. A flight of ducks, necks outstretched and muttering quietly, passes rapidly over towards the east then veers round to land up ahead, gliding in smoothly on outstretched wings then all stalling suddenly with a flurry of wing-beats before gently setting down in the grass. A lovely sight. I soon catch up with them. They are sixteen mallard, sitting together in pairs, the females petite and polite next to their magnificent mates. Are these the ducklings I saw in late spring, scattered up and down the brook, now come together, fully-grown? They just sit there, all facing into the wind, not feeding or preening, just sitting it seems.

I turn onto the stony track of Wilson’s Drove. The wind drops. There is colour once more in the land, the trees turning in earnest over the last couple of days, in tune with the first of the frosts. Field maple and sycamore, blackthorn and wild plum, linden and poplar, beech and birch are all now mottled yellow and gold, amber and orange, mustard, copper, brick-red, rufous, russet and rust, each to their own and beyond description. Mineral colours, matching the smooth brown fields all around, combed to perfection. A hedgerow sycamore, tall and proud, has cast a perfect half-moon of lemon yellow shards at its feet, on its north-eastern side, opposite the wind. Homeward, along Cuckoo Lane, muddy still. A covey of red-legged partridges whirs low over the earth, a cock pheasant torpedoes out of a hedge in high protestation, the flick of a hawk-wing sends me reeling again. Small, green crabs still hang from a bush, crisp and sharp at first bite, then furring my mouth. Fifty migrating fieldfares, undulating in flight, flash their grey rumps in passing. Down now though the farmyard at Lamb’s Cross, negotiating puddles and tractor-churned mud. A shorthorn bull with curly woolly coat, heavy and knee-deep in mud, shows the whites of his eyes. The radio still plays to an empty barn.

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kingfisherwalk53

July 13th, 2010. 7 a.m. Overcast and cool, with microdrops of moisture falling. All around, woodpigeons google tentatively, trying out their morning voices. I strike out before breakfast towards the outskirts of Histon, then across to Girton and back to Oakington, mostly along the hard surfaces of busway, cinder track and road. I want to check out Swan Pond, so named on the map, and its encircling disc of woodland as a possible site for a sleepover.

The busway has been deflowered. They have poisoned this stretch with weed-killer (sic: a marketing ploy this – in reality they’re all wild flower-killers of course but it wouldn’t look good on the tin) and strimmed down the verges, eliminating for several miles the feeding stations and nectar bars of untold numbers of caterpillars, bumblebees, honey bees, beetles and butterflies, and depriving, in turn, the insectivores who feed on them. Only scarlet poppies have managed somehow to survive the toxic onslaught, marking the graves of their fallen companions. At the same time, hundreds of saplings, sheathed in white plastic, have been planted up and down the line. Perverse environmental stewardship this. Beyond the reach of the knapsack sprayers, the pale lilac-blue pincushion heads of field scabious or gypsy rose, on long stalks, are abundant, used as a blood purifier and as a treatment for eczema and other skin disorders.

On either side stretch wheat fields, pale greenish white in the morning grey. Where they abut onto woodland or scrub they have been grazed back by rabbits, a hundred feet or more from the edge. At the approach of a dog and its walker the culprits scamper back to the safety of their burrows by the dozen. In a corner by the brook seven rabbits, a large old dame and her boisterous adolescent offspring, hang out with a wood-pigeon and a grey squirrel – cereal-killers colluding. In the fallow further up, five magpies (a tidings of magpies according to the 15th century Book of St. Albans), five for silver, fly away chattering, flashing black and white against the bleached land.

I dive through a low gap in a hedge and follow a field ditch to a patch of woodland, isolated in the midst of wheat fields, where Swan Pond should be. Actually I’ve been here before but at the end of a very long walk, with no time to explore. I make a complete circuit, looking for a way in through the dense undergrowth. The wood is encircled by a ditch, ashen-grey with dried scum. Eventually I find just one opening, beaten through by village boys no doubt, into the dim and silent interior, the floor strewn with broken branches that crack like bones underfoot. The trees are nearly all old willows in various states of decrepitude, some fallen and lying horizontal with roots in the air, one whose thick trunk has simply snapped through some ten feet up, most with dead boughs hanging like dislocated arms. Needless to say, there are no swans, and no pond. Bare dips and hollows in the ground mark the bed of the old pool but there is no trace of moisture, nor of moisture-loving plants. It has been dry it seems for many a year. Only the willows bear witness to a once watery place. No birds sing and nothing thrives except nettles in the more open spots. I have an uneasy feeling about this place and will not be camping out here.

In the fields approaching Girton are yellowhammers and skylarks. A cock pheasant rockets out of a hedge like a clockwork toy, winding down to a splutter. An outing of swallows skims low over the wheat, gulping down fast food, looping and diving with astonishing speed and whoopee. If birds can be joyful, then surely swallows must be the most joyful of birds. A kestrel appears out of the blue, fairly high, gliding and hovering, gliding and hovering, then slides out of view just as suddenly.

On the road back to Oakington I am assaulted by cyclists. The pavement has been converted into a cycle track and walkers now have nowhere to walk. They give no quarter, these iPod-obsessives, and apply neither brakes nor bell in their headlong rush to nowhere, especially dangerous when they attack from behind. More than once I have to flatten myself against the hedge at the very last moment. Achieving the village undamaged, I stop by what remains of the old village pond, now shrunken and half-smothered with reeds. Perched on a bare branch in the middle of the water is a living, shining jewel – there is really no other word that will do – a kingfisher, the first I’ve seen in the district. Just yards from nose-to-tail commuter traffic is a creature of heart-stopping beauty – iridescent blue back, dark turquoise wings, chestnut-red breast. It flies to the edge of the pond and is gone, a flash of electric blue light against the dark, still water. What a surprise, what a gift.

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dawnrun9

13th Jan. 2010. 1½ hrs before sunrise. It is cold of course, but fairly benign. No sign of the Old Laughing Lady. I slip out of the village and, beyond the range of the last street lamp, I tunnel into blackness. I pull back the sprung lever that opens the gate into the sheep field and it shrieks like a stuck pig, clanging behind me. Bang goes the element of surprise then. The sky is uniformly indigo-black except for a murky sulfurous glow over Cambridge to the south. I can just make out the track ahead because its snow, being compacted, has outlasted the rest. I am running through a two-dimensional world of silhouettes. There is nothing to see so I focus on my footing and my breathing. Up to now I have counted my steps to keep going and can now gauge 100 or 200 paces pretty accurately so I switch to chanting a dhikr or mantra out loud. I try out various formulations but none meshes with my rhythm and breathing quite like the simple Al-lah. Perfect. If anybody’s out there, poachers or shooters or lead-roofing looters, they will know only a deep disembodied chug-chugging coming at them through the dark. I reach the Histon road and turn back along the track beside the still unopened guided-busway. Imperceptibly the sky lightens but there is no great effulgence coming from the south-east quarter. Snow is still lying in patches here and there, and in the long corrugations of the fields. A lone rook flies overhead and barks down a gruff good morning. Apart from him, there is not a single soul about, animal or human, and it is very quiet. Until I reach the Oakington road and turn homewards. A steady stream of commuter traffic with blinding lights is streaming both ways, and surprise, surprise, here comes the OLL on her beaten-up old bike, no lights or reflectors, out of the darkness, head down. I know she hasn’t seen me because she doesn’t burst out laughing. I reach home before the sun has risen and fancy I hear a faint cackling receding into the day.

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snowblog6

8th Jan, 2010. The sun is well up before I manage to drag myself into the day, but it is nowhere to be seen, obscured by cloud that covers the entire sky. In fact the cloud is invisible too, seamless. It is just a lid of paleness, evenly coloured from east to west (a whiter shade of pale perhaps), reflecting back the whiteness of the land below, covered in snow, dissolving the horizon. Without sun the light is flat, and even the snow seems dull. This fell with some intensity two days ago, a real snowstorm, big flakes like pennies tumbling thickly out of the sky, followed by a lighter fall yesterday, and again last night. Apart from the tarmac’d roads, black and wet, pretty much everything is blanketed. It is cold, very cold, surely 3 or 5 or more degrees below, in fact I wonder if I should be out in such conditions, sucking in great lungfuls of freezing air, ingesting tiny ice crystals by the bucketload. I have, for the first time brought my mobile, just in case, and to keep K happy. In these conditions, with no one out and about, even in commuterland, a fall out in the further fields or tracks could result in hours (days even?) of lying in a ditch of freezing water. I begin to imagine all sorts of dramatic and scary scenarios. Then I remember that there would probably be no network coverage anyway, and the phone would no doubt die as soon as it hit water. But I am well-wrapped, with five layers on my upper half – a thermal underlayer, long-sleeved tee-shirt, another tee-shirt, a fleece, and one of my son’s  less offensive hoodies, topped off by my biking neck fleece worn as a balaclava, and a wooly hat.

I turn east as usual, to take the fifth of the shorter routes, marginally more challenging because it has a hill of sorts. I run in the roadway, through and out of the village, the pavements being too treacherously trampled. I turn northwards at the guided-busway, along the service track of pea-gravel that runs beside it. It will be safe to run on, because though covered in snow, I know it is flat and even, not yet ruined by vehicles and therefore unrutted, virgin. No hidden clods, stones, holes or hoofprints to waylay my ankles.

And then into a biting Arctic breeze – the cold penetrating to my chest in spite of all the layers. There is barely an inch of snow on the track, and my shoes leave neat crisp prints. Then I am surprised – someone has preceded me here. Some fellow runner has been foolhardy enough to run out into the freezing morning ahead of me. These are relatively small footprints, going in my direction, must be a size 5 or 6, and therefore surely a woman. Then I know exactly who it is, for our paths have crossed several times previously, and this fits her route. She is young, fit, grim, professional, training for the Olympics perhaps, and she never returns my greeting. I am distracted now by snow tracks, and begin following them off-piste – a great many bird prints, large and sharp, stamped into the snow like cuneiform wedges, each one connected to the succeeding one by a single line, a trailing hind claw perhaps or tail feather. These are evidently rooks, for a gang of them is rooting around on the track up ahead, and they are the most numerous bird around. They are accompanied by some jackdaws who seem to be sentinels rather than hangers-on, breaking the silence with their penetrating ‘chucks’ or ‘jacks’, which may have given them their name. Then there are the tracks of what I take to be the ubiquitous muntjac deer, and rabbits of course, and others I do not know. A single dark squirrel, almost black against the snow, who should be hibernating surely in this weather, bounds over the track with the undulations of an otter.

The northern sky takes on colour, bruised and brooding, and suddenly snow falls. It is coming at me from the north, face on, at 45 degrees, but it is strange stuff, tiny balls of fluff that cling to me like polystyrene pellets, perfectly round. No doubt the Inuit or Lapps have a hundred words for different kinds of snow but we are dumbfounded in this regard. It is falling thickly and soon obscures the snowprints, light diminishes, sounds are smothered, visibility contracts and the world closes in.

I turn east onto the bridle-way that runs from Longstanton, past an isolated remnant of apple orchard, only 5 rows deep and about 150 yards long, each row headed by a more upright and taller pear-tree. The snow stops after about ten minutes, as suddenly as it started and the sky brightens. Then I turn south into Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway that runs from Ely through to Cambridge, called Portway (‘Carrier’s Way’ or ‘Market Way’) in Rampton, and Gun’s Lane towards Histon. It is generally open and ditched rather than hedged, but here there are small trees on either side of no great age, saplings planted as a hedge no doubt, and then neglected. A tractor growls somewhere in the distance. We are alongside Beck Brook, here more of a tamed and straightened channel at the bottom of a deep wide ditch than any sort of natural stream, its banks deprived of everything but grass – no reeds, bushes, overhangs, saplings or stumps. A wildlife wasteland. So I am delighted when my muffled footfall flushes a green woodpecker from the bank, his dull yellow rump flashing unmistakably as he weaves away silently, without a single yaffle in greeting. He alights in one of the young trees edging the track, and I try to stalk him, but he is much too sharp, always keeping one flight ahead of me. It is a brief encounter, but one worth the pain of the run.

The track takes a turn and climbs a long gentle rise, barely a hill, but telling on my calf muscles, and I have to walk. At the top, the highest point hereabouts, the sun breaks through the cloud at last, and the land is lit. It is a spectacular transformation. I can see for miles over the huge white fields. I run into the sun renewed, downslope now towards the jumble of Lamb’s Cross Farm. At the bottom of the slope, where water has ponded on the track, a tractor has broken through the ice and thrown up jagged slabs of the stuff, three inches thick and gray like concrete slabs. The place is littered with trailers, bits of agricultural machinery, telephone poles, old caravans and cars, pallets, rusty bits and pieces, wire and fencing. The chained dogs set up a duet of paranoid barking. The sweet and lovely smell of cows pervades the air, and somewhere inside a barn a radio plays.

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