Tag Archives: heron

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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thawwalk78

December 4th, 2010. 4.30 a.m. 7 miles, at least. It’s surprisingly mild after a very cold week… damp in the air, damp underfoot, thawing. There’s a metallic taste to the air.  I make for new ground, a lake – probably an old gravel-pit – about a mile outside my usual territory. It’s very dark, stars and moon blotted out. The lights of the city to the south, and from the villages round about, project a dull glow into the low crumpled cloud. I walk up the concrete strips of the guided busway – it’s too dark to take a path or farm-track. The going’s not easy. The packed snow and ice, partially melted, is especially slippery. I walk past high chain-link fencing crowned with barbed wire – a food-processing plant, humming and steaming through the night, arc-lights blazing, steel hoppers, silos and flue-pipes gleaming, ranged barrels stacked high. There’s no-one about. Then under a road bridge, graffitoed and sour, smelling of old tyres and asphalt. Out into open country again, past coppice and plough. Not a bird, not a creature abroad. I cut across pastureland. It’s like walking through tundra – low hummocks of grass set in a bog of crackling ice and snow. Beyond, the glint of water. But between me and the lake are a hedge and a spiked angle-iron fence. In the icy conditions there’s no way I’m going to try and climb over. Not at six in the morning. I track the fence until I come to a gap just wide enough to squeeze through. Open water, willow-fringed, hard up against the embankment of the A14, grinding with a never-ending flow of container-trucks to and from the east coast. But it’s too dark to see anything on the water. I wait for the dawn. It’s a long time coming. In fact, it never really arrives. Imperceptibly, over the course of an hour and a half, the dark turns a few shades paler. Then it’s day, as good as it gets.

The lake is disappointingly empty of bird-life. I was expecting to see some new waterfowl but only half a dozen pairs of mallard scull round the edges, like couples out for a walk. A peninsula of ice juts out into the water, and right on the edge sit perhaps one hundred gulls – mostly young black-headed gulls with a dark spot behind the eye, and a few larger lesser black backs and juvenile herring gulls mottled brown. They are mostly quite still and silent. Strutting and skidding between them are moorhens. The ice looks too thin to take all their weight. Out in open water, removed, are two black cormorants. One is fishing, sitting very low in the water. It tucks its head close into its long bent neck before diving, and then goes straight down. It stays under for about 15 seconds before emerging not far away. I watch it dive several times but it doesn’t appear to catch anything. The other is perched on a buoy in heraldic pose, with wings limply held out in a hands-up position, or held out to dry. It looks primordial, with a strange stump of a tail and ragged, greasy plumage. A prototype bird, reptilian, unbeautiful. These are, no doubt, the same cormorants I’ve seen flying over, three miles to the north. Now I know where they’re headed, and some of the passing gulls too. A snipe, or a jack snipe, propels from the bankside and whirs away at speed on a blur of short, pointed wings.

It turns colder, bleaker. The long walk back, though, is a warm feast of birds – song thrushes, unsinging, and plenty of skittering blackbirds; solitary robins; chaffinches; magpies; a pair of pied wagtails; great tits, blue tits, a party of long-tailed tits, and the glimpse of a coal tit. A charm of goldfinches – at least 50 birds – swirls overhead, uncertain where to go, finally dropping down into an alder just up ahead. They work through the female cone-like catkins, extracting the seeds. I’ve never seen so many goldfinches. The tree sparkles with little gold flashes. Then, for the first time, a single goldcrest, picking through ivy – a tiny, nervous jewel of a creature, twitching and flicking so rapidly I can hardly see it move; it just appears in a slightly different position each time, like old jerky newsreel.

Other birds come in threes today – I encounter three jays, three green woodpeckers, three kestrels, and three little egrets, each and all in different locations. One jay rattles harshly, raising and lowering its crest. The green woodpeckers mostly keep to the ground. I follow a kestrel along a row of bare horse-chestnut trees. Sleepy and cold, it is reluctant to move. I get within 15 yards of the bird. Through binoculars each and every feather that makes up the intricate spotting and barring and rich coloration of its beautiful plumage is revealed. It stares straight down at the ground from on high, watching intently. From time to time it turns its head to look directly at me, reproachful, as if I was intruding on some intensely private affair. Which I am. It tolerates me for a while, then with a shrug, launches into a long glide, and it’s away.

The three little egrets stand in the midst of a sprouting field a little to the south of where I last saw one, very white against the snow-furrowed earth. They are preening. I’ve not seen two together, or three, in these parts. Later a pair of them fly past me, low, on big slow wings, and settle into a ditch up ahead. A passing dog-walker flushes them into the air and they double-back to where I first saw them. I follow the ditch down to its junction with Beck Brook. From the stream, unexpectedly, another little egret rises at my approach. Is this one of the three I saw earlier, which had somehow slipped by me, or is it a different bird? They seem very exotic to me, these little egrets, belonging more to African swamplands than wintry Cambridgeshire fields, and it’s good to know there are at least three in the neighbourhood. A few yards further on, a grey heron lifts off from the brook with a slow whump-whump of wing, majestic, nearly three times the size of the egrets, and fearsome, with glaring eye and snake-like neck. It wheels away into the cold mists of the morning.

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raindawn62

August 6th, 2010. 4 a.m. I walk out of the village through wet and deserted streets, King of the Road. It’s raining steadily. A low blanket of cloud covers the sky and eclipses the dawn. Except for a faint glow to the south from the lights of the city all is dim, as murky as pond water. A week of showers has softened the land and I can once again smell the earth, the odorous earth. I linger awhile beside Sparrowhawk Copse but there’s not a sound, not a peep. In the far distance the lights from a delivery truck strobe through a  hedgerow.

I walk up the guided-busway to Histon then along puddled tracks to my now favourite place, the scrubland. A single, disembodied kraawwk is shouted down from the cloud, close overhead, startling and pleasing. Who could deny that this is a greeting – from one creature to another, crossing paths in the wet, lonely dawn. It was a heron perhaps, for not long after I disturb one from a ditch and it flies low and slow up the black line of water, shedding raindrops. A cock crows somewhere far away. That’s it for the dawn chorus today. Ten Canada geese fly out of nowhere, heading south, very low and in close V-formation, uncannily silent. Out in the overgrown scrub I gather plump, glistening blackberries, oval blue damsons, ‘the plum of Damsacus’, and round cherry-plums full of juice. These last fall into my cupped hand with the lightest of touches. I am soaked through of course, but no fruit tasted better, wild and rain-washed and straight from the bush.

I make my way homeward. The rain eases off and the clouds disassemble, revealing clear blue sky high above. At my approach mute woodpigeons spill out of each tree in turn, in twos and threes. Their quills thrum with the first few wingbeats then ease into silent flight mode. As I pass Beck Brook, at one of its widest spots, a full four feet across, there are a couple of sploshes, loud in the dawn, and a V-shaped wavelet ripples the channel between blooms of pondweed – the bow-wave of a water vole, ever-elusive. Sometimes all we are offered is a glimpse or a trace – of vole, or sparrowhawk, or the divine. It is enough for now, enough to whet our appetite, to ramble on, seek further, drink deeper.

hedgerow harvest - blackberries, damsons, cherry plums

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barkingdeerbivouac57

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.

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windwalk54

July 15th, 2010. A day of wind, from start to finish, the windiest day this year. Clouds pour in from the west. Hats and caps fly, telephone wires thrum, big trees bend and bow alarmingly, roaring with pleasure. Jackdaws rush into the sky to ride the air-waves just for the hell of it, like surfers when the sea is up. Three black-headed gulls, the first I’ve seen for months round here, fly into the face of the wind, swooping low, tacking this way and that. It rained during the night – Oakington Brook carries water where it was dry a few days ago, and the main stream, Beck Brook, is up and flowing again. It is remarkable how quickly these little watercourses rise and fall during the year.

Spires of pink rosebay willowherb and bright yellow ragwort colour the corner of a field. The first thistles are over, the last of their down being dislodged by the breeze. A black cat, with white bib and front paws, incongruous in the scrub, freezes on seeing me, eyes widening. She crouches, slowly, lowering herself into the earth. We stare at each other, locked in the moment, until I move forward. In her own village territory or domestic setting she would probably ignore me, but here, out in the countryside, I am something to reckon with, to fear, and to wonder at. I often come across domestic cats on my forays, quarter of a mile, half a mile even, from the nearest habitation. I am always glad to see them. We have much in common – both interlopers, trespassers, wanderers from home, stalkers and hunters, seekers of the veedon fleece. They always seem surprised to see me, embarrassed even, as if I have caught them with their pants down, unmasked, exposing their truer, darker, wilder selves.

I disturb a heron in the sheep pasture below Westwick House. Its big wings unfold like umbrellas and fill with wind. It doesn’t glide far before settling again, easing down on its long, springy legs. It straightens up and stands as still as a post for ten minutes or more. From one hundred yards, it is a bare, dead stump in the ground – grey folded wings and back like fissured bark; the long, pale, serpentine neck like a bleached, twisted branch. I can just make out the black crest sweeping back from its yellow eye, watching me askance. On the brook, three mallard paddle down the runnel between the water-weeds. They are fully-grown but lack the markings of the male or the female so are probably juveniles, survivors from one of the many little flotillas of fluff I saw earlier this year. As I peer beneath the bridge at Westwick to try and catch a glimpse of the elusive pike, two dazzling blue bullets flash past me under the bridge, one behind the other, and disappear downstream. Kingfishers again! Three days ago I saw one for the first time ever in this district. Now two more, on the other side of the village, so probably not the same as the first. I couldn’t have missed them before – not in six months of watching and waiting. Surely not. Yet they are supposed to be more or less sedentary.

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pikewalk51

July 8th, 2010. A 5-mile walkabout before breakfast, north up the guided-busway, east by Reynold’s Drove, south by Cuckoo Lane, then west along the Cottenham-Oakington road. It’s been a while since I’ve taken this route.

It rained during the night and there are puddles again on pavement and road but I suspect it has only wetted the lips of the land. I walk out into light drizzle that soon peters out. From north to south and from east to west the sky is covered by one, unbroken, uniformly dove-grey layer of stratus. Slowly during the course of the walk dappled cloud formations emerge out of this undifferentiated ocean of vapour. They come into being from unbeing, bringing texture and hue and shape and movement to the overcast sky. So the world is made manifest from the unmanifest.

The moribund busway is fairly busy with commuter cyclists at this time of morning but few return my greeting. Most are plugged in to iPods and MP3s and simply don’t hear my g’mornings. Neither do they hear the skylarks, yellowhammers, jackdaws and collared doves that compose the soundscape around them. They are, for the most part, utterly un-plugged – disconnected from the world and the people around them – at least when they’re cycling. If I were king……

I am always thrilled to see a heron. They are such big birds. And they evoke the primeval. As one flies away from me, following the brook as it winds through the fields, its distinctive wing movement is all too apparent – deep, slow beats with the whole wing held stiff from the shoulder, mechanical, laboured, quite unlike the supple, bowed wingbeats of buzzards and rooks, for example, with their splayed and upturned primaries.

The wheat in the fields is yellowing in patches while the barley is all pale golden-beige, almost ripe for reaping. Hay-fields have already been cleared and present open expanses of closely-cropped stubble. Brambles are in violet-pink flower (rather than white), now dominating the hedgerows and waste grounds. Dozens of medium-sized, dark brown butterflies that I take to be Ringlets or Meadow Browns work the flowers along the steep bank of the brook, among which are occasional clumps of the lovely blue-purple meadow cranesbill. Of white flowers out now are large daisies and mayweeds, white campions still and yarrow emerging, but the largest and showiest are the pure white, trumpet-shaped bindweeds, three inches across, the scourge of farmers and gardeners, but surely one of our brightest flowers on a dull day.

Large Bindweed

As is so often the case, just as I come into the village at the end of my walk, lamenting the absence of wildlife, I am truly taken by surprise. I peer over the bridge into Beck Brook, as I customarily do, expecting no more than a mallard perhaps, or a moorhen. But today, here, where the brook is at its most streamlike, perhaps eight feet wide and a foot deep at this driest of seasons, I see something remarkable…..not one, but two, wild fish – proper fish, big enough to eat. How can I get so excited about fish? Well in six months I’ve never seen anything larger than a paperclip in this rivulet, not even a fingerling. The first is sculling slowly upstream, silverish with dark dorsal fin and tail. Allowing for the distortion of water and the exaggeration that fishpersons are prone to, I’d say it is about 10 inches long. I’ve no idea what it is – it’s shaped like a trout but is definitely not. Nearby, on the muddy bottom, lying as still as a corpse, as they do, is the unmistakable body-shape of a pike, or rather, a pickerel. It is slender, perhaps a foot long, olive green with dark, broken vertical stripes, and that distinctive, flattened snout like a dolphin’s beak. It barely stirs – it is in hunting mode. I don’t know why the discovery of two substantial fish in the stream should be so thrilling, so significant… perhaps I need to get out more …. but I know now why heron frequent this surprising sliver of water.

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maywalk37

May 4th, 2010. For the sake of brevity, notes, not notions or narrative, I tell myself. The best thing about England, surely, is the weather. Other places have wilderness, we have weather. Loads of it. It deserves to be celebrated. For the past month – dry and warm, with many glorious, sunshiny days. For the last few days – spring showers, during the day and night, big clouds, and a sudden fall in temperature. It has been cold, jersey-and-coat cold, even scarf-cold, if you’re out, borne on a chilly north-easterly blow. All’s been in motion – clouds, trees, grasses, litter. Then this afternoon – calm, a mostly blue sky, and sun again, warm in the lee of a hedge. Summerish even. I’m out.

I check first the lapwings in the fallow to the south-west of the village, fearing that it might have been ploughed and the birds displaced. It hasn’t and they’re still there, though I can only see two on the ground, in different parts of the field. They must be nesting by now. Their long crest plumes are blown over sideways, giving them a rakish, dissolute air. A male blackcap, the first I’ve seen this year outside the garden, is busy deep in a hedgerow, sounding like a loud, very squeaky wheelbarrow being pushed at a run. A scarlet-faced goldfinch, with brilliant golden wing bands, sits on the topmost twig of a bush.

I follow the brook for a mile upstream. The water has risen a little. My sudden appearance flushes a pair of mallard. Then, at the confluence by the copse, cruising, is a mother mallard with four ducklings, surely the same family I’ve seen before on this stretch. If so, they have all somehow survived. 100 yards upstream, seven more ducklings, excitedly scooping up insects from the surface, whirling around like bumper cars. Strangely, no parent to be seen. They are alone, but not abandoned I hope. When they become aware of my presence, they bunch together and remain quite still on the water, unsure of what to do next. Pale yellow faces and breasts, with a dark band running back from the brow, over the head, and down the back, with an elegant black eye-stripe and single spot on the cheek by way of mascara. Dark bodies blotched pale yellow. Then one breaks away from the group, heading downstream, and the others all follow. A flotilla of fluff. Upstream, another female with four ducklings, and further on again, three drakes splash off and wing away muttering. These are wild mallard, not city park or village pond ducks, on a quiet, unfrequented stretch of the brook. How can this sunken slip of a stream support so many wildfowl? Next a grey heron lifts heavily out of the ditch, is mobbed by a rook, and circles wide over adjacent fields, slowly, legs trailing behind and great wings flapping untidily like washing on a line. I’ve seen one before in this neck of the woods so it might well be locally resident. It seems to be waiting for me to move on, which I do.

The lush growth of grass and herbage make for more difficult walking. A few butterflies ply the stream edge – Orange Tips, a single pale lemon-green Brimstone, and a lovely brown Speckled Wood, with creamy yellow markings and ‘eyes’ with black centres. I am growing fond of butterflies. Their vulnerability to the human enterprise and consequent scarcity, their role in the web of life, and exquisite coloration and detailing make them worthy of our closer attention.

A strange scent has been nagging at my nostrils, at once sweet and sour. Lightly rancid, you could say, faintly flowery, faintly foul. Of course! It must be the oils emitted by the rape-seed flowers, in huge fields all around. Some people loathe the smell, others react to it badly, sneezing and streaming. En masse, the bright yellow flowers dominate large swathes of countryside at this time of year, a yellow invasion, reviled by some as a blot on the traditional landscape. But up close, in small doses, the plant is showy enough to earn a place in the herbaceous border, I’d say, if I had one. Swallows, swooping low over the flowering sea, seem undaunted, and skylarks still lark in the crop.

The big winter flocks have long since dispersed, but a sizable gang of starlings or starnels, some 30 or 40 strong, work through a pasture, rising and settling as one. When they glide down together on short triangular wings, they’re like miniature delta-winged aircraft. I walk an asphalted footpath that leads along the back gardens of Histon and its conjoined twin Impington, urbanised villages, dissected by traffic. Chain-link fencing, four-letter surveillance. Neighbourhood watched. A collared dove, with round black eyes outlined in white, blinks a white eyelid. Terraced streets, then onto the main road to Cottenham. Even at 6.30 the commute’s still in full flow.

I branch off down a long Mill Lane into clear country. I’m at the eastern extremity of my territory here. It feels good – expansive, open, quiet, uncluttered. The farmer at Mill Lane Farm has been good enough to lay out a network of ‘permissive pathways’ (strange choice of word), in the absence of any public right of way, allowing walkers to tramp through his extensive lands stretching almost to Cottenham. Big fields, no hedges or ditches, wide skies. Too much for me today. I leave the pleasure for another time and turn homewards. It’s been a warm walk, and therefore especially delicious to slip through the dim, sub-aqueous, yew-shaded churchyard at Histon. In the meadows below the village, I stretch out in thick grass and look up into unbroken blue.

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