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northwalk36

April 30th, 2010. 5 miles. It occurs to me that my posts, like the evenings, are getting longer and longer, so this will be brief(er), I promise. I leave at 6 for new ground in the north of my patch, up the no-through road to Longstanton. The sky’s full of cloud, of every hue, shape and species. Late April showers, in the afternoon, yesterday and today, have left the land wet for the first time in over a month. Grass and foliage hang heavy with water. Now that the hedgerow and woodland birds have more or less total concealment they sing more it seems, and are heard more often than seen.

I check out the progress of ash trees and oaks to test the folk wisdom of ‘oak before ash we’re in for a splash – ash before oak we’re in for a soak’, which forecasts a relatively dry (‘splash’) or wet (‘soak’) summer to come. My notes record ash trees in leaf on the 25th April, but I’ve subsequently seen some that aren’t. Also the flowers from a distance can look like newly sprung leaves so I might have been deceived in some cases. Similarly, the veteran oak at Histon Manor was definitely showing leaf on the 27th while the younger tree in my garden, and others today, show no sign of green. Time of leafing of individual trees must depend on a number of variables such as aspect, age, soil, shelter, etc. so it’s not easy to ascertain when trees as a species have started to leaf. According to the Woodland Trust ash leafing before oak has occurred only four times in the last 44 years, the last time being in1986.This year, however, there seems to be no significant difference between the two, so I can confidently predict that we’re in for a sploak.

I walk the signposted footpad that skirts round the western edge of Longstanton. On the map it leads through open fields but I find myself channeled through a new toy-town estate of cheek-by-jowl ‘executive’ homes that looks like the set of a soap. But I do see here a single white or pied wagtail (not easy to tell apart), the first of the season, a bird that seems especially fond of tarmac and car parks. Outside the village, I turn south and head back through a herbicidal ‘golf academy’ comprising weed-free fairways  and immaculate greens inhabited by small groups of males in spring plumage. They go in for some interesting rituals and rules of etiquette that I would like to check out but the distant thwack of club against ball sends me running for cover. A cold wind blows up and I have to button my coat. Horses in paddocks have thrown on yellow-checked blankets. In the meadow beside the Detention Centre ancient English longhorn cattle and their calves ruminate on the gathering storm while an even more ancient heron buffets into the headwind. A dark wave of cloud is rolling down from the north.

Nearer home a dozen swallows stitch the high air and a couple of all-dark swifts, devil-birds (Clare calls them develings), scythe through the gloom. They arrived in the village yesterday (my first sighting, at least), after their incredible 7000 mile migration from southern Africa, ahead of their u.t.a. (usual time of arrival) around 10th May. Ten days early! What does that mean? They are astonishing birds, not least because they eat, drink, preen, sleep, court, mate and gather nesting material on the wing, yes, in the air, only stopping to nest, lay and incubate once a year. A young swift, having fledged, may live in the sky for two or three years without perching once. It’s true. If they could lay eggs in the air and catch them, and cradle them till they hatch,  they will have broken free of the earth altogether.

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snakewalk31

April 18th 2010. Sunday. It’s been a sunshiny day, but by late afternoon the sky is half covered with scattered, indistinct clouds. A breeze blows out of the east. I need to explore one of the few remaining untrodden tracts at the far south-eastern edge of my patch, between Histon and Girton villages, abutting the A14 highway to the Eastern ports.

At the village recreation ground I watch a blue tit ferrying wisps of nesting material into a pre-drilled hole near the top of a tall steel pole supporting a floodlight. The hole (and pole) is big enough to accommodate a much larger bird, even a woodpecker. I wonder how this slightest of birds has managed to appropriate such prime, penthouse property, against all comers, and how it could possibly construct its cup-shaped nest in what must be a very deep, hollow tube. I have read somewhere that long-tailed tits use spiders’ silk to weave their nests, and it may be that this blue tit has woven a silken hammock to cradle its own. We’ll never know.

In the water of Beck Brook, as it flows past a coppice, I encounter, for the first time, a creature as thrilling as any I’ve yet come across – a grass snake. It is on the surface of the water, insinuating slowly through the scum and weed at the edge of the stream. It is dark and slender, not more than two feet long and about half an inch thick, with a conspicuous creamy-yellow collar just behind its head. Its forked black tongue flicks in and out. This is but a brief encounter… it disappears into some water weed, and though I keep watch for a good ten minutes, it doesn’t emerge. I notice too, for the first time, tiny fish, fry the size of paperclips, in the water. This is good news for what I took to be a pretty dead field-drain. If there are snakes and fish, there’ll be other creatures too.

The planted cherries in the coppice are a snowstorm of blossom. Horse chestnuts are now fully clothed, the greenest trees around, though the leaves of hawthorns in the hedgerows have emerged almost overnight. Rich glossy yellow flowers of lesser celandines line the brook while the yellow starbursts of the despised and downtrodden dandelion light up the verges and field edges. The lion’s tooth leaves (dents de lion), roots and flowers of the latter are one of nature’s forgotten wonder drugs, especially as diuretics, hence its folk name ‘piss-a-bed’. One has already completed its cycle and formed the familiar, delicate, spherical ‘clock’ or seed-head. It occurs to me that the earliest wild-flowers are all yellow, but actually the red deadnettle has been out for a while and I notice now the tiny white and purple pansy, and the white flowers of cow parsley, just beginning to emerge. Soon there will be too many trees in leaf and too many plants in flower to mention.

I walk up the track of the guided busway towards Histon, past bright fertilizer-green fields of wheat, still only some six inches high. On the eastern horizon the rape field is now a broad splash of yellow. At the far end of the fallow on the edge of Histon, beside the busway, is a motley crew of creatures co-mingling in Edenic bliss – rabbits old and young, pheasants, wood-pigeons and magpies, starlings and larks all move amongst each other or simply rest in the sun. And sitting in the midst of them all, incongruously, is a magnificent, imperious, long-haired tabby.

Further on is what I believe is called a ‘community woodland’. Each village round here – Oakington, Cottenham, Girton and Histon – has at least one, planted perhaps five years ago in a flush of EU funding, several acres in extent. They already provide good habitat, for dogs and their walkers, though I do see a couple of jays, with their pink bodies, white rumps, black tails and blue flash of wings, one of our most resplendent birds. Each tree in these coppices, however, has been cosseted in a corrugated plastic sleeve and planted in a mulch of black plastic sheeting, which nobody bothers to remove when their job is done, resulting in a drift of shredded plastic worthy of any motorway ditch. Still, mustn’t carp… in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time they’ll be proper woodlands.

At the southern end of Histon, I enter a quasi-industrial zone. There is a waste recycling plant, a very large factory with hoppers and steel silos, and an electricity sub-station, all protected with rigid steel fencing, the uprights bent outwards and as sharp as medieval pikes. This is clearly no place for pedestrian trespassers, and once again, in my quest to discover where I live, I am straitened and trapped. At last there is a slight gap between the fencing of the sub-station and the hedge of an experimental farm, and I squeeze through and along a footway that runs between them. I emerge into the open fields of NIAB, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, one of Cambridge’s many genetic research facilities. A concrete field-road leads south beside a ditch, and I figure this is the best way to make a speedy exit.

Half a mile down the road, my eye is drawn to a dense flock of birds – rooks and pigeons – gathered in the corner of a large, open, ploughed field. A few are flapping on the ground, but most are uncannily still. In fact they are dead. From one hundred yards I survey the macabre scene through binoculars, somewhat perplexed. What is going on here? Then a paramilitary figure emerges from a ditch, in full camouflage outfit, including balaclava and cap, carrying a shotgun. He glares at me, I wave to him, and approach. He is tall, very tall, and intimidating. He is also irate.

“What the f*** do you think you are doing here?”

“Walking… to Girton”, I splutter.

“This is private land! You people think you can walk anywhere! You come in here with your dogs, and break down fences, leave gates open, turn on the taps, and…”

“Hang on there. What do you mean, you people? As you can see, I don’t have a dog, I haven’t broken down any fences, nor turned on any taps. I’m sorry. I’m just out walking. I’m not doing any harm, am I? ”

“You are!” He is incandescent.

“What harm am I doing? Tell me, please.” He strides onto the killing field to dispatch an injured pigeon which is in convulsions, flailing its wings against the earth. “I’m sorry to have disturbed your sport” I say to appease him.

But this is no sport at all. He is not a farmer; he is a hired gun, a contract killer. This is not his land after all. I can’t keep my eyes off the carnage. There must be at least 100 dead woodpigeons and the same number of rooks strewn over the ground. His method is devious, and deadly. The shot birds are propped up with clods and stalks, arranged as if still alive, set up as lures to fool others into thinking that here, where many of their kind have gathered, there must be a plentiful supply of food. He hides in a ditch and shoots the incoming birds as they land from a range of ten yards. I want to take a photo, but fear this would be a step too far. I cannot understand why he is quite so aggressive towards me. I am clearly in the wrong place, trespassing, but why the anger? There is no chance that I could have walked into his line of fire, given the open terrain and the fact that I was approaching from the side and slightly behind him. Perhaps it is that my binoculars mark me out as a bird-lover, a soft-hearted townie with no understanding of the realities of farming or country life, and he is on the defensive. Or that I have caught him in the act of slaughter, of which he is a little ashamed, maybe. Or he is just an angry man. I want to suggest that he take up fishing, but think better of it.

“Just get out of here”, he shouts. “And keep walking!”

Which I unreluctantly do. The mass of dead birds posed in grotesque parody of the living, the killer’s concealed face, the paramilitary uniform, and the slight stench of genetic research all leave a foul taste in the mouth. Some places are tainted. But it does get me thinking about the creatures I crave to seek out – some are undoubtedly pests, and destructive in large numbers, in conflict with the great human project. Do I not kill slugs, and the caterpillars of cabbage whites, in my vegetable patch?

Happily, it is all worthwhile. I follow the concrete road as directed, but it soon swings round to the east, and I need to head west, towards Girton, so I leave it and plunge into scrubland bordering the A14 and there, not 10 yards away, is a pair of reddish muntjac deer. The buck sees me and freezes as I freeze, but the doe is oblivious, a few yards in front of her mate, defecating. He is caught between fascination and flight. His eyes are fixed on mine, and so long as I don’t make a move, he is under my spell. Close up, I see these deer are more beautiful than I had previously thought. He has small, straight, backward-pointing horns, she has none that I can see. Nor do I see the protruding canines or tusks of the male, perhaps because he is looking directly at me. But the V-shaped black marking on his forehead, running from between the eyes to each horn, is distinctive. As are the enlarged tear ducts, which give him a sad-eyed look. She finishes her business, I make a move, and they are gone, diving into the safety of a dense bramble patch. I find her droppings. They are glossy, dark brown to black, the size and shape of roasted coffee beans, but smaller than I expected.

A ditch and dense hedge prevent me from gaining the thundering A14, even if I wanted to. So I have to make my way round the edge of great fields, which eventually lead me away from the highway. I am acutely conscious, though, of the eyes of the shooter, who, from his position, can follow my slow progress through his gunsight. I half expect some stray pellets to pass my way. I find an overgrown green lane and finally achieve the village of Girton, emerging onto the community woodland and playing fields. I rest in the churchyard. The sun is close to the north-western horizon, the sky has clouded over, but it is a fine, tranquil evening. A coal tit, the first I’ve seen in these parts, with black crown and bib, and white neck patch, without the yellow underparts of the great tit and blue tit, is plying to and fro. I walk back along the main road. The dandelion flowers have folded up for the night. As I enter the village, a heron lifts off from a runnel, with huge, slow-beating wings. It is the first I’ve seen for some time.

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dawnsaunter19

15th March, 2010. 6 a.m. Striated sky, sun risen, but diffused by cloud. The road hisses with early morning commuter traffic. The rooks at Westwick House are busy building. There is a great hubbub, and much to-ing and fro-ing. Every bird, it seems, has a twig in its beak. I watch one carry a stick about a half-mile to its nest, even though the ground near at hand is littered with them. But what do we know? Birds are active in the bushes and hedgerows – among the less common (round here, at least, so far this year) I note songthrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tit (Clare calls them bumbarrels) and yellowhammer, along with many unidentifiable, brownish flitty ones (twite? corn bunting?). In the middle of an expanse of arable far away are two hares which lope away on spotting me. They are very wary of humans, and uncommon here it seems, this being only my second sighting this year. I follow Beck Brook / New Cut towards Rampton, and put up at least four different pairs of mallard from the stream. A last group consists of two males and a female. Invariably they give themselves away by quacking loudly on take-off, and invariably it is the female that leads them in their wide, circular arc of a flight. A heron lifts off from the steep inner bank of the waterway, followed closely by a ghostly pale barn owl in much the same place as I saw one 9 days ago. It must be the same bird, or its mate, and as it flies away from me, it is clear that its back is more sandy-orange than I had noticed before. It flies low along the edge of a field, silently, with big slow wingbeats, and eventually disappears into an ivy-clad tree. It is past seven, the sun is now out, and it is a bright, shiny day, so this is my second sighting here of a barn owl in broad daylight. It seems they are not purely nocturnal or crepuscular. A greater spotted woodpecker dashes from a thicket and hides behind a tree. In the last piece of pasture before the Rampton-Cottenham road are hundreds of winter migrant fieldfare scattered evenly over the field, all engaged in that curious start-stop fieldfare routine – three or four steps forward, then stock still in an upright stance for a few seconds, then forward again. A kestrel swoops down from a telephone pole and glides right across the field above the fieldfare, a couple of feet from the ground, scattering them one after another. They are not unduly alarmed and the kestrel makes no attempt at a kill. He is just having fun it seems. I turn back through the village, and up Cuckoo Lane, before branching off towards the guided busway and home. Two lapwings are cavorting and swooping and dashing and changing direction abruptly in a mesmerizing aerial display. Skylarks are in full voice over the airfield (collectively known as an exaltation, which is just brilliant),  their last brief season before the bulldozers and the builders move in.

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jogblog4

04/01/10.  I down a potent little espresso, sweet and hot, and, breaking norms, decide to head north. Another brilliant winter’s morn, with a clear, bright sky and heavy frost. Very cold, well below freezing, but mercifully wind-free. Every twig and leaf is silvered, the fields are sheets of white, but quite unlike snow. The verges and pavements slick with ice, and I am extra careful, running in the roadway. People are scraping away at their iced-up windshields, and pouring kettles of hot water over wiper mechanisms and locks. Through the village and up the no-through-road to Longstanton (which all the locals use and know to be very much a through-road) skirting the old airbase. A black cat crosses my path, he is a long way from any house, but doesn’t stop for company, and then a single magpie settles on the road…one for sorrow. I look around for its mate but it really is alone. A double omen, I think twice… but I am not a superstitious man, and push on.

The air is so crisp and crystal I can see for miles across the fields, across the A14, and up onto the high ground on the western border of Cambridgeshire, with surprising clarity. A heron lifts off from a field, barely able to beat its big heavy wings against the weight of frozen air, and in this light, it appears enormous, perhaps three times normal size. The road takes me round the former airfield, bristling with warning notices … ‘Entry Forbidden under the Official Secrets Act. Trespasses May be Arrested and Prosecuted’, and ‘Protected by Armalite Securities. Keep Out’. Under other circumstances, I’d take these as open challenges ….

I reach the edge of Longstanton, a long straggly village indeed, originally Stanton and Stantone ‘The Farm of the Stone Enclosure’ apparently, and turn right and eastwards down St Michael’s Lane with the old thatched church on the corner, surely a rarity, and in front, under a great chestnut, St Michael’s holy well, vaulted and used for immersion baptism until the 1880s [actually there are some 100 extant thatched churches in the land, many dating from the Middle Ages, most of them in Norfolk and Suffolk; Sherborne Abbey in Dorset had a thatched roof in the 15th century, and even Gloucester cathedral was thatched until a fire in 1122]

The lane leads on past one of those most curious of English residential developments, a neat and respectable mobile-home park of tiny gable-ended prefab chalets, one room wide, with porches and porticos, for retired Romanies I guess, bright and kitsch, called ‘Badger’s Holt’. Must be settled travellers surely with a name like that? Do badgers have holts? I must ask Ayesha, the authority on all things badger. Holt is apparently, ‘a piece of woodland, especially a wooded hill’ and Chaucer has “every holt and heath”; it is also ‘a deep hole in a river where there is protection for fish; also a cover, hole or hiding-place’ [But see holt on Land-Words page]. No mention of badgers so not apparently exclusive to them. I thought badgers lived in setts, no? So it must mean simply Badger’s Wood, but where’s the wood?  There is anyway a distinct and delicious smell of horseshit here.

At last I am off the tarmacadam, and on to real ground as I strike north again onto a wide and grassy lane, treed on both sides, an avenue of sorts, that runs along one side of the old Oakington barracks now Immigration Reception Centre in what must be one of the most blatant perversions of the English language ever, Orwellian Newspeak in fact, for it is in reality a high security, dog-patrolled, barbed-wire fenced holding camp/detention centre for failed asylum seekers who are about to be sent back to wherever they have risked their skins to flee from – back to corruption, poverty, hopelessness, and in some cases no doubt, torture and death. No reception here then. Shame, shame on you, you miserable bureaucrats and paltry politicians! Anyone who has demonstrated as much guts, ingenuity, determination and patience as these poor souls (more than most Brits I’ll wager) surely deserves instant citizenship, a job at Tesco’s, and a bus pass, at least. As I pass the main entrance I notice they have a rugby field. Do they teach the Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis to play rugby then, before they send them back to the warzones? I half hope to see a mob scaling the 8-foot high fence, tossing mattresses over the upper strands of barbed wire, and throwing pork chops to the Alsatians, but I am disappointed in this.

I am heading east again down Rampton Drift, another wide, grassy and hedged old drove road, like so many in the fens, for driving cattle, but from where to where and why I don’t know, for they seem so random. The ground is frozen underfoot and the grass crunches like broken glass. I am still skirting the old airfield (soon to be transformed into Northstowe eco-commuter town –  aspirational mock-Georgian houses set in a pedestrianised wasteland around a massive Superstore). I reach and pass over the new (mis)guided-busway, still not yet in operation, that has replaced the old,wild, branch-line railway track, overgrown with brambles, the haunt of foxes and badgers and snakes and lizards and all things wild (where have they all gone now?), and turn south and homewards along the pea-gravel service track that runs beside the busway. I notice several wartime pill-box gun emplacements nosing their domed heads just above the surface, still intact and serviceable should the good citizens of the future Northstowe ever decide that enough is enough and rise up against so much comfort and banality.

My trick in running, in order to keep going, is to adopt a 200/100 strategy, which is to run 200 paces, and then power-(yeah!) walk 100, counting all the time. This doesn’t seem to be working so well today, and I quickly slip into a 100/100 routine, then, quite unconsciously, it becomes more like 50/150. I find I am ambling along, watching a cloud of rooks, some 200 strong, take off quite suddenly from a field behind a hedge, swirl up and around in several interpenetrating choreographies, drawing Venn diagrams in the sky, and then settling as fast as they had risen. I saunter on, having quite forgotten that I am supposed to be running. In front, on every horizon, on the slightest of gravel ridges which rise out of the ancient now drained fens I can see the bunched trees that mark the ring of fen-edge villages of this very flat piece of England – Rampton, Cottenham, Histon, Girton, Oakington, Long Stanton. To the south, a great bank of cloud is underlit by the sun, still very low in the sky. It is windless and almost warm. Reaching the Cottenham-Oakington road, I break into a trot, and manage a 30/300 back home. I am surprised to find that my pulled-down-over-the-ears woolly hat is quite covered in frost.

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