March 5th, 2010. After the dawn prayer, I’m out. At 6.15 it’s already light. Just above the south-eastern horizon a few slivers of crimson cloud, like bright slashes in the side of the day, herald the not-yet-risen sun. Otherwise, the sky is pristine silver-blue, rimmed all around by the sharp black latticework of winter trees. There has been a hard frost overnight, and shallow pools in the fields and ruts are once again frozen over. The ground crackles underfoot. Blackbirds, song thrush and great tits add some final embellishments to the dawn chorus, then all fall silent, waiting for the first rays. An extraordinary serenity descends over the land. I have to stop and savour the moment. Then a big red sun emerges, molten and brilliant, but without glare, so that I can look right into it. As it pulls away from the horizon it distorts and flattens into an ovoid, before becoming the familiar round ball of dazzling yellow fire. I decide to quit the beaten tracks and lanes and paths, and make out across the big fields that lie between Histon, Oakington and Cottenham. But it’s not easy to move freely through this part of the world – I am frustrated by unjumpable ditches, barbed wire, and thorny hedges and often have to double back. A pair of mallard are sitting on an iced-over slick in a piece of scrubland. They are reluctant to fly but when I get too close they take off silently, the duck first, then the drake, flying low. They are beautiful. I edge round a large field of arable, fringed with trees. I notice something up ahead, moving in the same direction. It has a strange loping gait. It’s a fox. Through the binoculars he looks small and unkempt, with a hangdog air about him, trotting slowly and diffidently along the rough field edge, stopping now and again to sniff the ground. He is about 200 yards in front of me, and is oblivious to my presence. I follow and gain ground – 80 yards. The white tip to his brush is not very distinct but the sun sets fire to his rich red coat. I cannot believe he hasn’t seen me, or heard me, or smelt me. He does look round once, but I am still, and then, incredibly, he settles down in the long dry grass and thistles, looking out over the field, taking in the sun. I crouch and creep forward. Through the binoculars I can see his slender fox-face clearly, close up, in profile, as if I could just reach forward and stroke him under his white chin. I am barely 20 yards away, to his right. If he turns this way, he’d be looking straight at me. He is relaxed in the warmth, untroubled, sleepy even. There is even some desultory grooming. I have to get closer. Inevitably, I am not quiet enough, he turns and sees me and in a split second he is transformed into a taut, fearful, wild creature, electrified, and in one movement turns and vanishes into the scrub behind, as if into thin air. Foxes are not uncommon of course, and have even become commonplace in some urban environments, and I have heard foxes bark at night round here, and glimpsed them in headlights, crossing a road, but I have never been able to observe a wild fox, up close, for some minutes, in broad daylight, simply being fox. It promises to be a great day.
Tag Archives: Histon
26th Feb 2010. A second walk to test my knees. Mid-afternoon. It’s cold and blowy, damp in the air. The wind roars like a river through the high bare tree-tops along the brook. I meet a woman walking her dog, ‘fenland born and bred’, as round and rosy as an apple, something of a botanist. Before they ripped up the disused and overgrown railway track to make the guided busway she walked it for months recording, collecting and pressing its flowers and plants. It was a rare wild corridor in these parts. We look at it now, a bare and sterile swathe through the land. The fields round about are empty too. Full of lapwing and golden plover before they installed the bird-scarers, she tells me, and last year there was a pair of sparrowhawks in the little wood behind Westwick House.
The sky is magnificent though, layer upon layer of pink and plum and dove-grey cloud reaching into the distant blue. And here come the gulls, group after group, flying low into the face of the cold north-west wind, frolicking and gamboling like lambs, heading home somewhere far away beyond my horizon. In the arable a lone oddling (one of Clare’s words) rook, or what I take to be a rook, catches my eye because of its strange greyish-white secondaries that unfurl when it flies. An albino of sorts.
The old medieval trackway back from Histon is muddy and slippery. 500 pigeons sit at the lower end of a huge field, all facing the westering sun. The afternoon is bright now, shining, and the land is lit. I spook them and they rise and fill the air like blown confetti. 200 yards off the track there is an old orchard, unfenced, in the middle of stubble fields. The apple-trees are overgrown, unpruned for years, each pooled below with dull black fruit like spherical droppings. The place is a thicket of brambles, and rarely visited I reckon, the best habitat around for fox, muntjac, badger, and other wild things but today I put up only a hen pheasant. A last look at the sky – indescribable loveliness – I am lost for words. They have ravaged the land… but the heavens remain.
10th Jan, 2010. Some days there is little to say. The sky is overcast, a dozen shades of grey. And not as cold; in fact, it seems the snow has thawed in places. There is surely less of it about. Perhaps it has just bedded in, snuggled down more closely to the earth, contracted a little under the weight of its own emptiness. I take route three, but anti-clockwise, and head up towards the village of Histon. The white fields are emptied of birds. The snow is studded with the prints of various creatures, mostly rabbits I guess, but they have blurred back into the snow and are indecipherable. Back on the road I pass a man carrying skis and poles, with a dog on a leash. Surely not? I am doubtful… there is barely enough snow, there is not a slope sufficient within several miles, and the dog does not look up to it. I would like to see how they get on, but it is too cold to tarry.
I take a slightly different route, and run through the old part of the village, up towards the squat church tower, with a bell on top. A gaggle of hard-core cyclists, heads down, all yellow and black, helmeted and lycra-legged, whirr past like a tight flock of birds on a mission. I walk through the snowy graveyard and the sound of an organ, then singing, drifts out of the church. It is Sunday after all. Choir practice. I nudge open the porch door, just an inch, to get a better listen, and release a wedge of sound into the freezing air.
I turn off the village street onto the old track, Gun’s Lane, heading for Ely to the north. A couple of grey squirrels, fluffed up in their winter furs, looking chic, bounce along the top of a wooden fence. The going is good to begin with, but the track soon breaks up into a jagged, rutted, volcanic mess of frozen mud churned up by tractors and horses, and I have to walk.
A horse, two fields away, sees me and whinnies in greeting as if I was a long-lost pal. I wave back. Apart from some small unidentifiable birds, little more than blurs at the edge of vision, flicking and flittering along the hedge, the land is empty – no congregations of rooks or seagulls or pigeons today, no animals, no people. I find this strange. It is relatively mild compared to the last few days, it is dry, only the lightest of breezes is blowing out of the east, and it is Sunday. White flags are fluttering in a large beet field… some kind of truce perhaps, a short-term ceasefire? Or a cunning ploy to fool the pigeons? I reach the B-road and it is so smooth and easy and snow-free to run on I positively bound back through the hamlet of Westwick, thinking of breakfast.