Tag Archives: mussels


June 4th, 2010. Late evening, on the third consecutive blue-sky summer’s day. I take a short walk around the southern outskirts of the village, stopping at three or four favourite sitting-spots by the brook. Nothing disturbs the dark, still water, and I put up only a pair of mallard – the male takes wing first with much splashing and remonstrating, then five seconds later the female, equally vociferous. Their ducklings are hidden out of sight.

There are just four small patches of wetland in this district of 12 square miles (not counting the brooks and ditches, and the forbidden lake on the airfield), all of them the beds of former ponds or pools in an advanced state of succession, little bogs really, spongy and dank in the midst of remnant coppices, surrounded by fallen trunks and boughs. They hold water in winter. In one damp bottom, hard by the brook from Histon, arched over by great willows many of which are almost horizontal, is a patch of yellow iris or yellow flag, bright in the gloom, each with three down-curving buttercup-yellow petals as bold as any tropical flower. John Clare calls them water skegg or flags. On one is a small, round, part yellow – part green spider, as if it was in the process of changing colour to match the emerging flowers. I look out over the parkland below Westwick House, loud with sheep. On the ground are rooks, and a green woodpecker, staring. It has a nest somewhere in this coppice of old willows. It flies low over the meadow, in undulating flight, then makes a steep vertical ascent upwards to clamp onto a trunk 20 feet above the ground. A pair of rich brown and dark grey moorhen, with red face-shields nodding and white undertail bobbbing, stray far from the water into the grass. Green legs in green grass. These birds are exquisitely coloured. We forget how beautiful some of our common birds are. Next time you see a moorhen, take a closer look.

Below the bridge that carries the guided busway over the brook, I scan the water for life. It’s not long before I spot a freshwater mussel, and then another and another. If Rose had not pointed them out to me further up the stream on a previous encounter, I would not have seen them at all. They have been right in front of my nose all the time. They are the colour of the greenish mud on the stream bed, in which they’re half-buried, and it is only their smooth oval shape that gives them away. They are dispersed here and there in this part of the brook, many half-open. I retrieve two from the mud, both open and empty. Presumably they have been eaten. By water vole, or heron, perhaps. Freshwater mussels are generally considered to be unpalatable, though the native peoples in North America utilized them extensively. Impossibly, they smell of the sea.


Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature


June 1st, 2010. It’s warm, overcast and wet, with a steady, persistent, light rain … drops heavy enough to patter the leaves overhead. This is the first time I’ve deliberately set out to walk in the rain. Walking in the rain is special. It waters the soul, as well as the soil. I’m soon fairly wet, despite a cap and waterproof jacket. The long grass soaks my boots, and jeans up to the knee. The going is softer. The wet has not deterred the songsters at all – blackbirds, song thrush, goldfinch, robins, tits, all singing in the rain. The land is bathed, blessed, as are we.

I’ve been out of my patch for ten days. What a lot has changed … yet nothing has changed. The May or hawthorn is over, except for the red, and now the discs of creamy-white elderflowers are beginning to take their place in hedgerow and copse. They will be my first wild crop. Earlier in the season I experimented with jack-by-the-hedge or hedge garlic in salads but they tasted of leaves, with a very faint garlicy odour. Palatable only if you really have nothing else to put in a salad. Ramsons are better by far, but I’ve not seen any round here. Pink dog-roses are just opening and I see here and there they have formed great bushes and will be spectacular in flower. And a few scarlet poppies, too, bedraggled in the rain.

I make for the brook, which has risen a little from its lowest level. The vegetation is so dense now that there are only a few places where I can get close enough to see the water. Almost immediately I startle a pair of little egrets, winging away so white against the green corn. It’s good to see they’re still here, and surely nesting? On the footbridge, I meet Rose. Her keen eye spots a couple of freshwater mussels in the muddy bottom below. An indicator of good, clean water, she says. She tells me she has also seen crayfish here, the American crayfish, which is muscling out our native crayfish. On parting, she directs me to the part of little Histon brook where she has seen water voles, and bids me listen out for their ‘plops’.

On the way I visit a little copse of full-grown ash-trees where I’d previously seen a great spotted woodpecker. The undergrowth is thick, trunks and boughs lie here and there hosting bracket fungi, hard and solid to the touch, firmly anchored to the wood. I become aware of a persistent, high-pitched note repeated rapidly and endlessly, like the alarm on a watch. I can’t make out whether it is near or far, high up or at ground level, inside or outside the copse. It continues non-stop, on and on. Then the loud and unmistakable alarm chucks of an adult great spotted woodpecker sound over my head and looking up I see her land in the tree I’m under and spiral up the trunk with a large insect in her beak. She leads me to her nest, one of three perfectly round and ivy-enshrouded holes one above the other about 15 ft up the main trunk. The sound was coming from right above me after all … baby woodpeckers  misbehaving.

Dryad's Saddle bracket fungi or Pheasant's Back mushroom, neither poisonous nor particularly edible

The wheat in the field is two-toned  – silver green stalks and underside of leaves, grasshopper-green ears and upper surface of leaves. The rape flowering is nearly over, yellow no longer dominating the countryside. The rain eases. A single skylark rises and bursts into song, fluttering heavenward. It beats its wings frantically, yet makes little upward progress, as if it had left the brakes on. Slowly it ascends. Then another answers the challenge from an adjacent part of the field, and begins the long song-flight upwards. They are duetting, and sound-marking their territories.

I walk back along Histon brook, here more of a drain, almost choked with vegetation. I can barely see the water. I can’t imagine water voles living here, there doesn’t seem to be enough water to keep a water vole happy. Then, as my attention shifts elsewhere, I hear the tell-tale plop of vole entering water, more of a splat really, something flattish hitting the surface. And then another. Yes! It must be. I watch and wait, still and silent, but don’t have their patience. I move on. The rain has stopped and all is adorned with droplets. The ewes in the parkland have been shorn, some sporting stylish shaved patterns, as is the fashion. The unshaven lambs, with their tight thick coats, are almost as big as their mothers. They shelter under the trees, expecting more rain.

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Filed under writing / rambles / landscape / nature