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November 13th, 2010. Mid-morning. I take a short walk, an hour and a half, in my own Hindu Kush. It’s a lovely autumn day, somewhat cold of course, being mid-November, but bright, with the gentlest of breezes out of the west. The sky is divided almost exactly in two – to the south, a grey, overcast layer; to the north, bright and blue; between, a long, shredded line of white cloud, curving across the sky from one horizon to the other, like foam on a beach; from the south, above the grey, the sun slants down on the village, sharpening edges and colours. I head north towards Longstanton. On one side the hedge is deep blood red. Stripped of their leaves, the hawthorns have revealed their abundant fruits. The hips, too, hang thick from the briars. I try one, then another, then two or three more. They’re quite edible now, turning to a fragrant paste in the mouth, with a sharp tang and plenty of crunch from the pips, like a wine grape.

As often happens, I am led astray by a bird. A hawk comes out of the trees on my right, and flies overhead and across the field at about twenty feet. All I see is the exquisitely barred underparts – body and wings – red-brown on grey. Because it’s flying away from me I can’t see its head or the length of its tail… slightly larger than a kestrel, and with a slower wingbeat…one, two, three beats, then a glide… and so on. On reaching the hedge dividing two fields, it dives low and flies along one side just two or three feet above ground. Classic sparrowhawk behaviour. Yes, it’s the elusive sparrowhawk again. I’ve glimpsed them four or five times this year but never close enough to make a positive identification. I’m over a wooden field-gate, and across the stubble in no time. I make my way up the hedgerow, through teasels and grasses, putting up rabbits and blackbirds. But there’s no sign of the hawk. Two hundred yards up, the hedgerow comes to an end. All around are open fields, in stubble. It’s warm in the sun. Peaceful and warm. In spite of the traffic out on the highway, there is a special calm and quiet here. I stand still for a full twenty minutes. There are birds in the fields, but nowhere near. A few fieldfares, a flurry of yellow and brown siskins, and far, far away, some fifty lapwings mark time in the air, as if suspended, their big rounded wings beating in unison.

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August 13th, 2010. The third day of Ramadan. A three-hour wander before sunset, when I can break my day-long fast. It has been noticeably cooler today, with dark, low clouds and intermittent showers. Not half a mile from home I am caught in a downpour. At ground level the air is still, but overhead the wind picks up suddenly, boiling through the high tops of trees. Then down comes the rain – a hard flung rain. Overarching trees provide little shelter. Five minutes later it’s all over, the storm passes, leaving a lingering drizzle and the land rilled, puddled and pooled. My cap is sopping, waterproof jacket soaked through, boots and socks cold and heavy with water. And I’ve only just started out.

Two wet weeks have re-sprung the land. The sere, bleached pastures and mown meadows now show a bright green sward beneath dry, brittle stems. Beck Brook’s the colour of milky tea, risen and flowing again. I hopscotch across a once more muddy yard at Lamb’s Cross Farm, trying to avoid the puddles. While a little wheat was harvested weeks ago in the long dry spell most is still standing in the fields, brown and drab, no longer golden, waiting for a break in the weather. Not so the fungi. This weather they love and now is the start of their season – a single large horse mushroom sports a head-dress of leaves borne aloft as it pushed up through the litter; a colony of slick orange-brown parasols on slender stems crowd the edge of the track; several tight white buttons hug the ground beneath horse-chestnut trees. This is a world I know nothing about, and must learn, before the year’s out.

As I top the rise on the old track above the farm, I feel the cold. The drizzle thickens, now slanting across my path. The distant evening is hazed with rain. Two hundred rooks with their sentinel jackdaws rise from a field like wet black rags, the only birds out and about. Intimations of autumn. Yet, despite the rain and the cold, and the fasting, or because of it more likely, I feel light-hearted, light-footed and, in truth, a little light-headed. So I decide on a longer route than I had planned, touching on the villages of Rampton, then Long Stanton, then back home to Oakington – some six sodden miles.

The lower end of Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway, is lined with wild plums, hawthorns and blackthorns. Here the damsons and cherry plums are not ready for picking, yet I gathered the same luscious fruits, ripe to bursting, one week ago not two miles further south along the same track. Similarly, the blackberries round here are still tight redddish-green knots. Purple-black sloes cluster along sprays of blackthorn, as hard as shot. Haws and hips are taking on colour. The flat heads of elderberries, swelling and blackening, droop in the rain. Crab apples, hard and green, are still not much larger than golf balls. Everywhere I go, I see fruits beginning to burgeon.

Detouring into a strip of orchard to check out the state of the plums, I actually fall down a rabbit-hole. Down to the knee at any rate. A large warren occupies a nettle-covered mound, riddled with burrows, but its black earth is so soft and loose, like the lightest of peat, worked by generations of rabbits, that I plunge straight through it into the tunnels beneath. I extract myself with some difficulty, for each time I try to step out my foot breaks through the surface again. I feel some remorse at my clumsy demolition but it appears that this warren has been fired quite recently and has probably been abandoned. I see no sign of rabbit.

The rain eases off again, and for a brief spell a weak sun shows through the cloud. Then a special gift is granted, as always on these walks, out of the blue. On passing a copse beside the Detention Centre I hear that old familiar mewing – the cry of a sparrowhawk, or what I think is a sparrowhawk. This is the fourth separate location in my patch where I’ve heard this distinctive, plaintive sound and the first time I’ve caught more than a glimpse of the bird. A pair of hawks is wheeling and diving low across the ground, buoyant and agile, then swooping up into a tall ash tree, then taking off again, chasing each other and mewing almost incessantly. As they turn in the air I see their closely barred underparts, banded tail and blunted wings. Unfortunately my way is blocked by an 8-foot chain-link fence and I cannot get closer. They must be 150 yards off, yet through the binoculars I get a pretty good look at the birds as they preen in the dead topmost branches of the tree, fluffing out their feathers and holding their wings out to dry. They look smaller and more slender when still. I watch for at least 20 minutes but the light is poor, and the distance great, and I am still not absolutely sure of the species.

On my long trudge home in the dying light, the rain starts again. A car pulls up, shuddering with the boom of drum n bass. A young couple. She lowers the window and asks if I want a lift. Brave of them I think, bedraggled and dripping as I am, and kind. But I cannot abandon the walk a mile from home, and tell them thanks, but I like to walk in the rain. And I do. And it’s not long before I burst through my back door, peeling off clothes like a wet-suit, just in time for a breakfast of dates and glass of cold milk, followed by spicy sambusas. Food never tasted so good.

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August 2nd, 2010. Just after 5 – the sun’s up but shuttered behind a bank of lilac-grey cloud streaked with fire. The morning is hollowed by a massed choir of woodpigeons all round the village, each uttering its own unique version of the deep, guttural, five-note call of the species – coo-COO-coo, coo-coo. Individually, the voice of a woodpigeon sounds unpracticed and laboured, muttered rather than spoken, sometimes breaking off abruptly after the second syllable as if the bird just couldn’t be bothered. It is a coarse, rustic sound compared to that of the sweet-talking collared dove. Yet, en masse, in a thousand different pitches and tones, these woody breath-notes coalesce to a great soul-soothing murmuration that spreads peace and tranquility over the land. And this from a bird so commonplace that we barely give it a thought (except as a bane to the farmer, and as meat for the pot).

I am captivated by another bird sound this morning – that of the white-eyed jackdaw, one of my favourites, not least because each year a pair nests in my chimney. Jackdaws are sociable birds, always cheeky and cheerful. They remind me of Italians, with all due respect. They salute each other with sharp, staccato calls that have a distinctive echoing quality, ‘tchak-ak’, ‘tchow-ow’. I always assumed that this puzzling phenomenon was indeed an echo of some sort but I now think, in some cases at least, it is really a split-second response from another jackdaw. If so, this is truly remarkable. A gang swirls by, releasing a volley of greetings that sound like the shots fired in some old arcade game, a kind of fly-by shoot-up for fun.

A wandering muntjac breaks the curved skyline of the harvested rape field, making its unhurried way to the cover of an adjacent slip of wooded scrub where it will lie up for the day. It is probably the same animal I saw in this field some days ago. I come here because it is one of the few spots in this flatland where there is an uninterrupted view for several miles from south-west to south-east. In my corner of England, where we are usually hemmed in by hedgerows and windbreaks, a clear prospect of two or three miles seems like a blessing, as good as thirty miles elsewhere.

At my approach a kestrel breaks from the trees and circles round out of sight. From a distance its flight is like that of a woodpigeon, with deep rapid wingbeats, but its longer tail and more pointed wings give it away. I backtrack to find it, and as I turn a corner of the field it launches out again from the windbreak, some one hundred yards further off. It is very wary of me, this particular bird. It circles round in front again and settles in an isolated bush in the midst of the field. As it lands, the thin branch bends and springs back in slow motion. As I watch it through the binoculars, a commotion breaks out at the bottom end of the field. The noise is unmistakable. It is a green woodpecker, panic-stricken, and I just catch a glimpse of it diving low through a gateway being pursued by a shadow – a hawk-shadow hot on its tail. Then silence. I make for the opening, expecting, yes hoping, to see a hawk mantling over its prey. But the field is empty. It might though have killed on the wing and carried the limp green body into the trees. I am certain this is my elusive sparrowhawk. We are right by the willow copse where I think one rests up. I listen and listen, and then, from within, comes the faint sound of mewing – sparrowhawk, surely.  I have yet to get a clear sight of this bird.

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Sunday, 1st August, 2010. Out at 6 a.m.; 8 miles today – mostly, as it happens, on tarmac. A cool, grey morning under a cloud-crumpled sky.

As I pass by the wedge of willow copse and thicket between the guided-busway and Histon Brook, I hear an unfamiliar sound. I find I’ve become quite adept at this, with practice, being alive to faint far-away sounds and picking out the extra-ordinary, alien noises that now and then surface through the familiar everyday soundscape. We no longer cultivate the art of deep listening, active listening, of being attentive to the multiple layers of sound that surround us, as do hunters, or the blind; most of the time we are utterly passive when it comes to the auditory world. This is high-pitched and plaintive, like a kitten mewing, a kitten in distress even, not particularly loud but persistent, and it’s coming from somewhere high in the trees. I intuitively know it’s a hawk of some kind, though I’ve not heard it before. It repeats 4 or 5 times, then stops, then cries again. I scour the tree-tops but my field of vision is limited and I can’t see into the midst of the copse. Then, out of nowhere, a ripple of air, a blur of feathers, a flash of hawk-wing, a glimmer of joy and of hope, and it’s gone. The bird has glided out of the wood, seen me below, and in a split second has curved back into the thick mesh of branches and foliage. I listen awhile. The mewing resumes. Something tells me this is a sparrowhawk’s call, perhaps a juvenile still being fed by the parent (though it’s late in the season) – the habitat fits, and the elusive behaviour. To take up a better position I work my way round to the other side of the copse, leap the brook, and settle down in the sheep pasture. The sound seems to have sunk deeper into the understorey and through the binoculars I see only the dark, hunched shapes of woodpigeons sleeping. The sound dies away. I reluctantly leave it at that, and strike south towards Histon. But the quest is now on – the lure of a hawk is compelling.

In the scrubland of the old Abbey Farm I breakfast on the first wild fruits of the season. A single precocious bramble among thousands has ripened its fruits before all the others and is jewelled with glistening purple-black berries. They burst sharp in the mouth, full of flavour and juice. My fingers are soon inked and pricked with pleasure. Then on the old track that leads by, I notice a patch strewn with what look like large black grapes, squashed, split open, half-eaten. I look up into overarching branches bowed down with small, oval, purplish plums blue with bloom. It is a wild damson. I bite into fragrant green flesh, sweet and perfectly ripe.

I take the main road towards Cottenham, hoping to find a way across the fields back home. In the front yard of a humble old bungalow is a bizarre congregation of iron-plate figures, rust-red in the early morning sun – a whacky and slightly surreal bestiary of larger-than-life creatures and aliens. A pig, giraffe, deer, crocodile, sea-horse, owl and iron man jostle for suburban space. They are playful, caricatured, yet skillfully crafted. I meet Tony, welder-extraordinaire and keeper of this strange metal menagerie, late 60’s in age and provenance, as lean as a scarecrow under loose black clothing, bespectacled, with grey stubbled beard and long pale hands. He is gentle, with soft sparkling eyes, not at all how I imagined a welder, a worker in iron and steel, to be. He shows me round the tiny garage that is his workshop, and demonstrates the plasma cutter that he now uses to slice through steel like butter. He started off his artistic career with a hacksaw and a background in physiology. He points out his latest creation – a life-size Galapagos tortoise mounted above an inscription that reads ‘Yes, I remember Mr. Darwin’ – destined for the biology department of the local college. As I leave, he starts to weld spectacles and a bowtie onto a huge see-through skull.

unfriendly fire

I branch off the main road and follow the line of an overgrown lane that runs through an avenue of thornbush and willow. It has not been trod for a while. I am soon pushing through long grass, giant burdock and spent thistles, on one side a wheat crop, on the other a ditch. Soon I am thwarted and have to retreat. But all’s not in vain, for I hear once again, high in the windbreak of trees, that same insistent mewing of another invisible sparrowhawk. Are they then more common round here than I thought? I’ve only actually seen one once this year, and that a mere glimpse and a guess. Further on I attempt another farm track but it too soon peters out and I return to the main road. I tramp past makeshift paddocks, a roadside shrine to a fallen biker, unkempt lots and unfriendly bungalow homes. There’s nothing for it but to walk into the next village, then back along another long straight road to my own, succoured half-way by the sweet yellow fruits of the cherry plum or myrobalan, almost as good as greengages. These were the first trees in the district to blossom this spring, and now, with the bullace, the first to deliver their fruits.


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April 27th, 2010. Heard the first cuckoo of the year, calling its name, at 8 this morning in the lulls between traffic. About a mile away, towards the brook. A rich, resonant, far-reaching two-note call repeated over and over, the quintessential sound of spring, as if the season had been distilled in an oak barrel and was now spilling over (spring overwhelms, and writers must be forgiven for indulging in a little purple prose or hyperbole at this time). In the late afternoon I take a long, slow, circuitous ramble to Histon, with many still stops, reaching into the evening.

The brook, and the two rivulets that feed into it locally, is barely flowing. Except in the shallowest parts the water seems hardly to move. So dry has the weather been for some weeks that the water-level has dropped by almost a foot, exposing bare mud below banks lush with growth. The water, curiously, is now a dull yellowish brown. Aquatic plants and rushes are growing apace and threaten to cover the surface completely in places. In the more open stretches tiny fish in ragged groups dart here and there, like kids in a schoolyard, and whirlygigs send concentric ripple-rings over the surface. There’s no sign of my snake.

Spring’s in full flush. In gardens and orchards pink apple blossom of some early varieties has opened in the last day or two, and horse-chestnuts are lighting their candles. Paths and tracks are sprinkled white with the fallen petals of blackthorn, like the aftermath of a wedding. Field verges and banks of the ditches and brook are now knee-deep in stinging nettles, deadnettles, cow parsley, hedge garlic, all sorts of grasses, and unknown burgeoning greenery. I wade through it all, releasing chlorophyll scents. Most shrubs and trees are now in leaf (except for the oak and the ash, perhaps, of which more anon). To me the loveliest of new leaves are the glossy, coppery hearts-hanging-down of the black poplars lining the brook, and the downy ivory-green butterfly wings of the whitebeam. Against all this abundance of bright, fresh greenstuff they are a welcome sight. How quickly we get used to green.

The gathering foliage renders birds and other creatures all but invisible. Except for the butterflies, more conspicuous now. They are hardly abundant, but several Small Whites, Orange Tips, and Peacocks cruise up and down the bank where I’m sitting, the latter resembling small bats with their dark brown underwings and fast, flitty flight. One alights on the back of my hand and rests awhile, spreading its gorgeous rusty-red, eye-spotted wings in the sun. The upper forewings of the male Orange-Tip are dipped in rich orange, ostentatious in flight, but when it stops to sip nectar it folds its wings upward to reveal pale, mottled, gauzy underwings which blend with the blossoms it feeds on. You’d never know it was there. White-bummed bumblebees barrel through the air and a mist of midges cavorts over the water. Suddenly, the lower air is alive.

In a tiny island of mature trees, fallen boughs and thick undergrowth in the midst of vast fields, I provoke a sudden, unfamiliar alarm call. Looking up, I see it is a great spotted woodie, ‘great’ being somewhat misleading, as this one is only the size of a starling. It is great only in relation to its middle spotted and little spotted cousins. It has no crimson nape, which means it’s a female, but, still, it is confusingly small for the species. Perhaps it’s a juvenile, though the season’s against it. I have come to realize that there are variations within species that don’t match the airbrushed pictures in bird books. I watch the woodpecker for some time, as it works round bare branches with desultory tapping. I want it to ‘drum’, but it fails to perform.

Further on, in a great field of green wheat below Histon, my attention is caught by a pale form gliding into the crop. At first I take it for a female pheasant, but when it rises I see it is a hawk, clutching a catch in one claw. It is, I’m certain, a sparrowhawk, the first I’ve ever seen anywhere. It flies with rapid, shallow wing-beats low over the field then rises up to perch on top of a telephone pole where it hunches to tear flesh and feathers. For a full twenty minutes it eats with calm deliberate bites, then straightens up and broods over its territory. It is a long way away, at least 500 yards, and I need to get closer. The pole is in the middle of the cornfield but I figure that if I walk round to the other side I will be a little nearer, and moreover, the sun will be at my back, giving me a clearer view. So I set off, with one eye on the hawk. It is a long trudge around three sides of a square and, almost inevitably, the hawk absconds before I get there and disappears over a horizon of trees. It is gone.

But, instead, I meet Edouard, an engaging young man being walked by four handsome, pure-bred huskies with unnerving blue eyes and a touch of the wolf. Born and brought up in Spain, of English parentage, he is over here to gain an education of sorts. Not willing to be parted from his beloved childhood companions, he has brought his dogs with him. They are on long retractable leashes and at times they threaten to turn him into a maypole. Being up close to these no-ordinary creatures is some consolation, I suppose, for the loss of a hawk.

Up in the old woods that once belonged to the manor of Histon I hug an ancient, hollow-trunked oak that I’ve visited before (see picture in mornwalk26). It is 4 hugs round at chest height – that’s a girth of just under 23 feet or just short of 7 meters – which roughly translates to 500 years by my reckoning. The longevity of trees is truly humbling. It is no wonder that some people worship them. If you’re going to worship a living, created being,  it might as well be an old tree such as this. It’s outlived everything else. It has endured. Actually this particular veteran, surely the oldest on my patch, is marked on the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree map, with a girth of just 6.3 meters. Next time I’ll bring a measuring tape. It is, I notice, in leaf, in the process of leafing at least, the first oak I’ve seen to be leafing, and this is significant, as I’ll explain in some later post, for predicting the weather this year.

I arrive back in my village in the late slanting evening to a susurration of pigeons, swallows swooping, church bells ringing, and the bleating of ewes, while a gang of their offspring career madly round the meadow playing follow-my-leader. The epitome of springtime in England. It’s a truly glorious evening… that is, one full of glory, glorifying… glorifying the Creator, the Divine.

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