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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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April 23rd, 2010. Late afternoon.  9½ miles.

Most of this walk was along tarred, vehicular roads with unnatural, unforgiving, foot-jarring surfaces so I not only felt I was tramping (properly ‘stamping, walking heavily’) but felt like a tramp to boot.  I am now engaged in systematically exploring the few remaining unvisited tracts on the edge of my 4-mile diameter circle of territory. I head south-west to a section between Bar Hill and Madingley, beyond the A14 divide. To get there I have to walk a mile along the main road between Oakington and Dry Drayton, which passes over the A14, so that I can pick up a bridleway marked on the map. I find the bridleway sign, just off the hard shoulder of the northbound carriageway, but it is pointing into an impenetrable thicket. I discover the right-of-way itself nearby, barred by a gate, expropriated as a private driveway within someone’s garden. It’s a no-go area as far as I’m concerned. I walk a little way down the litter-strewn verge and cut through the crematorium to see if I can reach the bridleway from another direction.

The crem, as it is affectionately called, is unsurprisingly orderly, sanitized, polite. The grounds are green, clipped and spacious. Pleasant to walk through… perhaps because there is no action this evening, no smoke from the chimney (have they gone smokeless perhaps?). Tucked away in a corner, on a knoll, is a heart-rending tree-shrine. A sapling adorned with mementos – a silver star hanging from a branch, a fading plastic-wrapped photo of an overjoyed Mum hugging a baby, another of an awkward young teenager, a model silver motorbike suspended by a thread, and a motorbike tax disc holding a message, tacked into the wood. 20 years old. It’s not hard to discern how he died. How they must have poured their grief into this tree, watered it with their tears, his family and friends. Death on the road, and even in death remembered, fittingly, beside a roaring avalanche of traffic. It’s a poignant reminder. My son and I both ride motorbikes. My instructor used to say that Death lurked just around the corner, waiting for the unwary. Bikers or not, we would do well to remember the Lurker.

A gap in the hedge brings me onto the sought-after bridleway, a dry dirt track that winds through fields of flowering rape. There are, I am pleased to see, a few butterflies on the wing, the canaries of the agrochemical industry, and now something of a rarity – small whites, brimstones, a pair of orange tips joined in conjugal flight, and peacocks, flaunting their rich, red-velvet wings, each adorned with a conspicuous round ‘eye’. Beck Brook is here, three miles upstream from my own Westwick Bridge, a mere runnel, barely flowing, overgrown, just a stone’s throw from its indiscernible and undefined source. This side of the A14 watershed, the western side, is a subtly different country. The soil is sandier, the trees taller, the land begins to rise. Properties are larger, farms are neater, hedges, some of them, are properly laid.

Today I hug trees. Not for comfort, nor in empathy, but in the interests of history. One way of estimating the age of a tree is to measure its girth, or waist, at chest height or 1.5 metres from the ground, near enough. But who in their right mind carries a tape-measure on their person when out for a walk? Not even a tailor. So you measure it with hugs, arms outstretched, from fingertip to fingertip, which of course is the fathom, one of the old human-based units of measurement. The largest and oldest tree I hug today is an oak, presumably an English or pedunculate oak, not especially ancient, but stately. It is 3½ hugs round, 3½ hugs old. That’s a girth of two inches short of 20 feet or just over 6 meters (5’ 8” or 173 cms, my hug, x 3½). According to the tables published by the Woodland Trust this makes it just over 400 years old, planted (deliberately, probably, in view of its location on a field boundary) about 1609, the year when Shakespeare first published his sonnets and Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope. It looks like it could easily live for another 400 years.

a three-and-a-half-hug oak

I tramp up the B-road to the edge of tree-lined Madingley, passed by open-top convertibles driven by career-women too old for their cars. Ride-on mowers purr behind shrubberies. The road verges are like lawns, the lawns like bowling greens. Shiny new Range Rovers are displayed in front of freshly-thatched cottages and converted farmhouses. We have definitely moved out of the fen-edge.

Turning towards home I hope to pick up a footpath further on down the B-road. A mile on I find the sign and stile, but no path. According to the map, it runs through the middle of a field, but the farmer has simply expunged it. It has been obliterated by beans. Not wanting to trample the little plants, I am forced round the edge of the field in order to reach the gap and wooden footbridge over which the path once led. The stretch across the next field has also been ploughed over, and on the far side I can see where the line of the path meets the embankment of a very busy road. Eventually I get there, climb over a wooden fence and up the bank, onto the edge of the two-lane northbound section of the A14 where it feeds into the M11, no hard shoulder, just crash barriers. Traffic bearing down on me. The sign’s still there – Public Footpath to Madingley 1½, Dry Drayton 2 – but the Highways Agency, the County Council and the local farmers have conspired to wipe this ancient right-of-way off the land, if not the map. The public path continues eastwards towards Girton, but it has been severed at this point by no less than three murderous roads. Of course, only a fool would attempt to use this footpath now. So in the interests of my mission to walk every yard of my 12½ square mile patch, especially each designated footpath, bridleway, byway, and lane, I must soldier on. In any case, the nearest safe crossing is miles away.

The traffic is relentless. It’s the Friday evening exodus. Patience, patience…  it’s just a matter of waiting. And soon, indeed, there is a break in the flow, and I manage to cross without being blown away by the blare of truckers’ horns. I dive through 50 yards of scrubby woodland and emerge onto the M11. This is a different kettle of fish. Six lanes of manic motorway traffic, hurtling. But it’s a pretty constant flow – 60 mph in the slow lane, 80 at least in the central lane, 100 + in the fast lane – which means it’s predictable. The mind, unconsciously, calculates, the decision is taken (by whom?), and the body moves. Bismillah! There’s no turning back. To hesitate is to die. I reach the central reservation and the safety of the barriers. Next carriageway. I peer into the distance of the oncoming traffic, 200, 300 yards upstream, looking out for the gaps. But, if anything, this southbound traffic is even denser. I’m stuck in the worst place imaginable – the central reservation of a motorway at peak hour on a Friday evening. Relax… what’s the worst that could happen? And then, magically, the traffic parts, and I take the plunge. It’s a stroll in the park actually, and I’m over. Nearly there, just two lanes of east-bound A14 traffic to negotiate. Again, it’s just a matter of timing then acting like lightning. It’s a doddle. I’m over. Yes, no doubt there are a number of very alarmed drivers and passengers out there, some of whom might well be on their mobiles to the police right now, but I feel it has achieved one small victory against the machine, one small assertion of a priceless historic right on behalf of every free Englishman and Englishwoman. Though I shan’t be making a habit of it.

I follow the continuation of the public footpath to the east, leading into the tree-lined and lovely Washpit Lane and Duck End of lower Girton. Grey squirrels precede me, taking the aerial route. I am, again, trudging on tarmac. My feet and ankles are protesting in earnest against this obdurate, unyielding surface. I leave the road to escape the traffic and give my feet a break, turning onto a footpath towards Histon, the neighbouring village. But this is a new path, constructed not worn, and its makers, who are not walkers I’ll warrant, have seen fit to surface it in a concrete-hard clinker, which is worse even than tarmac to walk on. At Histon I’m on real concrete, pounding the deserted guided-busway towards the north, my feet feeling heavier and heavier with each step. It is only when I reach the main road that I can branch off along a grassy field track and retouch the ground. It is late in the evening, growing dark.

And it is here that I meet a remarkable young woman, a girl in fact. She is the second today. On this long walk, apart from 1000 motorists and truck-drivers, with whom I  have made only the slightest and briefest of eye-blinking acquaintance, I have encountered only two other humans. Both have been girls, perhaps 14 or 15 (though it’s difficult to tell), both out riding alone, both straight-backed, open-faced, cool, confident, assured. That’s what sitting on a horse gives you, I guess. The first, near Madingley, ambles round the corner of the track on a well-groomed, shiny bay. I am consulting a map. “Are you lost?” she asks. Am I lost? I want to tell her that, existentially speaking, yes, we are all lost, but cannot lay such a burden on so young a heart. “No, no. Thanks. I know more or less where I am.” “OK. Enjoy your walk”. She passes on, without breaking stride. The second is here, between Histon and Oakington. She is riding towards me on a beautiful skewbald. She stops beside me. “What are you looking for?” – this in the sweetest of well-spoken voices. What am I looking for? What is it with the deep questions today, from such unlikely quarters? Then I realize she must have noticed my binoculars. “Oh, anything living… you know, foxes, owls….”, I reply. “I’ve seen lots of pheasants”, she says. Then, as she nudges her pony forward, a benediction. “Well, I hope you find what you’re looking for”. They must be angels, these two, slipping into and out of my life with such questions. Are you lost? What are you looking for? Questions to last one a lifetime.


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April 2nd 2010. Good Friday, Great Friday, or, better, Black Friday. 6.30 a.m. The sky is low, broken, sunless. The land is still. The roads and ruts are pudged and plashed with yesterday’s rain. A Venetian jackdaw greets me from a chimney pot – ciao! I peer over the bridge and a moorhen skitters up Beck Brook, walking on water. A pair of mallard sit in the middle of the sheep field as if about to take tea. There is a great hullabaloo over at the Westwick rookery, and 40 jackdaws burst out of the canopy protesting loudly. Their relationship with rooks is complex and intriguing. I don’t understand it.

Birds are more active and vocal today. Among those spotted for the first time this year are several pairs of goldfinch, a single resplendent male bullfinch, and a number of amorous, black-faced reed buntings chasing tail, literally. True to form, they flit up and down the sunken, flag-filled ditches and rarely venture beyond. This is not to say that these birds have not been here awhile, just that I haven’t noted them before. Worth mentioning too are song thrush, greenfinch, long-tailed tits (bumbarrels, colloquially), and the precious little jenny wren. Green woodpeckers are ubiquitous, heard rather than seen, and woodpigeons spill out of every tree at my approach. Pheasants, now the shooting season is over, are strutting abroad and reckless.

I find new ways of traversing old ground, and venture out to the south-east fields and remnants of apple orchard. I walk the edges, headlands, boundaries, banks and ditches. I am a trespasser, I know, but no-one notices, or cares, and none has yet objected. A farm-dog barks from afar, but this is more in greeting than warning. Here and there, in hedgerows and on the verge of copses, the white blossom of the cherry plum or myrobalan draws me over. It is still the only blossom out, though willow, alder and poplar catkins also catch the light. Elder leaves are now unfolded, the earliest of all the trees, closely followed by horse-chestnut, now bursting out from fat, sticky buds like glacéed Turkish sweetmeats. The black velvet buds of ash-trees, too, have peeled back to reveal incipient flower clusters like deep purple raspberries. One could concoct a high cuisine based on buds and catkins.

A buzzard sees me and flies off with deep, slow wing-beats. It glides very low across a field, a foot above the ground, then settles in a little apple tree on the edge of an open orchard. It is 400 yards off but I can see its hunched, dark shape quite clearly without binoculars. It is far too big for the tree, out of all proportion, and looks comical. It doesn’t move for 10 minutes, then flits down onto the smooth, bare ploughland and vanishes, as if pulled underground. I search the spot through the binoculars but the bird has simply disappeared, merged with the freshly turned earth. I carefully work my way round to the place, detouring a good half-mile to make a less direct approach, watching closely all the time. Nothing moves, and there is no bird to be seen when I get there.

It is past eight before the sun breaks through. For a while, the land sings. I walk towards Histon, then through the old medieval holdings of Abbey Farm. One field has reverted to scrub, its edges invaded by dense stands of sycamore, willow, and ash saplings. There are some venerable trees here too, one broken-backed and hollow (an oak, I think), garlanded with plastic rope, its heart burnt out by heartless boys. Yet it still stands, supporting weighty boughs and a universe of creatures.

Lucky Kat

Hidden in a dell within a sheltering copse of tall trees is a secluded proving-ground (and trysting-place, no doubt) where village boys and bikes are tested to destruction – an impromptu landscaping of dirt runs, ramps, steep slopes, pits and suicidal drop-offs, sculpted from the earth by years of daring and attrition, and littered with scrap, broken BMXs, dens, fire-holes, ropes to swing on…. No grown-up could or would plan and construct such a place, and I get the feeling few grown-ups even know about it. It is a secret world created by kids for kids, organically and spontaneously, out of the earth. There is yet hope… for Histon boys and girls at least.

In the parkland below Abbey Farm several thousand naturalized daffodils of the smaller more delicate kind are in bloom, better than any municipal display. Of the truly wild flowers only lesser celandine or pilewort is out, with small, rich yellow, 9-petalled flowers and heart-shaped leaves, which line the water’s edge of the brook all the way to Oakington.

Three boys on bikes – 10 or 11 year-olds – race past me, with hearts full of thump and mouths full of shout, with the wind in their hair and a whole day ahead of them. They are flying. And I know exactly where they’re headed. In a flash, I’m ten years old again and cycling beside them. I am hurtling down a hill in Africa, early on a sunny morning, in the shade of towering eucalyptus trees, my friend beside me, hollering, open to adventure.

Besides these lads however, during these three hours of walking on what is, after all, a dry and pleasant Public Holiday, I have seen but one other person, from afar, a dutiful dog-attendant, with plastic bag at hand, and have been passed by a single runner on the road. Back in the village, a near-neighbour is out weeding her front yard with a table knife. She is Cambridgeshire through and through, born in Bottisham,  married in Cottenham, and has lived here in the village for 56 years, the last 17 on her own. That means she has lived her whole life, well over 70 years (she didn’t say exactly, and I didn’t ask), within a compass of less than 10 miles. She is a Hedger. I like the name. Her ancestors would have known a thing or two about laying hedges no doubt. Unlike today, when a man in a tractor, without leaving his seat, can butcher a hedgerow in five minutes flat , leaving a trail of destruction behind him.

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