spring notes

March is the year’s teenager; a petulant, mood shifting thing that swings between gloom and joy on a whim, and where every day is a drama.

As I set out, it is dank and grey and my trainers, I note, must have a hole in them because I can feel the damp of the morning’s dew. But it changes, and with a deft shift that I barely acknowledge, we are soon into azure skies and the suggestion of a shimmering heat haze across the fields.

This is one of my favourite spots, a hidden acre behind the Cambridge Research Park which defies its proximity to one of the region’s major roads, the A10. Office buildings, managed parkland, scrub, fen, agricultural systems and freshwater, all within breathing distance of one another, the biodiversity here is unexpected – I have seen kingfishers, reed buntings, sparrowhawks and green woodpeckers – and, with a little patience, entertaining and illuminating.

Patience isn’t required today, really. Spring appears to have been delivered overnight. The hedgerows are no longer dry and bare, but alive, a swathe of buds like vast constellations of green. In the trees, the branches are heavy with catkins and the catkins are heavy with birds. A charm of goldfinches passes through. And there are chaffinches, meadow pipits, flocks of sparrows.

At the field’s edge, some crops have already set themselves along quite some distance, and the sun and a puff of breeze makes for a silvery tidal play, back and forth. I can hear skylarks, of course, as I did the week before, but have better luck this time spotting them. Autumn sowing has made a dent in Skylark populations, who need at least two broods a year to maintain numbers. The grasses I saw were on the way to being too high or dense for them (they nest on the ground and their first brood is most likely in April), but as I passed I could see them trying hard to grab their tiny territories. They danced and squabbled above the crop, brief flutters and scraps in mid air before dropping back to the ground. Frustratingly, these battles will probably be wasteful. Within a month too much growth will prevent the birds from nesting and they may have to move on, missing their first brood altogether.

Out of sight from the Park buildings, a slight rise hides an old gravel pit, now filled with water. In the Winter it is a haven for gulls and cormorants. Today, I can hear a Marsh Harrier keening, but cannot see it.

Out on the water there are Teal, Gadwall, Shelduck, Shoveler, Tufted ducks, great crested grebes and, for one moment that makes me jump, a beautiful snow white little egret. He senses me, and lifts up, wafting above my head and away to the east. I follow him until the ripple and quiver of the heat haze agitates him into nothing.

There will be activity everywhere. There will be dramas all across this little plot. Because it’s Spring, and it’s all a bit of a drama.

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close to the edge

Chippenham Fen, Cambridgeshire. A confounding landscape.

I am here because I wanted to see kingfishers. Or, a kingfisher. But it is all artifice, I have fallen for forcing a good idea whose time has not yet come; namely, an urge to tell or riff upon the story of Alcyone, because it’s a good tale and the kingfisher would perform some sort of inspirational back-fill. And, you know what, that’s a stupid technique, to go looking for a specific jumping off point. Those sorts of things never work out. You always trip over, trying to get there from here. I wanted deciduous or mixed woodland, with a stream running through. On the map, my Ordnance Survey, that is precisely what Chippenham Fen looks like. In truth, it is very different indeed. Begin again.

I start in Snailwell, a tiny village in the far east of Cambridgeshire, charmingly sat by the banks of, of course, the River Snail. It is dawn, or near enough.

Through a gap in the hedge, a footpath takes me to an open, muddy field. Across and misty, a grey green line obscures my destination.

So I trudge through the field, building up an ever-growing pair of mud boots as I go. At various points I have to rest and whiplash the accrued dirt back on to the land. I stop, comically, just me in the middle of this vast brown square. The silence, as De la Mere put it, surges softly backward, and for a moment there is a windless quietude that is worth all of the yawning and aching that it takes to place oneself in such a position at such a time. The effort repaid just for that instant of calm. Into the silence creeps the loveliest sound of the countryside.

Skylark song never seems to just start. Like finding them, as they rise into the air, it takes time for your senses to accumulate and assimilate the data sent out. The whole experience of a fluttering bird, its song ascending in neat accompanying arpeggios is not a simple, immediate sensation, it is an unfolding drama. But I cannot find him. They should warrant a classic cornflower blue sky, and unfortunately this is a grey and befuddling backdrop. He’s lost to me, but the carillon, that splendid sparkling tintinnabulation is wonderful, fabulous.

At the field’s edge. The smudged line of trees has grown starker, now I can see that it is a mess of oaks and ash and horse chestnut, blackthorn and hawthorn in between. Up ahead a gate and notice define the route in. There is a building here, put up by the Natural England group, as a welcome area, with probably some educational function, too; but it is locked and quiet. Unsurprising given the hour. Through the gate the wood closes in momentarily and darkens the sky. It is dank and still, but only briefly. The path leads to an open area, because the wood is effectively a barrier to another expanse, and it is something unexpected. Go through this wall of trees and the world spreads out into a genuinely surprising environment. Chippenham Fen is ancient. For a lowlander such as myself, ancient landscapes mean coastal cliffs or distant highlands, but here, hidden behind this unprepossessing bank of woodland lies a remnant of the past. The wild fens are almost completely vanished now; it shouldn’t really still be here.

The once vast Cambridgeshire Fens have been tamed and reclaimed for arable cultivation. Rich with minerals the new land gives the eastern counties its breadbasket status, the beautiful chequerboard of black peaty fields you might glimpse from the train or the motorway, a testament to the happy accident of geology that presents such a remarkable opportunity. But Chippenham Fen hangs on and offers a snapshot of what much of the county was like before reclamation. The peat soil is lain over a vast bed of chalk, with clay sandwiched between. Springs bubble up from the chalk aquifer, the clay prevents drainage, and across this relatively small parcel the result is a vibrant marshland, writhing and oscillating with life. Stand for a moment and you feel your feet settle into the saturated earth.

It is beautifully still, the air. No wind ruffling even the giant grasses, saw-sedge and common reed, which stretch up past head height. That silence again. And again, attuned, it is everything but. Behind it there is a flutter, a terrible trembling of life, it is the incipient promise of new growth. The huge mechanisms and contrivances of Spring, the devices and timetables that are followed in there, the machinery of the wilderness, it is all being switched on. Beyond the reeds, even further back, I can sense an immense water meadow. All is on the cusp of budding. In a month or two this place will explode with colour and sound. It manages to be comforting and unsettling all at once. In this fantastic spot, I am an interloper.

Back out through the woodland and on to the track it would be easy to return across the field, but I decide to push out for a circular walk. Through a farm and out onto a twisty road, to my left is a low, grey wall, which marks the boundary of Chippenham Hall, a large private residence with extensive gardens. The hedges along the roadside have been severely cut back in preparation for the Spring growth, not just pruned but moulded and modelled. As I look through to try and view the estate, a pheasant blasts me with indignation and takes off with a ferocious clatter of sound and feathers.

I have been hearing them as I approach the fields, their raucous calls somewhere between a shriek and a bark. They are regular sights now, of course, familiar fixtures of the English countryside. Their presence today seems apposite. Pheasants have thrived on our well-tilled soil for two thousand years. Originally from Colchis, what is now Georgia, the birds were a significant staple for the Romans and were brought here as general domestic fowl, for the table and as a supply of eggs. By the time the Normans arrived, pheasants had established themselves in the wild, but their superior adaptability had coincided with a wave of new farming advances that allowed them to flourish while indigenous birds such as the corncrake were driven out and almost to the edge of extinction.

As I turn right, along the stretch of road that I believe will take me back toward Snailwell, it is apparent that I have climbed a little above the level of the ploughed field. There it is, below and to the right of me a mile or so. I can see the faint line of the footpath and fancy I know the spot where I stopped and listened to the skylark. I have walked up onto the first rise of the chalk hills. The chalk that underpins the fen now begins to expand. To my left, to the south and east, the ground continues to rise, and the chalk deposits pile softly across each other. This is where the flat agricultural fen gives out and the gallops begin. Over that swell is Newmarket, and the structured, precise, disciplined industry of horse racing.

I walk back down into the village and find my car.

first light

I am watching goshawks. Two, displaying above a distant wedge of fir trees. It is a bright, clear, end of Winter morning, just after dawn, the best chance the casual observer would have to see such elusive birds.

No, I need to reappraise that. Although technically true, it would be an exaggeration to say that I am watching them. Yes, they are there; I am there, but the brevity of our alignment needs pointing up. I spy them only long enough to feel certain of identification, until they skirr and wheel away, either out of sight, or further back such that they are now unfocusable dots, quartering a territory that stretches far away from me, my view wholly inadequate to appreciate their full enterprise.

The grey flash that wobbled in the southwest quadrant of my binocular view, a second or two of tubular pale body and broad wings, would not be tethered. It was gone. It was gone, darting around an unknowable aerial corner, and away.

Mostly, they stay hidden inside the forest. The pine canyons created within this regimented man-made wood, these skyscraper trees, are perfect for them. They are residents of an adumbral Manhattan, the elite; outside of eagles, our top predator. It is a position well-earned. In a chiaroscuro world of greens and browns and disparate filtered light, goshawks thrive because they not only have exceptional vision, as you would expect, but they are also extraordinarily adept at manoeuvring within the close confines of dense woodland. Colliding with a tree, injury of any kind, is normally catastrophic for a bird, and raptors are no different, but goshawks are blessed with a mercurial talent for taking narrow gaps at speed. And so it is rare for them to slip the confines of their dank kingdom, but with Spring intimated, out they come, briefly, swiftly, acrobatically, to display across the tops, threshing the air with studied skill.

This is Thetford Forest, a huge slew of created woodland that lies across the Norfolk Suffolk border. It was created after the Great War to replace the timber used up by the various demands of the conflict. As if to echo that, the Forestry Commission shares the land with some Ministry of Defence work, and for much of my trek out to the birds I have walked along a border which on my map is marked boldly in red and calls itself a ‘Danger Zone’. There are red flags and signs warning against transgressions.

As I step away, I capture another peripheral flash of wings and I’m fumbling with my binoculars again, caught in the straps that overlap my camera, eager to catch a longer and better view. It is a fat wood pigeon, a common enough sight at the moment. It worries me. Big, grey, broad wings, paler body; have I misidentified the goshawk?

I walk, for the most part, especially on these early outings, on my own. So I can only rely upon what I can see for myself, try not to be too fanciful, and photograph things if at all possible. I had been sure about my sighting up until then and after this, suddenly doubtful.

Obviously, whether it really matters or not is a moot point. I am not a ticker offer or maker of lists. I am not a twitcher. I don’t have anything against it, it works for many people, but I do not hope or plan to see two hundred species in a calendar year, nor do I follow mobile phone alerts around the country to catch sight of spectacularly rare migrants who may have taken a wrong turning. I don’t have the energy or the discipline for that. My desire to be out here, at first in the dark, and then enjoying the receding gloom, comes from a different need. I love the context the country provides, the tracks and marks that not only we make, but also those that are made on us.

My Grandad Jack would have been able to settle the query over the birds’ identity. Jack was a countryman, an old-fashioned term today, and not really something he would have called himself, but he is the person to whom I directly attribute my interest in nature, and that phrase is how I think of him. And I think of him regularly, as I tramp about on my own.

He was born before the Great War, before this forest was thought necessary, when this landscape was all gorse and heath and sandy ridges. His family came from Burnopfield in County Durham, a mining village surrounded by other mining villages. Jack, his dad, his dad before him, and for all I know, for generations further and further distant than that, was a miner. He had gone down the pit in his early teens, but found he struggled with a bad chest, most probably asthma. In 1926, during the General Strike, unable to use the colliery, he and his peers walked over a hundred miles to the South Yorkshire coalfields to see what options might open up for them there. He never went back. It was in Doncaster that he met my Nana and before he was twenty he had started a family.

Jack was the most able person I have ever known. He was as sharp as a tack, practical, meticulous; his workshop, the garage I knew as a nipper, where I would go and watch him craft anything from a fully functioning lawnmower to a steel guitar with perfect pitch, was a treasure trove of wonder. The big thing for me were his walking sticks, which he whittled in his spare time but would still, nevertheless, turn out to be exquisite. I have one, at home, a wonderfully rendered piece of hazel, which we went and cut together and which he made me feel I’d created myself. My daughter commandeers it now, if ever we go for a walk, it is hers and Great Grandad’s.

As an escape from the horrors of the mine, Jack took to the hills and perhaps had more reason than anyone to thread his mind into the weave and weft of nature. He would predict the weather better than anyone I know, telling my Nana when she’d be best set to put out her sheets. He taught me birdsong, which I have all but forgotten, to my shame. He read widely and introduced me enthusiastically to HG Wells and Gilbert White. I miss him terribly.

As I trudged back along the dusty forest path, I could hear Jack laughing at my doubts. I won’t say he was there, but hell, he’s always there anyway. He was the person who told me to watch for the leaves turning up before the clouds threatened, he was the person who told me that the Yellowhammer doesn’t really say “a little bit of bread and no cheese” but is close enough to not matter because nothing else comes close, and he’s the one who makes me look forward to the weekends, to pouring over maps, and to taking my girls out to some distant point for the views on the road back home.

He would have chuckled. He would have told me that I wasn’t wrong, that my first instinct was right.

Yes. I have been watching goshawks.