gentle his condition

I arrived at work too early, and crossed the road in the dazzling low sun dawn to walk through the trees and parkland that surround the Astronomy buildings. Although much here is new, the main building is almost two hundred years old. It’s about a mile from town, and when the Observatory was completed, it must’ve been a splendid walk out here, no lights, just a slew of stars above and sparkling new instruments waiting to be used.

Now it is surrounded; newer buildings, small sheds, larger blocks with great domes, a 36 inch telescope from the 1950s, the huge Northumberland telescope from the early years.

Along the straight drive toward the old building, past the bare trees washed rust by the new sun, a Sparrowhawk glides a foot or two above the tarmac. She is so low a few dried leaves are pulled up in her wake.

All is quiet. The other birds have stopped. Nothing dares but after a moment the hedgerow begins to shift and stir again. And it’s full. Woodpigeons, Collared Doves, Redwing, all start to shake themselves back to life. Across Churchill’s playing field the Rooks and Gulls drop back to their squabbling, shadows expanding at their feet.

Threaded through the hedges, a dozen or more dots move and plait, all lining up and separating, and then lining up again. Long-tailed Tits. More than a dozen, twenty maybe, a wave of tiny almost weightless birds. They’re so difficult to see individually and focused, but peripherally, not directly stared at they moved and dance around. They will be in kin groups, they invariably are. When they nest, and they nest in great numbers, sometimes the broods fail and when that happens the unlucky parents will latch on to broods set up by their own siblings and help out. Chicks are fed and tended by a host of family members and these groups then stick together throughout the year.

Confiding, the bird books call them. They move along in front of you and then double back and follow.

Earlier in the year, in a reserve up in the North East, I had watched a small group from a hide, busy at the feeders, industrious, restless, hanging upside down to feed. A Sparrowhawk appeared there too, although I didn’t register it until it had silently steered in through the trees and hammered straight into the middle of the group. A tiny combustion of grey feathers and it was gone.

No such drama here. Not this time, at least. The wave moves on, the happy band dashes to another tree.

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brambles, buttress, sky

A Sunday morning at the turn of the year. Across an East-facing field, corn is shifting through the palette, moving from chartreuse to gold. The path takes me through the very edges of the crop and for a while the waxy stems and priapic ears click and thud against my boots and trousers. Each step throws a Skylark or two into the air. They are startlingly close, I’m almost stamping on them before they react. Until, over just a few yards, I seem to have put up a cloud of them, dipping and flashing their white vents as they scoot into the brambles and brush that makes up the border with the railway line.

The old Abbey grounds are in front of me, somewhere, just over a mile away according to the map in my head, but I cannot pick the site out from this distance. I have an idea where it might be, but the mist of the morning and the dark brambly border melting into the edge of the corn are confusing in their loveliness. Just bands of dark and darker green. There are no buildings, for one thing. Sawtry Judith, a tiny community that vanished in the first violent flurries of the Dissolution, was a Cistercian order founded in the middle of the Twelfth Century, but which lasted less than four hundred years. It was almost always in debt, and returned less than £150 to the Crown when it was pulled apart. The Cromwells lapped up the land and over the next few years what buildings there were – a gatehouse, a church, a belltower, some other remnants of conventual order and administration – were demolished and taken away, the masonry most likely re-appropriated for other projects. From the air, of course from the air, it is bold and compelling, a cruciform space, possibly pillars within it, and elsewhere, scattered around the field in which it lies, further square shapes and ditches. But that is my impression foolishly gathered and embedded and embellished with internet assistance. My mind has raced ahead, vaulted the hurdles and grown expectant. On the ground, disappointment.

A path opens up and the way becomes a little clearer, but not much. Over a ditch and the location is for a moment obvious, a big bumpy field on my right, but from my approach barred by brambles and hedgerow, and at the last it is unreachable. Although the footpath skirts the edge of the site, it is all efficiently fenced off and obviously private property. As the undergrowth breaks down here and there, the extent of the area is obvious, it is a sizeable space, four or five acres, and the ridges of ancient use are there, but from this angle they’re indecipherable.

It is also a working space; a cow field, a grazing meadow. I cannot gain access. I lean over the fence as much as I can and take some pictures. Just before the First World War the whole site was extensively surveyed and excavated; English Heritage report the discovery of monastic dwellings, a pond, a barn, cloisters, a kitchen. I sense it, but it’s impossible to get closer. Sawtry Judith’s residents lift their heads and look back at me, lowing at my pointless endeavours.

Along the irrigation ditch, a dozen fledged Swallows sit grumpily on an iron pole, as if confused by the prescriptions of their nature. A hundred yards beyond, unnoticed, a Kestrel flutters and wavers above the field margin.

A mile or so North of here, the track takes me back under the railway, and along the side of the line are the Five Arches Pits, water-filled craters that were quarried as borrow pits for the excavation of the embankment. In the chaotic greenery, birds scatter and butterflies, a colony of Ringlets, squall into the heavy air. A train whispers past above me. No-one has been along here in some time, it is rather casually managed, but all I need to do is raise my arms above the giant nettles, Large Whites and hoverflies scattering as I push through.

Into another field, and more corn, but straight lanes are cut into it, not just helpful tractor tracks. These are wide paths. Proper paths. Obvious, and established. Ways that have been here for centuries. I can see other dark lines through the crop, heading toward and past me. They are determined and bold, etched into the fabric of the field. Into the fabric. The fabric unfolds, the field pressed flat such that the razor folds point in one direction and converge.

St Andrew’s Wood Walton, the church lost in the fields. Abandoned, it seems; a word that’s often used. Left, abandoned in the fields. A quarter of a mile away it rises, rough and primitive, barely an ornate flourish upon it, from the corn. It is the most extraordinary approach. There are, in fact, a very few dwellings nearby, but they’re hidden behind a screen of trees. The church is your focus, and you walk up these broad earthen alleys to it silently; almost, yes, astonished, that it is here. The church lost in the fields.

I stood still. Wanting to make the moment last, thinking, realising as I did this, that these tracks would have been made by local farmers and workers and residents as they walked toward the bell tolling for service, or following more personal and private timetables to the graveyard. Centuries of walking, of obligation and faith, stamped into each footstep of this path. And although it is abandoned, redundant in the Church’s parlance, the tracks to and from St Andrew’s are still here.

But people used the tracks less and less. The churchyard now is silent and still. It is tended, and there is a bench with a fine North Easterly view for the occasional visitor to get an early good impression. But there are only one or two services a year; the foundations are moving, the tower is unsafe. The bells have been silent for four years. It is locked now, of course, too remote to trust people with access. As early as the 1540s thefts have been reported here. In more recent years it has been emptied and lead taken from the roof and aisles. The interior has been damaged, too, sometimes so badly, with the windows broken, that it became open to the elements and suffered a steady decline.

The graveyard seems sparse and neat, although I imagine the lack of a fence contributes to this slightly odd, dislocated feeling, that you are not really within the church grounds until you’re right up against it, the whole thing part of the fields again, not separate or distinct, but conspiring to be here, just grown from the land. I read later that there are many infant burials unmarked. And also, the bodies of young men who had been killed as the railway was built.

The trains hiss by. You barely notice them although, had you a mind to, you’re probably close enough to wave and see someone, similarly minded, wave back. It must be remarked upon, this place. It must be noticed daily by hundreds of people. But their curiosity, at the first opportunity to turn their head, is left, abandoned in the fields. Lost in the fields. Thirty seconds of thought and evaporated enquiry. All that work and toil, those countless lives, wrapped up and tidied away in a neat little parcel, or plot. Left behind. The enterprise and struggles, these mouldering modest essays on little victories and bigger losses, unread. The legitimate pace of sorrow and grief trod into the ground. Meaning in each step. Here are the voices of others, another culture almost, a quiet accumulation of the lost. Lost in the fields.

The crucifix above the chancel is broken. The windows are boarded and the doors, all but the South porch, filled in and blankly closed.

let him show himself what he is

Even for a relationship with the weather as contrary and baffling as England’s, this is a peculiar Midsummer weekend. Slate skies, at best; a driving, buffeting wind cutting across the fields.

I sit in the car and kit up, grateful that my natural caution dictated I bring a waterproof jacket. The gorse is filled with disquiet. Finches and Robins bicker and settle, then kick off their squabbling again. I set out along the designated pathways, reminded of a links course, the thorny yellow-pricked bushes and the blustering winds bringing to mind unenthusiastic male pursuits of my distant past. But the reveal is quite different.

Lakenheath Fen is old arable land reclaimed. It is reverse engineered. The Dutch undertaking dissembled and returned, handed to Nature. Not twenty years ago this was farm land, carrots mainly, the information boards say, and pumps and drainage channels re-commissioned to a different purpose.

It is the fen, invited back in. From the air, old field markings persist in the shape of newly flooded channels, but it is with old OS maps – not that old as it happens – that the change is most apparent. What was once tidy and regimented is now wild. New wild. The speed of the transformation has been remarkable. Reed beds, planted by hand, thrive. Three modest poplar woods provide shelter from the wind, and between the marshlands are burgeoning.

I have come to see the Hobbys. I am nursing an idea for a project, something I want to expand and develop, but it depends on Hobbys, and I cannot see any. They inhabit much the same sort of space as Swifts, v-shaped acrobats turning down invisible channels, plucking dragonflies out of the air and eating them on the wing. So they say. I don’t know. I have never seen one. And that is the point. If they are here, I’m too uneducated to see them, or at least recognise them.

One of the RSPB staff points me toward the sightings earlier that day for Bitterns and Cranes and I start walking to the far end of the reserve. The sky is conspiring, the clouds building and layering, growing dark and sullen. There is that shift, that drop in temperature or change in tone and pressure, or whatever it is that tells us it’s about to rain. Half a mile from the entrance the path opens out into a wide area and diverges. I can see a structure, which may be a hide, but certainly looks like it gives shelter. It turns out to be little more than a bench, but it has a roof and I sit, overlooking a broad area filled with reed beds and open water. Further ahead, some scrub and low thorny bushes. Beyond this the dark poplar wall.

The first bird comes in from the right, appearing peripherally behind the roof of the shelter. It is slow, and careful. A Marsh Harrier, making a considered, controlled entrance. Two wingbeats and then a dip of the shoulder, back up again, using the wind to reduce its pace and descent. Primaries and tertials ruffle in the breeze.

Chocolate brown, with a blonde, almost caramel-coloured head, it polices the border of the reed bed, looking down constantly, searching for chicks or voles. Above it, another, much higher, wheeling around in a lazy circle. It drops, wings pulled in and then brakes, arresting the fall, to glide off into the shadow of the tree border.

The first bird has vanished, too. But just a minute later and another arrives, this time from the left, and it hovers, not like a Kestrel or a Barn Owl, not with the same defiant stability, or for nearly so long, just a few moments, before it drops into the reeds. And then is up again, and banking off into the fields that surround this place. As it reaches the edge of the reserve yet another rears up alongside it and they display; legs, great long roughly-feathered legs shoved stiffly down into the breeze as they whirl and skeeter about in a brief territorial spat. It lasts just a few seconds and then they too are swallowed by the tree cover.

I sit there for an hour watching this happen time and again. One bird returns to the same spot in the reeds often. I assume there is a nest; I know they breed here. At one point she flies in carrying either a Grass snake or a Slow worm.

Their keening, usually clear across the tilled fields out this far East, although scattered today on the wind, is becoming a more common sound. A hundred years ago they were extinct here. Even into the Seventies they were a rare and exotic sight. Persecution and pesticides, so destructive to the animals at the top of the chain, means that just forty years ago there was a solitary breeding pair in the whole of the UK. Now, there may be as many as 200 breeding pairs.

And here, on an old carrot field, given back to the inconvenient, uncomfortable mess of nature, something wild, shockingly, enjoys that wildness. Out in the rawness, a gift, of managed and careful neglect; the cool cruelty of the truly wild allowed to surge back, pushing against the clean and the ordered and the prosperous.

gone fishing

In his poem, In Praise of Ely, Brother Gregory,  who was a monk there in the 12th Century, describes the bounty that surrounds him on the little isle floating in the great sea of marsh. He is rather taken with the natural delights and ripe fecundity. There is one aspect he particularly enjoys, “fish, springs and ponds abound; no stream flows but with fish.” I imagine it probably did. If you had stood on the highest point of Ely a thousand years ago you would have seen plenty of water. The drained lands and neat waterways were some generations off. A distant horizon of land to the South and West, but around you and for miles everywhere else, water and marshes. Hills, barely that, banks really, break the surface here and there. There are communities growing on them, waterfaring communities exploiting the reeds and the wildlife, the birds, the eels. There are moments now, driving along the A10, the main road that links Ely to the North and the South when you can imagine a level of water and guess where the land would have punctured it.

The biggest island was the Isle of Ely, of course, and even in the current landscape, surrounded by the greens and browns of farmland it is an obvious rise. Breaching the hills at Stretham or Stuntney forces your gaze front and centre as the cathedral glides into view. Stuntney in particular, a bump in the fabric itself, hides the prize until the last moment and reveals it spectacularly, a neat dramatic quirk I cannot imagine being indifferent toward. Oh, well, the point is made, at least, put it that way. In a flat landscape, covered either by water or fields, the city and its acolytes push up through the flat.

At the far end of the Isle, just as the rise begins to dip and slide back down the hill, Wilburton village sends out a long drove road, the Twenty Pence, across the fen. On weekdays it is busy with commuters avoiding the A10. A more circuitous route South, but usually flowing rather than stuttering. The village starts on the hill, with St Peter’s church and the impressive Manor House along the High Street, and then tumbles down the shallow gradient toward the thick black soil, shedding houses as it goes until the speed restriction signs where it levels out, when the ground begins to stretch far away.

Back up now, and head half way up the hill. Tucked in before the modest Garden Centre is a lane, barely noticed from the car, certainly not during the morning rush to work. A secluded little track, taken today by dogwalkers as they head across the fields to Haddenham and Aldreth beyond. As they go through the distant five-bar gate and away a small sign indicates, with almost apologetic calm, a further diversion. Through a bank of trees and the lane is forgotten. This is Doghouse Grove, a tiny nature reserve, a brief rectangular walk through alders, and elm, and hawthorn. The road noise, what little there is on a Sunday, vanishes into the leaf cover, and I am all at once aware of the breeze as it tickles the tree tops, making them creak and twist. Somewhere, a woodpecker is hammering. Woodpigeons clatter through the branches and head away across the fields. The hammering gets louder and louder. I am trying my best, but I can’t see him and I doubt he’ll be so engrossed in his task as to allow me the time and space to find the source of such a brilliant racket. Inevitably, it stops and somewhere he’ll be off, dipping through the trees in alarm. St Peter’s bells call the village, Plain Bob and Royals nudging and intervening into the natural.

At the centre of the wood, two ponds, hidden even from the lane I’ve just left. They are straight-edged, man-made. They have been here since the 7th Century. 500 years before Brother Gregory, even, but put there for the sake of his distant brethren, fish stocked from the inland sea around them, specifically for the monks of Ely to enjoy. It is odd to think that then, this area was probably cleared and free of trees, but the surrounding land might have been heavily wooded, and now the opposite is true, with the grove thick with trees and the farmland shorn and prepped for crops.

Eight hundred years after Gregory the area was planted with Ash for hurdle making; for handling livestock, as decorative fencing, or as the bases for horse racing jumps. The ponds stayed. It is green here, wonderfully thick and fertile. I follow the lines of the trees and above, a circling, a Sparrowhawk turns. He is jittering the nerves of the Rooks that sit in the toppermost branches and one by one they rise, unsettled and belligerent. Walking the boundaries of the reserve I find white and grey feathers everywhere.

A large female Sparrowhawk killed a feral pigeon outside my office last week and kept her plucking within a very small area. This is different, the feathers are scattered with no real consensus on a centre. I look up. The carcass is sat in the branches 10 feet above my head. I wonder if this might not be the kill of a bigger bird, and the hawk is just scavenging.

I don’t think there are fish in the ponds any longer. The surfaces are still, unbroken. Frogs and newts, maybe, but no fish. But it is still a larder.

silver blaze

A dozen cars along the lane; parked doubled-up in the passing places. As I pull over I see dog walkers milling about and my heart sinks a little. I like to walk by myself, but also lost to everyone and everything.

I sit and wait; maybe I think that the people will get back into their cars and leave. I am being unreasonable. Perhaps it is because I have struggled to find this spot.

I have been back and forth over the East coast mainline before parking, bumping over the rails as I missed my turning here, and I can hear the London to Edinburgh trains hurtling along just a mile away. Later, as I cross the ditch paths in the heart of the wood, I look down the clear line of sight and catch a glimpse of a grey, sibilant blur as a couple of hundred souls career Northward.

A few days earlier I had seen this forest from the train myself. It is a little unprepossessing taken at speed, this smear of brown and white woodland. Holme Fen, just South of Peterborough, preserve of dog walkers and hopeful birders, hides its qualities behind a dull, dun wall. Here, before 1850, when it was drained to reclaim the land for agriculture, was Southern England’s largest lake, Whittlesey Mere, a vast, shallow lagoon, home to annual regattas and spectacular water festivals. There are still bodies of water tucked away now, but they’re modest, even missable.

Holme Fen’s qualities have shifted. Strikingly, it is the wood that attracts; this is the largest silver birch woodland in lowland Britain. Stepping into it (across a little bridge, for the entire area is bordered and transected by irrigation channels, we are in flatlands, after all) my selfish worries about quiet and solitude evaporate. The silence falls swiftly, muffling and muting the world after just a dozen steps. Like sudden, heavy snowfall, the acoustic range floats toward the sombre and suppressed. It is extraordinary. The presence of so much white bark is beautiful but a little unsettling. At dawn or dusk this must be peculiar indeed. I make a mental note to  try it. Deeper in, and deeper, the paths are boggy and black and churned. It is easy to think I’m being watched, to convince myself the forest has purpose. There is very little birdsong, but eventually I pick up the sound of Robins being chippy and territorial. Sitting on a fallen trunk I can start to pick them out, as they strut around, talking a good fight. Obstreperous little pugilists, they are impossible to dislike. There are oak and a handful of firs mixed in, but it is mostly, overwhelmingly, birch. Some of them are huge, far grander than garden or parkland specimens. Through last year’s leaf fall and assorted detritus, huge swathes of Snowdrops have broken. Sunlight breaks across the floor. It is, with delicate and demure strokes, almost heartbreakingly lovely.

I fancy that in the heart of this place there is a grand, pale Yggdrasil birch, father of the wood. Unfindable, here when the sea finally retreated. Well, no; but there is something. The centre of this place is the lowest spot in Britain, nine feet below sea level. To mark the spot, a couple of years after Whittlesey Mere was drained, a large cast iron column was sunk until its top was flush with the surface. The post, it is rumoured, came from the main hall of the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851.

Now, because of land drainage and farming practice, the peat has shrunk away. So much so that the post projects 12 feet or more above the surface. The lowest spot keeps on getting lower and lower. I place my palm against the cold metal, painted a utilitarian, Victorian green. Like a park railing or a bandstand. I imagine everyone does this. I cannot help but wonder how it got here. By train? Later, I read that King’s Cross was opened at the same time. Transferring this ridiculous object from the halt a mile or so away only then to hide it in the soil, it seems so wonderfully ludicrous and fruitless as to make it even more feasible.

The week before, I’d crossed the Pennines, standing by the roadside, marveling at the snow across the tops and blessed by a dazzling sudden sunburst. A few cold, hard miles from Cross Fell, outside of the the Lake District the highest spot in England, and then, this, this ludicrous spot, all antique sweat and endeavour, passed swiftly and unknowingly by the Great North Road and the East Cost mainline. Purposefully concealed, indirectly uncovered and yet still mostly unseen, in the country’s dip. An extreme point of geography, not really deserving of the accolade, and yet inescapably that is what it is.

I take another route through the forest, back to the car. There are other birds now. Blackbirds yammer their alarms as they skitter through the bracken, but beneath and between that there is a softer, liquid purl, a trilling of something gentler and more intriguing. I will spend longer here next time, and hide myself away. The idea makes me smile. On another scale, there is more to see. In spite of everything I haven’t seen anyone else since I stepped past the treeline. I pick up shouts and barks as I approach the lane.

the old wind

I walk down to the camp along the pitted, muddy track that trickles away like an apology from Stitches Farm. It is a saturate world. The sodden, heavy end of the year, tipped to the side, floods gathered at the corners. Rain has been falling for weeks now, and water stands in the fields, undrained. Livestock herd themselves away from the pools.

Rooks and gulls gather at the edges and find treasures along these salty, waterlogged lines. They put the hours in, long black and white hours, scheming relentlessly at the borders where they might salvage food. Driven; the omnivorous compulsion. As I walk past they rise then drop again. They keen in annoyance rather than warning.

Stonea Camp, straight-facedly described in some resources as the lowest Iron Age hillfort in the country, sits just 2 metres above sea level. In fairness, large tracts all around it are a metre or two below; and the name itself, Stonea, refers in part to the gravelly nature of the earth at this spot, and also uses the Anglo Saxon sound ‘ea’ (say it as ‘ey’, or just ‘y’)  indicating a place in the marsh that resists flooding. It’s an odd notational tic of the region – Nornea, Quanea, Manea, Shippea – all discreet rises above the flat, still annotated within the distant, uncommon contour lines.

Before the sea levels rose during the Palæolithic, this area would have been attractive to settlers, filled with trees and game and wide flat spaces for building and the new disciplines of cultivation. There has been a wealth of finds in this spot showing a long and varied pattern of habitation, even four or five thousand years ago the settlement seems to have been sizeable, dense, established.

It is a roughly circular area, built up with a boundary walk and then more mounds and structures in the centre. There is a Bronze Age barrow outside the area, where a woman’s remains were excavated in the early 1960s. She was wearing a spectacular necklace made of alternate amber and jet beads.

A dozen sheep watch me as I walk to the gate and let myself in. Fieldfare and Redwing are put up and escape to the ragged hawthorn bushes that ring the camp. A volery of Long-tailed Tits roll ahead in a wave of industry and effort. They live in kin groups for much of the year, and especially so during Winter when they will also mix with other species. Excitable and noisy, they seem both bothered and fascinated by me, flashing ahead like a handful of pebbles chucked into each successive thicket.

Other remains have been found here. The Roman historian Tacitus suggests that Stonea may have been the site of a battle between the Iceni and a force led by the governor of Britain, Publius Ostorius Scapula. Within the enclave, hacked and mutilated skeletons, a child’s skull, split by a heavy blade. To the north, outside the boundary of the settlement, the remains of a significant Roman tower and a grid pattern of streets. An extensive development, and yet with no evidence of an industry it seems this was an admin centre only, or perhaps, a statement. The main building overlooked the site, it was two, maybe three storeys high, unheard of, alien, a bizarre structure complete with a hot air central heating system, mosaics and painted wall plaster. The price of rebellion.

The sheep shuffle around, watching me as I explore. A Green Woodpecker sits in the centre of the site and stabs at bugs. He stops and poses, arrow bill thrust with pompous style into the air. He returns to his task, he is unshakeable, as I walk around. A giant tree trunk lies in a long gap, at the end of one of the raised borders. Felled years ago, it is weathered and scarred and grown over by various fungi; deep furrows and grooves trace along the length, some filled with mosses and toadstools. Two miles away the distinctive tower of Wimblington church, a squared, triangulated, mathematical creation, from here it seems unlovely and unadorned, a non-celebratory thing. The Yaffle’s spiky display is more endearing, and he doesn’t even want me here.

The settlement continued beyond the Roman withdrawal. Written records first appear in the mid Tenth Century when the estate was passed, perhaps not surprisingly for the area, to the Monastery of Ely. Domesday records a farm on the site and three hundred years later it has the name by which it is still called, Stitches. It is an old English word, ‘stiche beche’, a mirror of Stonea, meaning a gravelly piece of land. Some labels take some shaking off.

I cannot complete the border walk. The ditch I need to cross is filled with clear, deep water. I trek back a little and cut across. A wind builds up across the fields and begins to thresh the hedgerow. Rooks somersault in above me. Pitching and yawing into the oncoming wind, their feathers in riot against the current, they float against the tide like great pyre-thrown ashes, sparkled embers glowing and dying, roaring and sailing above this lonely timeworn place.

The nights are cool and I’m a fool / Each star’s a pool of water

I drop Titus Groan down on the seat, catching doomed Fuchsia neatly between its pages. If only it were that simple. I turn the key in the ignition enough to roll down the window, there is a sting of rain and sneer of cold. My shoulders ache from the camp bed I’d tried to sleep on last night.

I don’t know these landmarks. The houses and churches passed, the bridges over dykes and irrigation channels. I’ve moved swiftly and blindly through villages I don’t recognise and whose names have evaporated from my mind as quickly as they pass behind me.

To my left, a ruin. Gathered in a field, a grey accumulation of stones and pillars and rotting beams, weeds sprouting across it in the creases and holes. On the highest point a magpie, perched, watching. Its tail quivers. Another joins it and I am saved from breaking the silence.

I smile at the superstition, shake my head and look away.

But, outside, the sky is full of distraction. Overcast. Thick and grey and leaden, a canvas of gloom that creeps lower and lower with oppressive zeal. In places it is dark, black even, and as I scan the broad flat horizons that stretch full circle around for a break in the cloud, I see there are none. Behind the walls of the distant farm houses and cold hermitical dwellings, resignation will set firm on the faces of the few who can hear that cold and insistent shriek; women and men, wrapped in multiple layers against the weather, look up and scowl back at the angry sky.

I turn the key again, this time all the way.

continual plodders ever won

High clouds are painted right across. The day is whitened at every point. No lines, no borders.

It is the ritual, again. The weekly hollowness. I hand them back across the charred and  bridgeless gap. Smiling, laughing, nails hammering in to me each time, but always cheerful, always always cheerful, because there really should be no other option. Drums in the deep as I walk back to the car. A dull, trapped, foot-stamping echo of my own seclusive heartache.

Afterwards, unfailingly, I will drive. I have a functional and unsentimental relationship with cars. They are simply metal boxes that shift us from A to B. After these moments, though, I don’t normally care where B is. I just take the creaking gloom away from the people I care about, and drive. Most of the places I have discovered these last few years have resulted from such moments. The empty splendour of Tick Fen, the dreary, desolate loveliness of certain pools and ponds, Holwick Scars threshed and ripped by the Northern Helm. Wind-tugged verges and chill hillsides, where I’ve stopped and wondered to which little line on the map I might magically now be adjacent.

There are certain places, certain bends of a river, or bleak hillsides, where I fetch up and by the time I have pulled my coat on and stepped into the chaotic air, I am shifted onto another track. Getting lost, for real.

Or trying to. It is not easy these days, but it happened again at the weekend, as I discovered a track with no familiar landmarks to ground me. When, eventually, inevitably, the awareness dawned – I pulled up at a junction I’d only ever sped past before, and the realisation surged over the levee – it was… disheartening, back again in the locatable.

The horizons lighten. A vivid cold spreads from the East. The clouds rise higher and higher and scallop before vanishing. The sky is bright and beautiful.

I drive back into Ely and park in a street down which I have never been before. There is a bend ahead that leads to a silent cul-de-sac, and, between two houses, a path. Beside a chain link fence and a muddy ditch a set of prints, a fox, patter ahead of me. My mind map is twisting and recalibrating. I am not far off, at the end, squeezing out into a lane that borders the golf club. The A10’s insistent burr fills the air.

Along the path, and through the hedge, I can see blackbirds stamping across the greens, thrushes turning leaves over. I have a thought, growing, a memory of a green footpath sign somewhere along the bypass. I think I may exit just there, and I do. I am a man, that man, you know him I think, on the side of a busy road, looked at with distracted curiosity by bored drivers. Across from me a gap, beyond the whoosh and the helter skelter, a hole in the hedge and other sign.

The path drops swiftly four or five feet. It is muddy and slippery. Tracks are everywhere. Fox, badger, rabbit, smaller unknown indentations that I guess may be muntjacs or even water deer. This hedge is ancient; hawthorn, hazel, field maple, blackthorn, dog rose, many more besides. It has been managed, recently, someone has been along and cut it back with generous swipes. The cut flesh is browning and hardened, though. Maybe not so recently. The hedge joins up again above me. I am invisible to the road, this is just solid vegetation from a distance. Even someone in the fields that run alongside would be unable to see me, but the gap in here is big enough to take a car along, if you didn’t mind it getting stuck.

Robins and Blackbirds yammer and complain about me as I trudge along. A crash and explosion of annoyance ahead, and Woodpigeons are put up as I walk along. It is warm down here, bosky, screened. A decent place to roost and plan.

It opens out and then closes in again. There is a path to my right and I remember a walk along there last year, quietly stalking a a Bullfinch who never quite made himself fully, decently, available. I could nip along there, but I am enjoying the unknown. The hedgrow vanishes to my left, and then to my right and for a while I am walking through open fields. It is unkempt, thistle-strewn land, this, and all around Goldfinches rise as I pass by. Across a ploughed field, boots clodding up with the soft soil, and then on to stubble and beyond that a cricket field.

Little Thetford, built on a small island of boulder clay that raised it above the fen waters, is a tiny community at the edge of Cawdle Fen. There has been human activity here for the best part of ten thousand years, due, of course, to its firm footing in an otherwise marshy world. Five hundred years ago, an agreement on tithes was set up between the rector of Stretham (the neighbouring village, visible by the church spire across the fields), and several householders of Little Thetford. The inhabitants of Little Thetford were obliged to attend the mother church of Stretham on 25 July – St. James’s Day – but perhaps more practical a consideration was that burial rights were reserved to Stretham.

At the South of the village a path passes between the hedges and heads across to Stretham. It is an easy meandering path now, but for a while this was the coffin road, the track the dead took as they were carried to the cemetery over the fields.

I walk it a little. A hazel stretches overhead. Beneath it, before me, a patina of white feathers. The ground is undisturbed. Something has taken a gull from the fields and spent a while up above, stripping it in the branches. It is freshly dusted, this covering, the down is pristine, untrampled, still held above the track by the grasses. I can hear nothing. I wonder if I’m being watched.

The main road runs down to the railway line. Before it a track turns me back on myself, parallel to my earlier route. I follow a deep and full stream, high-sided banks looking down into a filthy brown drainage flow. Water is directed off the fen and then into these channels before it pours out into the Ouse a few hundred yards over on my right. At the back of the village, neat gardens run down to the ditch. The forgotten third of the bigger plots. Waste heaps and compost bins. Rood screens of beech and Japanese maple hide the leave-it-until-Spring messes.

Overhanging the channel an ancient neglected apple tree hangs heavy, still with some wasting yellow fruit on the bough. Much has fallen or is windblown, strewn across the untidy ground. Some can be seen caught in debris in the water. The soft fallen pieces are being torn apart by blackbirds. Whether they are eating the flesh or bugs within it, I’m not sure. In the middle of them, bossing the group, is a Fieldfare. Part of the same family, but much bigger, Fieldfares are Winter visitors from Northern Europe. They breed mostly in Germany or Poland or Scandinavia and then come across here for four or fives months where it may be a little milder. They are plush, heavy, rather lofty thrushes, grandes dames with a covering of grey and flashes of yellow jewels. Hidden mostly in the centre of distant fields they’re hidden and unremarkable, but close up, a different matter.

The cathedral is a clear, 3 miles away, it’s North side now bright white in the afternoon sun. The path will take me along this stream and then, I guess, at some point turn toward the river. I imagine. No, I know. I do know; this landscape is slotting back into place. Thrown and shook and now reassembled. Ahead, a mile or so, and I will click into an old path again, something I recognise this time, and from there I know there will be a footpath I can follow home. The road is familiar, or about to be.

windward or taken by the tide to places we call home

As a kid, I think it was always accepted that when we saw gulls circling our little Midlands enclave, it was because there must have been a storm out at sea. It might even have been a sentiment accompanied by a wave of the hand and a chilly glance toward where we thought Skegness or Filey might be.

I’ve hung on to that idea for years, even though I know it must be mostly fanciful. It seemed particularly romantic to me that these storm-tossed creatures, shaken and buffeted by some distant and unknown tempest, should fetch up in our manor seeking respite.

Oh, but it’s a simple misunderstanding, and I was young then. Culturally, they’ve always been storm indicators, and often misrepresented.

The Welsh have the story of St Kenneth, or Cenydd, who was born to a minor nobleman from Arthur’s court, but was the result of an incestuous liaison and deformed. Horrified, the parents decided to cast the child into the River Loughor, but beforehand a priest baptised him and placed him in a basket. A storm arose and the cradle was carried into the estuary and out to sea. It was seen by a colony of gulls which lifted the basket to the top of a rock, where they stripped their breasts of feathers to make a bed while watching over the baby.

It is a rare positive reference. Normally, gulls are pests, scavengers; destructive and noisy. Even their name is assumed to be attached to the pejorative, from which we might attribute ‘gullible’ or to be ‘gulled’, as in a character who will swallow anything. The etymology is a little hazy at best, and may refer to the gullet, any gullet, rather than this genus of bird in particular. Don’t let the irony of all that peck you on the arse as it flies off now, will you?

It all depends on how you conjugate it. Gulls are globally successful. They split from their Middle Eastern progenitor group, and broke across the Atlantic, the best part of three hundred thousand years ago. At about the same time, we, our own species, spilled from the cradle of civilisation and filtered out from that same area. We have lived in each others’ footprints and shadows eternally.

They are not seagulls, or, at least, they are never just that. That’s too lazy. Their family name, the taxonomy, is too simple. They are Laridae, which comes from the Ancient Greek λάῥος, or ‘sea bird’. But gulls are everywhere, they are birds of cities and fields and landfills and motorway service stations and waste ground and high rises and every place where we might be. And yet, you can see the attraction of the pull of the sea. That romantic feeling coming back again. John Masefield called it the “vagrant gypsy life” and longed for “the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife”.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s easier and we know we can peripheralise these shrieking, insolent marauders. You catch sight of one of these pallid intruders and immediately you’ll fancy the breeze is a little keener, and the sky a little darker.

je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes

Three miles to the South, the echoed crump of a cannon. My body clock was there anyway, I’d already stopped crossing the field and for several minutes had been watching the birds pecking in the furrows. Lapwing and Common Gull, Jackdaw, Pheasant, Partridge, a few scattered Golden Plovers.

Some crows lift for a moment at the sound, but settle again quickly. It is bright, and the morning air sparkles.

11am, of course. The sun is high. In what shadows there are, the last of a fine frost hangs on. I shift a little, and rest my camera and binoculars down on top of my rucksack.

There is a poplar to my right. It is a pale, washed-out sand colour, much of it dried and stripped by the October weather. Now, in the second week of November, it has little coverage left, what there is shakes crazily in even the gentlest breeze. In the spring and summer the same action creates a wave of silver and dark green that threshes endlessly up and down. As I watch, a dozen tags are torn away and spiral into the wind.

The black and dark brown fields of tilled soil are wiped here and there with wind-blown patterns of debris. Leaves are speared in the hawthorn hedgerows, they catch in scratchy circles on the pathways, and tumble through the branches to the floor.

The poet Jacques Prévert wrote the words to the song Les Feuilles Mort (Dead Leaves) in 1945. It is a mournful, beautiful thing about loss and love and remembrance (Et la mer efface sur le sable / Les pas des amants désunis… the sea wipes out the footprints of lovers torn apart). It is the melody which is better known outside France; first played sparingly on a harmonica to Yves Montand in the post war drama Les Portes de la Nuit, it developed into a standard, adopted into the American songbook by Johnny Mercer to become the hit Autumn Leaves. It is used to heartbreaking effect in a movie I saw this time last year, My Week with Marilyn, a slight but bittersweet tale of a young English man who may or may not have had a relationship with Marilyn Monroe. They see each other only a few times, but in the middle of their encounters is one day where they walk in the country, as if they were lovers, and have, what sweethearts would call, an adventure. At the end, driving back as the sun goes down, the light slanting through the car window, first tenderly holding hands and then – as they look out, at the real world – letting go, Nat King Cole sings Autumn Leaves and the swelling strings are almost unbearable.

Across the field, a stand of trees, a place I sat beneath six months ago. I can pick out the spot exactly despite its changed livery. It is now a rage of red and gold and brown. I had watched a quarrel of Blackcaps, parents and juveniles, stripping the elderberry that was threading through the branches, a tide of new and energised life, a pother of noise and hunger.

Now the landscape takes a breath. It inhales. It is, if you could taste it, a time of sweet darkness and decay. The leaves fall and settle and although they begin to change, an imprint of the world is made. It is closing down, for repair, for redress, for rebalance, for remembrance.

The cannon sounds again. I look up as the crows lift and skirr around once again, before settling back to earth. I pick up my things and start off.