One I would rather forget
Finally ends here
Liberty, Equality, Humanity
One I would rather forget
Finally ends here
The cowslips have finally given up the ghost. Their yellow petals have faded, vibrancy lost, they wilt. Job done.
In the woodland at the foot of the heath, on the slope of the hill, bracken ferns are beginning to unfurl. Sprouting strong from below the past year’s brown litter, the firm green shoots, follow a curled fist of new leaf, punching upward.
The broad leaves of foxgloves are also pushing through now among the thinly distributed blue bells. A foxglove’s leaf is soft and its tip curls ground-wards because the midrib is barely strong enough to hold the emerging weight. It will be a few days yet before the fox glove shoots emerge and flower from the centre of the plant.
On the last patch of rough ground before the shore, a grasshopper warbler sits on the apex of looped bramble. Its churring might pass for that of a cicada in Spain, or Greece. A small brown bird with little remarkable about it, except its calling. In the English countryside there is nothing quite like it. As with all small, brown birds it is far easier to hear them than to see them; so it is a treat to see this Little Brown Job (“LBJ”) on song and so easily identifiable.
Further along, sat on the crown of a small bush, is a linnet, with its double patch of pale red across its breast. It basks in the last of the sunshine, without making any noticeable noise.
I pace out the width of the beach, from the low water-line to the peak of the shingle. It is more than 75 paces. I notice a small starfish, its five legs closing up from dehydration, just over 30 paces from the low tide line. It will have been there since the tide began to retreat about seven hours ago, but has yet to be gathered up by a gull, or passing crow.
A crab shell, orange and brown on the outer surface is nearby. It is brilliant white within. I pick it up and although it measures the breadth of my right hand, it weighs just a few grammes. Dried out in the sun and air, the discarded shell is friable. I drop it and watch how easily shards break from the once hard carapace when it hits the stones.
From the arête of shingle bank, I look inland and my eye is caught by the white shadow of a barn owl swinging back and forward over the pasture. When a barn owl turns, it can seem to do so within its own length. It pivots on the broad inner wing of the arc and loops itself quickly into a new direction.
I watch this ghostly hunter sink toward the grass, then rise again, before it suddenly drops deep into the field. It is out of view for a few moments before it reappears. Like the kestrel, the other day near Wiverton, the sign of a successful catch, is the flat, fast, straight flight across the chase to a more sheltered spot, to somewhere captured prey can be dealt with uninterrupted.
By the main road a broad drain runs beside a lay-by which is the preferred sales pitch of an ice-cream van in summer. On the still water a family of seven mute swans trail along, disturbed by human presence. The father makes a threatening sally towards the roadside where I am walking, the mother leads away the train of ugly ducklings, (who are really very cute, grey, fluffy bundles) along the far side of the water. One of the five cygnets is distracted by some random speck floating nearby, before it realises it has to hurry up to rejoin the end of the flotilla speeding behind the imperious mother.
Where the water broadens into a duck pond, a couple of mallards are beak-down, tail-up. exploring the murky water, creating distinct circles of ripples by their dabbling.
The sunset is spectacular. The flat sea mirrors the deepening blue of the sky. The north-west horizon is marked by a strip of deep orange, under-scored by the dark strip of a fog bank. Due north the clarity of the air gives perfect sight of the 88 wind turbines churning elegantly in the breeze.
Along the beach fishermen have made camp. Their long lines, already cast, loop languidly out into the water.
When this particular set of evening colours is displayed there is the promise of a cold night, but the night sky will be spectacular, with the third-quarter moon and the stars for decoration.
14th May, 2020
There are some very long-lived people resident in Norfolk; the cool climate is clearly a contributor. Like living in a massive fridge, the chill stops one from going off, perhaps. I struggle with the dichotomy of clear blue sky matched with being perpetually cold. It is also true of this neck of the woods that there are few residents, apart from at weekends and during the holiday seasons, so those who are permanent are clearly hardy, adaptable folk.
I heard a remark today that captures an essence of this period. “The days go by so fast, but each day is so slow.” Something very strange is happening to our experience of time.
Today is another Wednesday. It is the fiftieth day of writing about what I am witnessing here, but it still all seems new. Perhaps this practise of writing something about each day keeps it so for me. The gradual emergence of Spring comes later here in comparison to the southern coast. I have an opportunity to note the natural changes as they arise.
I sense the changing tilt of sunlight in these days between Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. This time when days lengthen and shadows shorten has often been lost to me before. School and then study and then work have always been busy during this phase of the solar cycle, so I am blessed to be able to immerse myself in it this year.
It is less than six weeks to Midsummer’s day, (just 46 days) and from then the days will shorten, the shadows lengthen. Of course, the air will be warmer, the soil heated and the long tail of Summer leading into Autumn will pass through some blissful days, but it is this phase, when each day is brighter and longer than the last that is the time of renewal, growth and hope. I pray that I am able to appreciate each one, as and when each arrives.
In the sunlit evening, I put on a thick, windproof jacket, zip it to my chin and step out into the blustery air. I do not treat the walk as exercise, but as a stroll. I take my time to move within, rather than through the landscape. This allows me to see the muntjac deer before it hears me coming, to enjoy the leverets chasing each other, to watch the rabbits nibbling and to study the hedge birds hopping about from branch to nest and perch. In one instance, in the wood on the hill, two young rabbits come towards me. I halt my gentle pace and am able to watch them for a few undisturbed moments before they amble off under the brambles.
This Spring I have been able to see the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn by the time of their flowering. The blackthorn is turned to green leaves before the hawthorn’s May Flower sprouts. The blackthorn covers large areas of the escarpment below the heath and when in blossom presents a picture akin to a dusting of snow. The hawthorn trees are more dispersed and so there is no blanket coverage to wonder at, but the hawthorn explodes into flower when the right conditions arrive, which here, this year come at the very end of April and now, the first week of the May.
I eventually turn onto the coast road, edging the old salt marshes. It is mayhem out there. Various hatchlings are out and parent birds are fighting tooth and claw to protect the young from marauders. I have mentioned the birds of prey and the carrion before, but now gulls are more commonly seen too. The larger gulls are not averse to adding eggs, or young to their omnivorous diet. The peewit parents exhaust themselves in defensive duties. It is now that their speed and agility in flight becomes vital to the survival of their species.
Another more commonly seen bird, overlooked and unremarked on because of its modest size, is the pied wagtail. There are several active around the Green at the bottom of the Purdy Street. These birds with jerky, clockwork movements are happy catching small insects. Sometimes they flitter a few feet into the air, almost in a hover, to catch something, at other times they walk restlessly, pecking to left and right at the ground for easier pickings. When they stand still, tail wagging up and down, with short, sharp, black beak pointing slightly upward, they are preparing to fly.
They seem to need a moment to compose themselves before springing into the air and making their way on an undulating flight path. They land with a silent splash of black and white, often not far from the point of lift off, before resuming their mechanical-toy movements. The pied wagtail emits chirpy notes as it goes about its business. Just enough to attract attention, not enough to call a song, although they do have songs in the repertoire.
At last an evening with some play – dominoes. This is a game that allows some conversation and distraction. It is not overly competitive, because of the luck of the draw, but a game that allows gentle conversation, whichever variation is played. I teach my sister two new variations and remind her of a third. An enjoyable evening.
After your on-line choir we talk by telephone for well over an hour, in fact until well-past midnight. I fall asleep exhausted, you find sleep eventually.
5th May, 2020
Whoa! A premature summer’s day has been delivered to our doorstep, without a knock. No wind, not a breath.
I step out. All I can hear is the sound of my flip-flops flick-flacking down the lane and bees buzzing. The birds are drowsy in this unfamiliar heat. Sparrows offer desultory cheeps from the dusty roadside.
On my way back up the hill from the shop, a blackbird flies with full-beak into its nest under the guttering of the old brick and flint-work barn. Heavy-cable nylon netting has been positioned to catch loose tiles and falling stones from the crumbling structure. The blackbirds have improvised their home behind a point when the netting drapes over the lip of the roof. The nest is easily visible, but seems sound. To get in the blackbird has to land and then manoeuvre through the webbing. From the inside it will be easy to defend.
The barn has been bought by a middle-aged couple with a plan to convert it into something more solid. Do they know the story of the night when one of the heavy oak doors broke from its hinges and killed a local man who was trying to secure the building? His son still lives in a house directly across the lane from the scene. The building looks no more solid, nor safe today. It has bowing walls, a sagging roof; it has lost all thought of maintaining an upright status.
There are plenty of fledgling robins about. At the bird feeder a blood-orange red-chested brute of a youngster stands dumbly waiting to be fed by its slighter parent. This young robin might bounce better than fly. A couple of days ago I pulled up a metre short of a tiny robin that I thought was injured in the road. It miraculously remembered that it could fly just as I made to move it to safety.
In a neighbour’s front garden an explosion of fighting. Two small birds scrap violently. Face- to-face with sputtering wings, they rise straight-up, up higher than the house, fighting all the way and then all the way back to the grass. A few moments later another outburst, but with less altitude needed to settle the row. Dunnocks squaring up to each other, perhaps.
I step out again late into dusk. Bats are scything through the air, visible in fleeting glimpses. As they turn the fast movement of their wings makes them disappear. It is impossible to double guess the path they will take in this grey light.
Around the small green there is a collection of cats. I count nine of various sizes and ages. In one spot there are five. They squat down almost nose to nose. I did not know there were so many in the whole village. How far have they travelled to this place? This is a special gathering. A coven? Are they plotting revenge on whoever it was that ran down one of their number on the coast road? There may be more. Some are posted on gate posts as look-outs. One watches from a utility vehicle parked by the café.
Bats, cats, but not a soul in sight. Where are the women of the village this evening? I see television lights flickering on living room walls, but these spaces seem empty. Is there a meeting on Gallow Hill? Or is this them, the collection of whispering cats?
The cats are situated close to the red phone box that was re-painted yesterday by a man in white overalls. The box now houses an Automated External Defibrillator. These pieces of kit have appeared all over the country in recent years. Has one ever been used to any effect? They are an apparently good idea that makes no sense when considered more deeply. A paramedic has all the kit necessary and the training to use one, but the general public not so, even if someone were considerate enough to have their heart failure in the immediate vicinity. However, the money is raised as a good cause, the machines are placed, repaired, re-placed. Good works that make the fund-raisers feel good regardless of the wasteful use of time and effort. I saw one sited at a corner of a busy junction in central London once. Dusty with diesel smuts and out of reach of most. How will that machine help a cyclist crushed by a lorry turning left, (the most likely incident at that location)?
The newly minted moon is a sliver of sharp light. Lower in the sky than Venus, the Moon and her companion seem to be going against the grain, joining a line to the south-east, rather than north-west. It is a trick on the eye; their descent is in parallel, not a linear path.
The air has changed during the day. It feels like I am home on the south coast. There is humidity on the evening breeze. A south-westerly will bring rain in coming days. I am happy to feel its gentle approach.
I look forward to hearing your voice again after this self-imposed electronic purdah. I am grateful for this time, but has it only been a couple of days?
26th April, 2020
The hedgerows are changing. The blackthorn’s fine white petals have thinned out and the dark spikes are being shaded out by greenery, as the hawthorn, the May Tree is dressing up in its finery. Where the plant is a tree, it shines out from copses and hedgerows. In the shade of the hedge, it is emerging shyly.
It is emerging in specks in the company of medium-sized flowers, apple trees and stray dog roses. The pallet of flowers has extended from yellows and whites to include blues and some pale pinks.
Along the sides of roads there are surprising numbers of white and pink-flecked apple blossoms. These trees have been flailed into shape by the huge, tractor-borne trimming machines of the farmers. These pretty trees are forced to form part of the hedgerows that they were first cast into as apple cores. They endure their cramped conditions merrily, bringing further variety to the lanes in spring. They will add to the boon of berries, wild plums and haws that will ripen over late summer.
The rough flailing arms of the heavy-duty hedge-trimmers are no match for the occasional oak trees that stand by the roads. The northerly winds have made some impression on the general direction of their spread, which often turns slightly inland, but they remain otherwise solid. The sprouting leaves of oak trees about here are unfolding in limey and yellowy greens. They hint at the dull colours they will become after the next equinox. I do not recall them being this colour in spring until the last few years, at least not quite so yellow. They do not look right to me.
Not all the roadside oaks are turning to leaf. One or two are bleaching, becoming skeletons of their former selves. In one there are three swallows waiting, chirruping to the breeze.
Swallows do a surprising amount of sitting around in between their migratory passages. Telegraph wires are being laid underground as cables and wireless technology now fills the atmosphere with digits, forcing swallows to adapt their lifestyles. I see them on the tops of hedges, fences and now on the bony fingers of dying oaks. The golden age for swallows of telegraph wires, railway signal and bowed telephone lines hanging off poles along every avenue is past.
Swallows are not timid birds and it is possible to see them quite close up at now they are returning to lower level resting spots. They will not up and away in an instant if a gentle approach is made. They need their rest, so do not move unless the movement they see is too threatening.
Competition on remaining telephone lines is increased, gold finches are no problem, but crows, pigeons and starlings all seek space to sit. Pigeons pose remarkably firmly, despite their doughy shapes. Starlings are rarely still, twittering and squeaking as they gather, swapping places, shuffling along, squeezing up, changing ends, but generally all lined-up, like children approximately queuing on a school trip, excited to get into the zoo with their good-natured teacher. Goldfinches, always chirpy in song, are temporary at any perch before somewhere else looks as if it might be a better bet. They move from place to place; shoppers testing sofas in a department store.
It is a Saturday. There are many more people about. Cyclists are more prevalent. Motor vehicles are less utilitarian. It is not uncommon to be passed by a cabriolet with its roof down; a retired couple with sun-glasses and peaked hats on a leisure drive; side-by-side; unspeaking. Walkers choose the ancient tracks and byways, so only intersect with the roads when crossing, as they follow the airy directions of wooden finger posts.
I sustain my commitment to being switched off from phone, emails, internet for two days. It gives me gaps to fall into. Time to think. I think of you, trust that all is well. I allow myself to do absolutely nothing and remember what that feels like.
26th April, 2020 (written 28th April, 2020)
This brittle air in sun so low
Glints off flints flash hard
To retain the joy of childhood
As manners evolve in new-formed slow queues
Found on familiar streets
Beside the sign, Stay Home, don’t be SHelfish
Outside the closed café that specialised in crab sandwiches,
That H added by hand, by night
Lightens this dull conspiracy of compliance
In which all have dressed down
Even priests can go uncollared in isolation
Because we can
Grass verges spout unruly inflorescences and ticking time-bombs of dandelion clocks about to blow
I let the news headlines go
Fuck ‘em! They add nothing to our here and now
Where St George and the Dragon adorn the brick cornice of the shuttered pub
I hear the sea and bees
I fear my own stupidity more than that of others
I long to be able to walk out on the pier
To its very end
n.b. http://www.napowrimo.net Day 25 prompt: Almanac prompt.
27th April 2020