in shorts and t-shirts
all but seven days ago
swallows presaged snow
in shorts and t-shirts
all but seven days ago
swallows presaged snow
When the combine has cut through the wheat,
The bailer tidied all loose ends
And The Downs have felt the drag of plough and harrow,
Swallows and martins scour the chalk field in hundreds
A restless gathering, swooping, sweeping low
From roadside wires and hedge tops
Assembling their collective will to flee
Our gloomy, damp, autumnal land
One flits by, teasing my unleashed hound
Another, passes that close to me
I hear its fine wings feathering the air
This strange summer’s end comes nigh
Marked by the breath of hirondelles brushing our crumbled turf
Their fleeting farewell kisses of Northern earth leave no mark
When they take temporary leave for Southern skies
CLP 30th August, 2020
Swallows skim on warmth
Riding ripples rising off
Red clay tiled rooves
n.b. Flaming June, indeed!
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)
While still strong, the wind is not so cold today. It is another day that is cloudless.
The association of April with rain being delivered in re-freshing, short showers is far from the truth this year. The winds driving in from the east and the north are bitter and dry. Their strength and persistence challenges patience and good humour. They force us to seek sheltered spots when seeking some sunshine, to carefully consider the route for walks, or cycle rides. It is best to bear the brunt of the wind on the outward route and plan a way back following the lee of a hill, or through woodland.
With everyday similar to the last, identifying differences between days helps keep a grasp of time. The most obvious difference is the lengthening hours of sunlight.
Without cloud it is quite noticeable how long it takes for the last light of the day to finally fade. Only Venus is visible against the cool of the stretched evening sky before the other stars and a passing meteor shower can be seen. In the morning the first clacking, squawks of the loose game birds gets earlier and earlier, when they respond to an initial crow’s caw, coughed up from the rookery on the hill.
Shadows in the middle of day are shortening and the amount of sunshine reaching the woodland floor is gradually being reduced as the tree canopy spreads. But it is not so shaded under the oak trees as to explain why a tawny owl would be sending out a plaintive hooting at just after nine o’clock on such a luminous morning. I heard a single call and thought I may have been mistaken, until the full, echoing call resounded through the trees.
It was an incongruous sound in broad daylight, but no less out of place than hearing a car alarm whistling in the mid-morning. Military aircraft, agricultural machinery and the postman’s van provide most of the mechanical soundtrack out here and these are rare enough. Birdsong and the conversation in gardens and across fences are the most common sounds that break up the backwash provided by the waves and wind.
In late afternoon I note that there are now two swallows sitting on the telephone wire. They are matched by a pair of goldfinches. These birds rarely settle for long. They are twittering constantly, fidgeting and jumping off to new perches at the slightest excuse, perhaps I should adopt one as my emblem? These unsettled years no longer seem temporary, but the way life has become for me.
On the last of the marshland to the east, there is a small, artificial lake . It looks natural enough; it is ungarnished apart from its island. The place is thick with small flies and numerous sand martins have come to feed on the wing. They chirrup as they swoop in delightful loops, arc back to return toward the surface again and again, skim the very skin of the pool, marking it with a splash from their contact, but so slight a mark that the water does not seem to even ripple after they have passed.
On the grassland and the hillside facing the setting Sun, hares sit and enjoy the warmth on their fur. They hold their ears up, always on the alert to possible danger, so look permanently startled. These nervous creatures need little excuse to tear off in panic. They rarely run in a straight line, preferring long curving sprints before suddenly switching direction, dust clouding their exit. I lose count of how many are out and about this evening. All they seem to do is sit, unless they are running away from something, or chasing off another of their number who has inadvertently loped into the wrong territory. What are they closer to, mice and rabbits, or dogs and wolves? When they run they move like greyhounds.
The strong winds are not a struggle for everyone. To appreciate this fully, one needs to witness a lapwing playing out a noisy display of stunt flying. Their squared off wings enable them to make spectacular turns, dives and climbs at speed which are the very epitome of random. Fascinating enough these complicated patterns would be on their own, but these demonstrations of agility are accompanied by a piping, tuneless calling which is as unpredictable as the flight manoeuvres. The peewit whistles like an ancient wireless radio set being tuned in after dark; all pops and whistles, whines and squeaks.
It is these moments that bring difference to the days. This is nature filling in for the absence of April showers, who would have previously been providing the seasonal variety.
23rd April, 2020
Ice blue is the only way to describe yet another cloudless sky. The wind moves from the north to the east as the Sun tracks around the side of house to the back field. I get out for an evening walk only when our star has turned white and offers little in the way of warmth.
Earlier I saw a pair of house martins flying raggedly in search of their regular nesting site. This evening, a swallow careens around the end of a hedge and swerves past me at head height. Is that the second of the year, or the first I saw six days ago?
Halfway down the field-edge toward the sea I take a left at the footpath that takes me towards the clump of Scots Pines. These provide a break from the buffeting wind and under these trees it is noticeably warmer than out in the field. There is a gap in the gorse above the road that gives a good view of the birds feeding on the marshes.
While I am sheltered here there is the constant sound of the wind in the trees. It is as if someone is sweeping a giant broom across a vast expanse of flagstone floor. However, the pine needles and stiff breeze are only providing the top notes to constant undertones of the raging sea, which have accompanied my walk from the start. In fact the whole day has been full of this low rushing sound since I awoke. The sea is angry.
White horses are visible to the horizon. The waves are curling up into beautiful curves before hitting the beach. The resulting explosion of foam and spume, water and pebbles regularly shower higher than three metres into the air. The collapse of these breakers and their disintegration is visible even from behind the shingle bank. This display inevitably draws me to the shoreline.
The beach is being smashed by every incoming wave. The frequency of the waves is such that there is no respite between the destructive hit of one wave and the arrival of the next. The huge beach extends for more than 12 kilometres to the tip of Blakeney Point and then about six kilometres east to the soft clay cliffs of Sheringham. At every part of the shoreline the power of the sea is witnessed. The sea is unforgiving in this state. All along the shore the air is misted by spray. The sun sets as a heartless, silver disc through this briny veil.
When I take my jacket off at the house, it is as damp as if I had have been walking through light rain, despite the sunlight and clear sky. I lick my lips and savour the taste of sea salt.
I am told the new parents have agreed on a name for their daughter. The new grandmother waits for a decision about when her daughter and grand-daughter will be allowed home.
Sporadic text messages punctuate the late evening before lights out.
20th April, 2020
More sunshine. These days are brightly lit, but carry a chill that reaches deep to the bones.
The first swallow has arrived here and waits patiently on a telephone wire strung high above the street. It calls out to attract its followers to join the line-up. How many will battle successfully through the northerly winds? When you see these birds in Spain and France one wonders what attracts them to this North Sea coast. There are certainly enough small flying insects to feed them and their young.
I mention the swallow’s arrival to a man walking nearby. He laughs, as if disdainful of this cheery sign. I felt it worth sharing. I wonder, what made him laugh so harshly? Was this a triviality because he carries great worries? Was he just caught off-guard by the lightness of the comment? For some, the unrelenting strain of these days is hard to exchange for a fleeting courtesy. I grit my teeth and press on towards the sea.
On the beach a dead small-spotted catfish, one of the smallest members of the shark family, has been left far up the shingle by the falling tide. Its eyes are still bright enough to reflect the sun’s last rays, but it’s rough, mottled skin is drying out. The slender body is already curling to one side, its tail now stiff. There is no obvious sign of injury. These catfish, members of the shark family, have several names, including Sandy Dogfish, Rough-hound, or Morgay.
The name Morgay is only applied to this fish in Scotland and Cornwall, highlighting common roots of language at the extreme ends of Britain, some eight hundred to nine hundred miles apart, (about 1,400 km distant).
At dinner, there is nothing much new to say. We are grateful for what we have, but anxiety holds us tight. The unpolished surface of the old pine kitchen-table quietly absorbs silently spilt tears.
15th April, 2020
By delicate wings
n.b. In 2019 swallows had arrived in Somerset by 12th April. Swifts followed soon after. In other years I have seen swifts before swallows, e.g. Isle of Wight, 2018.