North Downs diary, Gatton Park, Surrey, April 2017
As we drive into Gatton Park a mistle thrush and a robin are singing under streetlamps. In front of this vast estate, with gardens laid out by the famous ‘Capability’ Brown, the darkness yields little birdsong. It’s 4:30 and dawn is yet to break on the downs, even the nearby M25 is held in relative silence. A cold wind blows across the lawns before the estate mansion, once the dwelling of the Colmans Mustard family, now an environmental education centre run by the Gatton Trust. Jess Hughes, the Trust’s education officer, is leading a dawn walk of the grounds and I am here to pick out the birdsong. Walking in a place I don’t know without full vision is unnerving with 3 hours sleep, so we pause at the dark blur of trees and fish for birdsong.
Walking down from the hill the wind dips, we ruffle the feathers of roosting woodpigeons in passing underneath their trees. Those wings and that kerfuffle are unmistakeable. Blackbirds sing from ranks of mature trees, the repeated verses of a song thrush pitched across the cover. A robin scratches its scribbly tunes from a branch somewhere. The dawn chorus always alters the sense of time that you take with you before one of these walks. I have learnt to recognise the change in sound with the change in the light, the point when some species emerge or sing. There is a set list of sorts.
As the light begins to spill over we enter a wood of tall, stringy ash and scrubby bramble. Behind us, the open parkland begins to fill with the flurry of blackbird music, my personal highlight of the dawn chorus. The tide pushes down through the open lawns and dotted trees, across the Serpentine stream to meet us in this wood. The blackbirds appear in ones and twos, I never know if it’s a case of birds moving like an armada, or whether one by one they blink into life like bulbs.
We hear not only song, alarm calls pierce through – the ticking of wrens, the rattling of a mistle thrush. We continue on back to the brink of woodland. The Serpentine crawls between the wood and park, on its banks yellow cowslips offer the day’s first glimpses of colour. At the water’s edge sweet woodruff flowers, its use for flavouring gin draws warm appreciation. Mallards drift in the subtle flow, in the shade of a tree opposite the first blackcap bubbles and warbles. From further downstream a great tit adds its bicycle pump to the mix.
Now crows skate to and fro overhead, a kestrel edges trees and hovers over the long grass in search of a first meal. We head round to the vast lake along a track marked by wild garlic, the sun rising between alders, behind clouds, the light rippling in the water. We pass Gatton Park’s edges where old yews have been lopped and anglers have built platforms embellished with woodchip for their camps. A neighbouring field overgrown with nettles lies for sale, from the group there are worries of an impending threat to the downs, echoed across Surrey by recent proposals to build entire new villages. Whenever green space is for sale it can be the only thought.
We pass up away from the enormous lake near veteran oaks enclosed by fencing, remnants of ancient parkland. The sun rises in the south east, the fresh leaves of the oaks glowing lime green in the light. We pause at the crown of the hill, before a Pulhamite rockery brought back from the brink of woodland by the Trust’s volunteers. Edging the hill is an ash tree, protruding, exposed to the south before Surrey, the Weald and Sussex. It is yet to leaf but Jess and the group have found fruit. A tree creeper inches the pale bark, its curved bill picking away for food. It’s a pointer to the time of day: dawn is over, the hard work has just begun.