Ilford Delta 100, Kodak Retinette 1B
© Daniel James Greenwood 2013
– Cox’s Walk, London, July 2012
We’re coming toward the end of our bat transect, our detectors raised into a night lit by the orange glow of a line of streetlamps and closed by the canopy of oak. Nothing. Further up the slope there was a hint of a noctule bat’s chip-chop call coming through the static of the airwaves, but nothing else. Rain begins to fall and we make our final marks on the record sheet. There are very few bats around, the woodland all but shorn of them. At the bottom of the path are two figures, a third, dwarfish silhouette evidently that of a large dog. From here it’s unclear whether they are moving away or towards us. A fox appears between us and, turning to look back from where we’ve come there rests another. In this break of light and dark, the fox watches us with content, almost with sympathy. Nevertheless, we’re surrounded.
As time goes and our chatter dwindles, the people approach. It’s a man dressed in a cream suit and a woman. He is indeed rotund, stopping and strolling, she strafing either side of him, circling tree trunks, in and out of darkness. We’ve finished now – there’s no point dawdling – no one says anything about it, but there’s a sense of apprehension. We stop – I don’t know why. I call out: we’re doing a bat survey! I’m shaking the black box in the air. A voice travels back:
‘You can do what you like.’
The fox at the top continues in its restful manner. We are the scene.
The woman is clear now, she wears blue dungarees and a red bandana holding up dreadlocks. She disappears behind an oak trunk, flashing us a glance, like a child playing cowboys and Indians. She smiles, emptying a plastic bucket around the trunk. The man has stopped, I can see his large oval spectacles. He turns to the tall iron fence protecting a small copse of maturing silver birch. The woman comes from behind the tree again:
‘Don’t be scaring me foxes away,’ she says, gently, with a hint of the Caribbean in her voice.
We all stop and look to the copse. The streetlight cast onto the trees and fence shows movements of the amber fur of a trail of fox cubs. They slink through the fence and arc towards the tree surrounded by piles of pink sludge – the contents of the lady’s bucket.
‘Ain’t they beautiful,’ says the rotund man in his cream white suit and oval spectacles.
Photograph by Martin Brewer
— Nunhead Cemetery, London, April 2012
In the cemetery won by sycamore and rendered woodland, two male song thrush are duelling with one another, throwing out tunes, rewriting and rollicking the black cloud with their language. This mysterious, handsome thrush is to me like a singing pudding endowed with flight. I leave them to it. My ears are working overtime, the scene dripping, the algae glows on the trunks of dark trees, the moss is vibrant on the gravestones appearing as shipwrecks at the bottom of an ocean. The denseness of the trees squeezes the sound: blue tit trill, the calling great tit and guttural canon of the crow marking the enclosure of forthcoming leaves and canopy. A family, their dog muddied, happy, intoxicated by the aroma of wet woodland, people relaxed, even pleased – woodland puts us back into our bodies. The sun inches out and makes crystals from the droplets of fallen rain, there is the feeling that the soil is sighing from the torrents. Deep refreshment has touched the natural world. My waterproof holds drops of water that leave strange dents in the material, my jeans are darker now. Wait – a song ending, a sweet, fluty refrain. Silence. Woodland dripping, I retrace my steps back down the path. The song comes from a leafless ash canopy – descending, descending, falling apart. Willow warbler. I see it, its long tail and constant hopping between branches. How far has it come? It sings again and moves on. The matt black storm clouds progress, the inkling of lightning, the thunderous thump.
– Farthing Downs, London, May 2012
The slope is exhausting. I push against my knees in order to reach the plateau without panting. Though it’s not as steep as it sounds, a flock of jackdaws glide in and bounce across the grass adding to my sense of human weakness. Turning back to look, it’s barely a slope, just an awkward drop down into the woodland below. In the distance, a world far, far away, the nearly-complete Shard and the Gherkin look like grey wreckage. The path ahead is bordered by two strips of scrub and small trees, in the open land across the road cutting through the downs a skylark is rolling out its splatter of trills and warbling. The bramble has come to life around me, a mouse or vole too quick for my eyes crosses to the other side. I swallow the air – it’s Croydon, but it tastes like the countryside. Beyond the dip into woodland Happy Valley opens out and up again, a vista of wildflower meadows and a fringe of trees. There is a hint of the hillsides of west Dorset within the boundary of The City of London. A pair of linnet alight in a small hawthorn, dull brown with specs of mud on their breasts, the red crown yet to come into full colour. They match the day – grey, brown, muddied. The aborted song of a bunting is coming from the branches above them, the striking colour of a yellowhammer sings from the still wintry scrub. It calls and calls, turning its head to look, not minding me at all, another arrives in a hurry.
The full view of Farthing Downs is open now as I continue to wander along the eastern flank. Two swifts newly arrived in the country dart about, twisting and turning, their black wings flapping a little like penguins under water. There are people over the surmount, people walking, people on horses, people with dogs. I approach a gate where a woman and her daughter are struggling with their dogs, one bounding around as if it’s been cooped-up for months. Right in front of me a wheatear drops in, landing on the small mound of an anthill. This robin-sized chat has travelled from Africa to be here in Croydon and will soon be moving to its northern breeding ground. The bird is nervous – the sprinting dog has been released upon the downs but it doesn’t notice the migrant wheatear, instead it runs at me full-pelt, swerving to my side, cracking its skull against my forearm. The lady who owns it has stepped in her other dog’s poo in trying to clean it up and is wiping her foot across the grass, grimacing. I’m muttering to myself – this is the first wheatear I’ve ever seen in the United Kingdom. The bird bursts into flight, landing on a fence post. I marvel at its feat of migration.
Broadwater Lake is situated in the Mid-Colne Valley a Sight of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the lake is managed by Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust. This is one of a number of nature reserves in England which is set to be developed for High Speed Rail 2. For more information please follow this link to the Wildlife Trusts’ website.