– 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.
– Lakenheath Fen, Suffolk, March 2012
We’re standing on the raised bank overlooking Lakenheath’s reedbeds. It’s a warm, clear day but cooling gusts of wind disturb the peace, ushering us away from the viewpoint. On calmer days bearded tits move across the tops of the reeds, today they’ll be down in the cover. We pass a rigid poplar plantation famed for its golden orioles which breed here in spring, what is perhaps the only nesting site in the United Kingdom. The trees grow out of swamp and some of them have collapsed, the soil clinging to the upturned roots making the poplars look like toy soldiers left supine by a child’s swooping palm. The trees have sent suckers out along the horizontal trunk meaning a new layer of woodland is growing from the body of one of the fallen, a new understory naturally occurring from a man-made habitat.
The cover of the plantation lessens the wind somewhat, a green woodpecker yaffles from the cover of the trees. Along the bank are anthills home to yellow meadow ant. I’m with David Norfolk, a friend and expert ornithologist, and he tells me these are rare. The hills could be hundreds of years old. ‘They wouldn’t exist in today’s farmland,’ he says. ‘A tractor will destroy them’. He takes a small chunk of the mound and golden-coloured ants move busily across the grey soil held in his fingertips. On the other side of the bank a blue river runs away to where the sun is going, a flock of oystercatchers pass, chattering as they fly against the flow. On the riverbank near to us pristine white feathers are strewn like discarded quills around the skeleton of a mute swan. David has seen it before: ‘That’ll be a fox kill.’
We’re alerted to a faint, hoarse bird call wafting from beyond the poplars where a swathe of reeds stand for perhaps 200m all the way around. We stand to face the reeds and the wood beyond where trees have collapsed, fieldfares pass through on migration north on their return to Scandinavia. We hear it again, the muffled, bugling call of a crane. I have longed to see or hear these birds, Russian symbols of peace in the aftermath of Hitler and Stalin’s tyranny. The poet Anna Akhmatova described hearing cranes as she lay in her sickbed, the birds fleeing the dry autumnal fields after the harvest. Our cranes are not forthcoming but David is convinced they’re here. I’m prepared to wait until dark.
A group of men in their sixties arrive and we point out the vague sound of the crane, but they look in the opposite direction, instead to the sun setting over the lake. I suggest to another man that the cranes can be heard, he complains that he needs to sit down. ‘That’s a dog barking,’ he retorts. Bearded tits are pinging in the reeds, a water rail is squealing like a pig. We follow the path back to the start. The bugling goes on, it has to be cranes. But the beardies are closer and closer and even louder now. ‘Watch for their flight between the reeds,’ David says.And here they go, the pale brown flash and long tail, something I’ve never seen before. From behind us a crane calls clearly into the lilac sky.
F16s tear up the sunset with their apocalyptic thunder, a train careers along the bank next to us, the two carriages a little pathetic-looking and exposed in this vast open space. The lights shine inside, juxtaposed against the light dying down around us. The sun is stuck behind a strip of cloud and its colour cannot be revealed, jackdaws are roosting noisily in the poplar plantation, the green woodpecker continues its laughing fit, escaping its perch in an undulating flight overhead. The water rail is squealing still, a kingfisher bolts around a swoop of reeds. Two giant birds appear from the path we’ve just taken, grey and white. It has to be! Two cranes, flying together, approaching us on the bank, moving across. They are within a stone’s throw… but the joy evaporates. They’re swans and it’s a trick of the light.