Birdsong fills the dour skies

York Robin

– York, December 2012

Having travelled up north today, one thing is clear – it’s a grey day in England. The fields are flooded, rivers have broken their banks, swamping hedgerows like spurious borders between water-bound states. Perhaps it’s a vision of the future. In York it’s much the same as we walk the walls. These giant slabs of stone encase the city’s heart, having done so for centuries. My footwear is unsuitable, leather boots with worn, grip-less soles. My companion is even more ill-suited in her heeled boots, though somehow she doesn’t slip as I do. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the native. I fail to pick up placenames or any other manmade pointers, often quick to admire the old structures of men, we sometimes overlook nature’s work entirely. Instead of history, I’m drawn to the algae-green branches of lime trees and the peeling bark of mature sycamores, the small chunks of tree skin leaving ripples, as if they’ve disappeared into the flesh of the thing itself.

The walls break up and we have to climb the slender stairwells again to continue. I’m struck by how many people say hi, how many smile and seek eye contact. The sheer banks below show the early leaves of nettles and cow parsley, some plants are flowering, a large pink mallow the most striking. Have they evolved to find winter cover in the wall’s company? A flock of starlings spread between plane trees, ticking and whistling. I insist we wait and listen. Their roundabout call is a joyful sound.

We descend again and find the River Ouse has flooded the walkways, sandy rivulets reclaiming stone. A white swan mingles with a gang of Canada geese to feed on the bank opposite. Under the bridge a dog defecates, its owner pointedly collecting it with a little plastic bag. A fire and rescue dinghy glides past, a crew member waving as I take their picture. We return to the street above and cross the bridge. Mud from the river has coloured the tarmac of a car park.

Back on the wall we watch two hooded teenagers hide their bikes in the black walkway of a terraced housing estate. They are wary of leaving their belongings out in the open. Down below a strip of no-mans-land offers up the remains of a bike immortalised in long grass, like the inhabitants of Pompeii to molten rock. Up ahead we squeeze out of the way of oncoming walkers and stop to admire a scene of sparrows flocking to a garden bird feeder. It reminds my friend of her time in Spain, ‘a happy sound’, and we watch their grey shapes darting between food and the shelter of the gutter. Their calls explode into single shrieking notes. A juvenile sparrowhawk crashes into the feeder from over the fence, what seemed to be ample shielding from the outside world. The hawk is unmistakable with its dark brown barred wings. It falls out of sight, presumably pinning its prey to the patio, or in the shrub below the feeder. We wait for news. A good few minutes later the shrieking – unceasing during this time – heightens further. The sparrowhawk makes its getaway over the fence and cars parked in the street beyond, the shadow of a sparrow in its talons.

The bells of York Minster sound over the ornamental gardens, their spacious mown lawns and the first beech trees of our time up here. Robins sing from all sides, one is silhouetted in a branch close to our ears, its blackened bill working as it counters the dour skies and echoing bell toll with its shimmering wildsong.