Punctuation

An hour by the river. A break from everything; an intake of breath. Hot, still air criss-crossed with damselflies, butterflies, dragonflies, bees and birds. The water moving quietly under the sun; small fish breaking the surface occasionally.

Dunnocks and wrens issuing competing trills from opposing hedges.

Banded demoiselles glittering over the water, X marking the spot only fleetingly.

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Blue damselflies doing their thing.

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A tern, all graceful curves, moving up and down the river, and from time to time suddenly folding and diving into the water with supreme style and the smallest of splashes.

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A yellowhammer, at the top of a bush, singing his falling note, over and over. I find it a strangely mournful phrase from that cheerful yellow face – but I was delighted to see him.

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Lots of butterflies, including several commas. A well positioned comma is truly a beautiful thing. And on closer examination there’s a tiny yellow ladybird beneath, among the bramble flowers. Oh, the brambles stretched high and wide; maybe half a mile of them, eight or nine feet high in places, all humming with bees.

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Once upon a time, I spent a largely sleepless night in the US listening to the unfamiliar sounds of a big city; among them a car alarm that appeared to be designed specifically to grab your attention, seize you by your neck and wring it until you told the authorities, or ran away screaming, or perhaps smashed the car to smithereens. It was a hideous music, changing every two bars: rising pairs of notes followed by falling triplets, a high trill, a low shriek, an insistent whoop whoop and then back again to the rising pairs, a Da Capo without Fine.

Here instead is a reed warbler I heard today, working to infinitely more beautiful effect. It simply does not draw breath. It hurls phrases one after the other, a medley of insistence that you Move Along Now, Nothing To See Here and all from its secret hiding place among the reeds. Little brown bird, how I admire your effort. Watch out for cuckoos.

Sunshine inside

Sometimes it all goes right, all at once, and there it is – a perfect little moment, a sunshine generator.

The rainy morning petered out eventually, inviting a walk after a tricky sort of week. I thought I’d go along the river for a mile or so and see the cow parsley and flowering hawthorn combination that had prettified the lanes in recent weeks.

The sky was heavily grey and the rain possibly not quite finished; the wind was strong enough to tear some of the new lime-green leaves from the oaks and bring little confetti storms of may petals with each new gust.

Spring had been in full swing at the house for a couple of weeks – a garden full of delightful noisy fledglings, the delicate apple blossom long gone – and so too along the river. The hedgerow frothing green and white; the fields alongside full of things cultivated and things wild, everything all so very . . . growy.

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Great masses of comfrey along the bank and nettles under the hedge. The trees all in full sail now, even the ashes. I stood under the umbrella of a horse chestnut laden with candles and looked up.

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Walking down towards the swans’ nest I could see her doing a little tidying but there were still no signs of cygnets – they’re for her to know about and me to find out about next time, maybe.

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As I was standing quietly watching her, a kestrel rose from the small strip of land just behind the nest, and began to hunt with an elegance that took my breath away.

Little dart just so, a swoop higher and the trademark trembling hover; a drop of several feet brought to an instant halt as the hover resumed; a change of mind and off he went again, crossing the field, darting, swooping, hovering, working hard. A brief pause in the branches of the largest tree before he resumed operations. Not the first time we’ve seen him here: I wonder where the nest is.

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And all the while the A road thundered by barely a couple of hundred metres away, a continuous roar punctuated only by the cer-lunk, cer-lunk of lorries over the bridge spanning the river.

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I moved a little further upstream away from the traffic until it diminished to a background grum and the wind’s sounds began to dominate again. The sea-sighs of tall birches; the hawthorn snowing all along the path; and suddenly, screams as swifts hurtled past, with impossibly quick turns as they climbed and dived and skimmed the tops of theose fields. Too fast for me to catch on camera, though I, slow and stupid, still pointed my lens to the sky. That small sooty bird and its scything aerobatics always, always thrills.

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Welcome back.

To start the rusted wheel of things

Down the riverbank a mile or so to start with, as the gaps in the cloudblanket grow larger and there is the promise of a fine, still afternoon. A pair of swans preening under a willow; goldfinches chattering and skipping from tree to tree. The trees have been pushing out leaves and flowers. Horse chestnut leaves in particular look freshly washed, limp and shiny.

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In the big open field next to the river, which is still slightly waterlogged, a couple of mute swans and some greylag geese, and above them – oh! a pair of buzzards. They loop and spiral, higher and higher, my binoculars picking out the wings’ pale patterns, until their aerial ballet takes them in front of the sun and I have to look away.

Dunnocks rootling about at the bottom of the hedge ahead of my footsteps, and returning to work as soon as I have passed. A moorhen scolding me from the safety of the water. A blackbird singing from a lookout point. More tinkling bells of goldfinches.

Where the path ends and briefly becomes road, it curves around to bridge the river by the mill and I stop to admire the mirror surface of the millpond. Behind me there is a sudden eruption of high-pitched noise, which abruptly stops – I turn – and a male kestrel darts out from a large ivy-clad tree on the other side of the road, crosses right in front of me at shoulder height barely six feet away, and pauses in a tree opposite before vanishing.

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I have barely time to register my delight before a female kestrel emerges, too. I lose her quickly among the branches, but a few minutes later further down the road I catch sight of the male again and watch him making his way back to the same ivy tangle. What a thrill.

In a stand of trees nearby there are cherries to be had in late summer, and here and there the first flowers are just opening. As I lean in to take a picture of one a bee fly (I think) hurries in ahead of me. There are more of them, and a lot more flowers, on the blackthorn around the corner.

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On I go, across the railway line, towards the turbines, and there, rising above the engine of the tractor raking over the next field and the distant A road and the trains passing at intervals, above all of this, skylarks. The sound is everywhere. And here they are, climbing above me, that huge fluttering effort, and that glorious sound.

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(Title: from “March” by AE Housman)

The ascent begins

Six weeks later, another brief visit to the fields at the edge of my lunchtime leash, and now the skylarks are in full voice. A gorgeous liquid bubbling, obliterating everything else for a few minutes; a trickle of song long enough for me to track one little brown bird against the sky and trace it back down to earth, where the tap was abruptly turned off. I will go back.

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(Link here to a few seconds of video that just picks up their sound)

20’E

Just enough time to get to the edge of People, in twenty minutes. Along the row of old houses, past their front gardens with damp hedges and dripping trees, some early flowers, straggling grass, a glimpse of sparrows and blackbirds as they dashed for cover; then past the new houses and their severe front yards, mostly paved, a wagtail making its way around the bricks; and then down the fenced-in path alongside the newest houses of all, still being built, all clatter and rumble and churned mud and warning signs.

To the very end, where the fields still start, despite everything. And here I could hear skylarks.

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Behind me the tinkling bells of goldfinches in the hedge, but ahead of me that long, liquid song. I took it as a kind of confirmation of the new month, page turn, Earth turn, on it goes. Always good to see the back of January. Difficult to turn my back on that footpath out into the farmland and head westwards, back to work.

Sunny side up

A crisp, crackly walk by the river. Still below zero mid-morning; everything crusted in frost.

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The river running fast and high, but thickly somehow, still a mirror in places; two mallards finding it hard going to cross the current. Standing water in the field nearby frozen into silvery blue stillness as a heron sought the ditch, flying down the margin.

Two adult swans on the river, with a single mottled youngster the colour of week-old roadside snow.

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And the light, oh the light through the skeleton trees.

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Fingers of smokiness as the sun licked the hedges and the crumpled reeds at the water’s edge. The plants showed their sunny side and I turned to it.

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Colours at the turn of the year

Seaweed threaded like cobwebs across a muddy estuary floor, pulsing with the sharp green of a new crop in a fenland field. A brisk blue-grey sky full of wheeling crowds of geese.

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Greying tree skeletons in misty huddles.

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Shiny racing-green holm oak leaves. Sunshine catching the yellow and green jewels of a great swathe of teal. The monochrome details of Brent geese.

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Reedbeds becoming ripe wheat in the golden light at the end of the day, just for a minute or two, before the richness dulled and darkened.

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A soft palette of pinks and browns as the sun slipped from the beach.

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And the night sky arriving, inky blues turning properly black

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and then, in a quiet wood, overhead studded with so many points of light; white, red, a nebula cloud, even a blur of the Milky Way.

Light the fire, watch the sparks and embers, hold the glass up to the glow and toast the new year in.