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.

Skylarks 15 March 2017

(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.

Not normal

To get to the end of the land, first turn away from the quiet village street and towards the sea. The path threads around the edges of potato fields; the flowers are only just opening, and it’s mostly a sea of green, with swallows diving to and fro on a still July afternoon. Overhead a marsh harrier is being chased away by numerous smaller birds – a first clue to what lies beyond.

Where the fields end, a snaking bank of earth marks a physical and psychological boundary. From the top of the bank, a glance in one direction across the quiet fields takes in a few rooftops, back gardens, a tree here and there. Distant noises from farm machinery and the occasional car passing through the village. But look in the other direction and the Normal vanishes. Miles of open marshland stretching out to the Wash. Three counties – and no people. Barely any sign that people even exist.

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The marshes are a pattern of browns and greens, crisscrossed with tracks, patterned with clumps of bright flowers and shiny glimpses of water. Half a dozen marsh harriers hunt – this alone would be enough to delight, but here in this special place it’s truly wonderful; a kestrel is also working hard, diving again and again without success. And thousands of seabirds and waders are at the edge of my vision, too far away to hear, some rising in clouds and wheeling about over the distant shallows.

There are people here sometimes, of course. There are some boats moving out in the water, and others at anchor – and some rusted hulks just offshore, plastered in fluorescent orange signs and banners. These are part of an airforce training area. Sometimes jets roar in low and practice bombing these waterborne targets, and other splashes of orange on a marked-off area of the marshes nearby. Human activity then, but the hulks and targets, a control tower and a narrow paved road heading towards the range, are also Other. They suggest Danger. Secrets. A sign by the road, fixed with rusting bolts to its posts, declares that “No person shall dig, trawl, dredge or search for any projectile or any lead or other material in or on the Danger Area, or take or retain or be in possession of any projectile or any lead or other metal found within the Danger Area.” A butterfly rests in the corner.

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Also on the Other side of the bank is a thin black tower that turns its back firmly on the Normal and has a large window that overlooks the marshes. An observation post of some kind. No-one around to ask, and no sign on the building to inform.

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Out in the Wash sits the Outer Trial Bank – the most eerie, wonderful, strange object. You can find out more online about this artificial island, the remains of a failed 1970s project to conserve water, and find out about the seabirds that now breed there; but imagine, too, what the inner crater could also hold. Surely this is a setting for any number of nightmare tales. Abandonment. Secrets. Bad Things. If one were inclined to write stories about such things, that is.

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Double notch

Mid-July and the wheat is swaying, rustling, ripening. I am on a train travelling through fields that are approaching harvest time. But the track lines left in them by machinery show that the gold is only on the surface at this stage. Everything seems to be a little late this year. I love the way these cuts through the crop display the green beneath, and if you look at where they meet the horizon, there’s a double notch in the sweep. Slice, slice.

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