Category Archives: landscape

The isolation of deserted villages and red kites

On a weekend in March before these lockdown days, I went walking high on the Sussex hills in search of loneliness. I would have no chance again for months.

The South Downs escarpment above Fulking running east to the Devil’s Dyke has the grandeur of mountains. The chalk buckles into steep glacial vales. When the wind blows (always it seems) it cuts cold and sharp straight over the north edge. There is no protection.

I’d come for solitude twice over. Right up here in the keening wind,  just a little south of the ridge, off the track and along a scattered line of gorse, there are remains of a deserted medieval hamlet. The folding land creates a shallow coombe but it’s hard to imagine why anyone might choose to make a living in such a location, so far above other settlements snug in the down’s foot-slopes. Perching (Perchinges in Domesday) was once a small but thriving community though, with a well and a mill, toughing it out in downland traditions.

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Site and remains of Perching medieval village, looking north. (Image: Geograph, Simon Carey)

Perhaps this hardship finally made life up here impossible. Or perhaps, like many of England’s 3000 or so ‘lost’ villages, it was left suddenly to the wind when the Great Plague devastated the population in the fourteenth century. The pandemic of an age; a pancosmic pestilence from God for our great ills. For what might God scourge us now?

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Perching in Domesday Book (1086). The spelling here implies Old English -ingas suffix, meaning ‘descendants or people of’ a particular person. (Image: Open Domesday.)

Back on the escarpment I turned at the right moment to see a lone red kite alongside me soar over the precipice. They are the most exhilarating creatures of freedom, managing economy with such supreme ease, forked tails figuring the air like compass points. I thought of how often and for how long we’ve envied birds this. In the indoor weeks to follow, I thought of kites, knowing intensely the ‘clay that clutches my each step to the ankle’ while the kite ‘Effortlessly at height hangs … steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’ (Ted Hughes, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’).

A mercurial flock of knot

It flashed across the marsh, once and momentary—a lighthouse beacon, the sudden flare of sunlight on angled glass, like accidental morse code. We waited in silence, sure we’d seen something, though doubtful enough to put it down to ghostly illusion. A trick of the light.

There! Again. A brilliant whiteness materialised instantly from itself. It swelled and diminished all at once, pulsed itself along the horizon, a good two miles from where we stood on the sea wall with the North Sea to our backs. This was no ghost, but miracle nonetheless: a mercurial flock of knot, one thousand strong, joined by dunlin and grey plover, spiralling, dilating, compressing, flexing, pouring down and through the estuary.

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Knot massing on the shingle. Image: Tom Mason/Daily Mail.

Knots are not the only birds that fly in this mesmerising, synchronised fashion. Starlings are best known for this phenomenon known as a murmuration. That species can gather in millions, filling the sky with borealis transformations. But, for my money, knot are the most spectacular. You don’t get starling numbers, but they add to those virtuoso shifts in shape and size a constant change in colour. The flock appears suddenly, as though from an icy fracture in the winter sky, so intensely white it blazes even against bright, clear morning, but then all those bodies and wings turn as one and they are suddenly silver, then as suddenly again, black, and back through to white, until there is an exact angle when a precise shade in the wintry spectrum somehow dissolves the flock entirely, and you lose them.

Observing knot like this is an exercise in metaphor. Your mind races for comparison, a way to conceptualise what you see: smoke, blizzard, writhing eel, multiplying cells, double helix, bait ball—the centre generating outwards while consuming itself inwards with predator rapacity. To witness this spectacle of disintegrating wholeness is to perceive the world newly and to know it more marvellous.

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The Essex marshes at dawn, two hours before the knot spectacle occurred.

A robin in the hand: the astonishment of small moments

This morning, five days after the solstice, the year tipping into the next and turning to light and length, we went out. Two days of indoors indulgence made us keen for outdoor winter solemnity–for the plash of drenched paths and water-logged fields; for the sting of rain and the bite of wind to invigorate indolent, fireside senses. In the event, the rain ceased. We went out to still winter blue and clear air.

Woods Mill is a small Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve near Steyning. This morning its woodlands and meadows were sodden and deep with dark, drenched earth. Its waterways were true winter burns, saturated and flowing fast. We embraced the wet and the mud, and my daughter sought the best puddles in new wellies, a bright red waterproof suit, and a novelty pair of binoculars.

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My daughter is old enough now–just shy of two years–to take attentive, independent interest in the natural world. We have always encouraged a connection whenever and wherever we can, but now there is added joy in her personal discovery. She knows an impressive number of species’ names, and currently delights in showing us each morning the ‘incy wincy’ spider who inhabits a cobwebbed corner, or the hibernating ladybird who suddenly appeared on our living room lampshade.

In one dell we paused to fuel her energy and enthusiasm with squares of chocolate. Crumbs of hazelnuts fell on the boardwalk as I snapped the slab into pieces. Immediately a robin came beneath our feet, deftly and briskly picking at every tiny morsel, nimbly withdrawing to a fence post just feet away. We crumbled more to entice it back and instantly it came, closer, closer. I held out my hand. Cautiously, then boldly, it flew to my palm, snatched what it could, went back to its post. We repeated the routine, and again and again it came and came.

Islay knows the ‘robin bird’. We often listen to one singing at the top of a bare sycamore at the end of our tiny garden. But this was an astonishing new moment for her–sudden, unexpected–that brought a wild creature right into her little, growing sphere.

In the end, the encounter may have meant more to me than to Islay, but I knew it meant so much because of her. She will not remember, but perhaps it has changed her world nonetheless–a small but remarkable moment shaping her perceptions. I felt fully and newly this morning the thrill of a parent who knows how vital are such moments spent with and in the natural world.

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We left the robin feeding, joined by another. With its back to me, the soft browns of its plumage were near indistinguishable from the dull wood and bramble and sedge of its surroundings. When it flicked round to face me, its breast blazed–sudden, unexpected–in the sullen landscape, the colour of low winter sun or the smouldering embers that accompany our dark nights indoors.

The winter stare of a short-eared owl

I’d never have found them two minutes later. I watched them, a pair, drop to ground after twenty minutes working the field and hedgerows and there achieve an instant metamorphosis—bird become sullen vegetation. Fixed on the spot where they went down, I located them only by their intensely yellow irises, stark and astonishing against indistinguishable feather-scrub, like a night creature’s eerily luminous eyes in singular darkness.

Photo: W.dog.net

Short-eared owls are always a remarkable and special winter sight. They breed in northern and Scottish uplands, but their numbers are swelled from autumn onwards when continental birds disperse to new territories across the rest of more southerly Britain. Some years bring so many birds that every likely patch of land for hunting seems to have a resident pair (one year the small common just across from my in-laws, right on the edge of a busy town, had a pair that hunted each evening right among the regular dog-walkers).

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

The owls’ seasonal appearance makes them particularly associative of shortening, colder days. Their cryptic plumage is somehow the stuff of winter itself: matched to the subtleties and gradations of arctic tundra. It is the drab beauty of earth and grass intricacy; winter browns of loam and thorn, sedge, stubble and reed. It’s those facial markings, too, which conjure for me the year’s darkening nights—that black smudging mask framing the eyes has something of a Gothic, All Hallows spectre, a ghoulish stare that is unyielding and severe as winter itself.

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Mist coming in over the owl field. Beeding Brooks, Sussex, 27th December 2018

That evening mist came in quickly as the sun set. It seemed to generate and rise from the earth itself, as though the field steamed with optimistic warmth. The cows became monoliths, their dark, head-down bulks forming a stone henge. To the south-east where St Peter’s church stands on a knoll, I could hear the jackdaws’ nightly Tenebrae in the tall stands of beech tree either side of the rectory. The birds continued to drift across from the west, their black forms like bonfire fragments in the red sky. Periodically and suddenly, the growing roost broke to an explosive cackling as thousands of jackdaws took flight before settling again minutes later.

By contrast, the owls hunted on in complete silence, easy and elegant on long, languid wings. The mist in the last minutes of light had consumed the whole field and the owls’ ghostly figures dissolved into whiteness.

 

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Finding the fieldfare

When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.

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Fieldfare in snow. Image: RSPB (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/f/fieldfare/).

This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.

The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).

I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.

Mysteries of the marsh

Marshes, levels, fens, bogs, mires, wetlands – these places, and the countless names for them, have long registered their eldritch presence in this island’s imagination. They are there in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf – the looming morhopu [marshpool] from which Grendel, that mánscaða [evil being], lopes to seize his wretched human victims. They open Dickens’ Great Expectations, the first indelible landscape in child Pip’s ‘first most vivid and broad impression of things’:

the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and …   the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and … the distant savage lair from     which the wind was rushing, was the sea.

Pip’s ‘savage lair’ has something of Grendel about it. Intriguingly, recent historical interpretation of the epic has attempted to site the action in north Kent, in the territories where the early stages of Dickens’ novel is set and where I most enjoy birdwatching in the county. The Isle of Sheppey in winter still maintains a sense of wild down by the Swale estuary. The 11th-century name for Harty was Heorot (exactly the name of Hrothgar’s mead-hall in the poem) and the region itself was recorded as Schrawynghop in 1240, an Old English term, supposed to mean something like ‘marshland of malign creatures’. I cannot find anything convincingly academic on all this, but it’s an appealing notion.

At the end of October my partner and I spent time on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex. It’s become a favourite haunt – out east beyond the London fringe, the strain of M25 traffic, the crush of industry and towns with bad reps, out towards the flat miles and North Sea – where I meet a friend twice a year for a day’s walk round Old Hall Marshes. I wanted more time here, and booked a cottage nearby for a week. These days felt like ceremony or rite out on the coast, with the year finally turning bonfire colours, Ginny’s birthday, and the brent geese in from Artic colds. We went to embrace the solstice.

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Looking across to West Mersea

Seen from above or on a map, the estuary’s mazing channels, more complex here than anywhere along the Essex coast, appear like the brain’s lobal crevices, or a nutmeg cut open to reveal its woody fissures. The saltmarsh shares these intricacies, secrets. Its bewildering waterways belong to the birds and seals.

It is surely this foreignness of marshland that makes it most alluring. Either side of the seawall at Old Hall, the land at times can feel thrillingly treacherous: dense, shifting reedbeds on one side, and thick, clutching mudflats on the other. Although managed and shaped by humans for centuries, these spaces still retain a sense of the un-human and impenetrable, and can still be reclaimed by unpredictable tides, as they were in 1953. The birds match the mystery of their lands. Bearded tits are most often unseen in the depths of their close, vertical world, and the bittern is so accustomed and coloured to this environment, imitates its home so well, it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks.

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From the other side of the seawall, curlews and redshanks call in darkness. I fancy their songs sound desolate. They are not. But they are of the saltmarsh entirely, estuarine substance, coming to me along double-hidden creeks – out of view and under dark.

Landmarks in Islay

From where I am resting on the sofa with my broken leg propped up, to the north I can see the whole of Laggan Bay curving away up Loch Indaal towards the Point. I have the view in miniature laid out below me in intricate OS detail, and I  can check off the landmarks by looking up and craning over the window sills: the Kintra River flowing out into sand and sea; the Machrie just a little further north; Knockangle Point; then at the far end, Laggan River, substantially larger than the other two burns. To the south, behind me, is The Oa where, I’m told, there are choughs and golden eagles. Sitting here just moments ago, watching a buzzard along the conifer tree line a short distance behind the cottage, a superb silver male hen harrier angled past, not twenty feet from the doors.

What the map cannot convey is the sound map of wave, bird and wind – the elementals that give vitality to what I can see, in the full sense of that Latinate noun: both necessary and indispensable, and literally with life, with being. Oystercatchers burst and then settle on the rocks (even they are named – Rhuba Glas) immediately north-west from the windows – piebald flurries that patrol the shoreline continuously. Even at night I hear them. There are always flotillas of eider close into shore, males shabby and patchy now they are in their dark eclipse plumage, ducklings closely attended by their mothers in the rough surf. As is typical in these isles, weather fronts come and go quickly – rain and blue-black clouds hurtling across the bay, and then sun five minutes later.

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I have had it in mind to get onto the dunes this afternoon, but my leg is preventing me from my usual exploratory holiday forays. Even short excursions are tiring. I may try stumping up to the Kintra outflow and look for brown trout. I’ve started reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, bought months ago but whimsically saved for a suitably inspiring environment. The chapters are built around nine glossaries of dialect words from all over the British Isles denoting phenomena of the natural world, particularly physical, topographical features. What is most exhilarating and striking about these terms, and what seems to bind them as a collective, is their great specificity; ‘finely particular phenomenon’ as Macfarlane puts it himself. I have been searching the categories to illuminate and more precisely express my view from where I write. How much more vivid and shared the world becomes when you have words like these at hand, inaccessible and absent to most in the modern world because they are the local, imaginative inventions of the ordinary, unacknowledged man and woman giving voice to the finest of observations relating to their lives working on and with the land, now and in centuries past, named and spoken  in their land-rooted, down-to-earth vernaculars. Part of what Macfarlane laments and aims to recover is the loss of such rich testament to to our earth-belonging and -being: as we lose so much of the natural world to intensive agriculture and urban developments, so we lose these languages, for if the land is not there, or not there to be wondered at, at least, what purposes do such words serve beyond eulogy?

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This view does not ignore or dismiss the fact that landscapes have always been affected and managed by human civilisations. The ‘scape is not a geological or ecological entity, is not untouched or ‘wild’ (an explosive word in today’s conservation scene, particular since the rise of the ‘rewilding’ concept) as it might be imagined in some idyllic, Arcadian vision. The term itself tells us this: in the sense that we popularly refer to the word today, associated with the artistic or picturesque, landscape comes from Dutch landschap, a term deriving from late 16th century Dutch painters. But the preceding and cognate Old English word landscipe (Middle English landschippe) also carries the meaning of land that has been ‘shaped’ or constructed.

The view does, however, argue that such places can easily be dismissed as redundant, as terra nullis, to borrow another of Macfarlane’s phrases, as blank spaces that must be filled somehow with something ‘useful’. Governmental policy refers to ‘natural capital’, a thoroughly prosaic term that is acutely at odds with the rich and nuanced language in Macfarlane’s glossary. This, surely, is where the grievous losses are now – the land uses which pay little or no heed to biodiversity; to the role of place for species other than the human; to the possibilities of all-species engagement with environments that creates sensitive and crucial relationships of the sort that allows the human species (as just one) to know land so intimately – through belonging, loving and observing as much as harvesting and controlling – that it is possible for one to witness the most intricate and particular of objects and occurrences and name them. The feadan (small stream running from a moor or loch); the bàrr fhàd (topmost layer of peat cut); the raon (wide flat area of moorland); the af’ rug (reflex of a wave after it has struck shore); the bretsh (breaking of waves on a rocky shore); the baa (sea rock as may be seen at low tide); the faoilinn  (strand between a shingle beach and a loch) – to offer a few Gaelic examples that relate to my window experiences here on Islay. And my favourite, for its extended precision which seems comical for such a brief word: èit (practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and, therefore, attract salmon in late summer and autumn!) These are terms that do far more than locate or possess. They speak of intimate and enduring relationships and affairs with the land – local and exact, knowledgeable and meaningful.