Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
December 14th, 2005
It's been almost 2 weeks since I posted my last entry - partly because of daily domestic hassle and partly because I think I cracked a rib while pulling up fence posts at a local nature reserve and it's still sore. So long a gap does me no good and today I set out, my head filled with mundane worries and stress. Once my boots were on and I set off though, it took me about 5 minutes to relax. My first sighting was the beautiful chestnut brown back of a kestrel as it rested on a telephone wire next to the road. I spent a few seconds looking at it through binoculars and feeling my heartbeat slowing.
As I started up the track, it became clear that the landscape had changed noticeably since my last walk. The browns were more prevalent on trees and bushes, the stark red rosehips were there, but there were very few sloes left. The colour and life was draining away. All the leaves on the bushes had gone now and the blackbird's nests were all clearly visible.
In mid November, when I started this diary, we were enjoying a late autumn and life was still buzzing. A month later, after some high winds and solid frosts, winter is deep and bleak. Now only the winter birds provide movement. The temperature has risen recently though (up to about 7 C), so the air is relatively warm and walking is comfortable.
Along the route, I noticed footprints other than mine, but no accompanying dog. Someone else has been along here in the last few days and they brought tools. Several of the larger brambles had been snipped back to clear the path, but only at the near section of the route. As I progressed further up, the footprints stopped and the brambles were untouched. Activity again as I headed back to the village along the bridleway - a tractor had been up and someone had been chainsawing fallen Elm saplings.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Having looked at a map of the area, I planned a longer walk that included part of the railway and then moves away at right angles. A public footpath crosses the disused railway track and heads west towards the river - about a four mile circular walk. The day was painfully clear and bright and a pair of Buzzards were elegantly traversing the fields and meadows looking for food. Their occasional high-pitched 'pee-oo' call carried for miles. I stood and watched one bird soar right over me. He was heading east but his progress was interrupted by a series of little eddying turns, left and right, as he looked and tried to retain height. Although the bird was several hundred feet up, the air was so clear that I could make out individual primary feathers each time he turned.
About half a mile after its crosses the railway, the landscape here changes in character. The soil near home is heavy clay and supports a distinctive landscape. Nearer the river the soils are alluvial and well-drained because underlying the soil are deposits of sand and gravel, laid down after the last ice age. Only a few miles from here mammoth tusks have been unearthed by the gravel extraction companies.
For the past four or five years, the contractors have been working the gravel pit that is closest to us. They now appear to have finished and the large hole has been filled with water. A number of tiny islands have been created and they poke through the water at irregular intervals. Any pioneering vegetation is sparse and the only birds visible were a few disconsolate gulls. I look forward to coming out to this place regularly over the next few years to see how nature fully reclaims this new habitat.
At the point the path crosses the river is an old water mill that is now simply a (rather beautiful) private house. The mill stream still runs fast past the side of the existing building but the footpath follows the route of a looping meander in the river course, now dry. The course of the meander is clearly marked by large pollarded willows that still line an imaginary bank. Local records show that a mill has existed on this site since 1279 and this one only stopped working in the early 1800s. I'm very much hoping to find kingfishers along this gorgeous stretch of river next year....keep reading!
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Friday, November 25, 2005
The last week of ice and cold has brought us into full winter with a jolt. October was warm - my kids swum in the English channel in late October. Animals and plants were active much later than normal. In some parts of
The plants beside the railway donated much to me en route. Burrs - the hooked seed cases of the Burdock gripped my fleece tenaciously. Many other sticky grass seeds also clung to me as I passed. I did my duty and dispersed their genes a mile further along as a picked them off and flung them into the hedge. In return, early in the walk, a bramble managed to snag the dangling cord on my camera and slip it out of my pocket as gently and quietly as a pickpocket. I had to backtrack half a mile to find it hanging forlornly by the track.
Walking the track today, I made an effort to be fully observant. This meant treading lightly and using my ears and eyes to their fullest extent. My natural tendency is to focus on particular things when I walk - my own footsteps, the view, perhaps those birds at eye-level. So, it took a conscious effort to use my peripheral vision to see the smallest movements, and to use my ears to hear all the small sounds around me. Only when you really move your head, can you appreciate the vertically-layered world that the birds move in. I saw belligerent little wrens with insistent chirping alarm calls rarely straying more than a few feet from the ground. Angry, territorial blackbirds are difficult to miss but as I looked a little higher, a flash of peachy red plumage revealed an exotic male Bullfinch at the top of the elders. Higher still and I saw a flock of maybe 20 Redwings fly in and perch for a short time in the higher branches of an Ash tree. Up high in the clear blue sky, the occasional cruising gull, like a silent, streamlined jet.
A lot of the hedgerows around here are broken at intervals by dead Elm trees. These spring up from a living rootstock, but at a certain height or age, the Bark Beetle that carries Dutch Elm disease gets in, takes hold and the tree dies back again. Most of the mature Elms in this country were lost when Dutch Elm disease came first in the 60s and 70s. In many places, including this village, the landscape was changed forever. (For more info, click here.)
(Birds seen: Great Tit, Wren, Blackbird, Redwing, Black-headed gull (?), Bullfinch, Rook, Kestrel, Wood Pigeon).
Saturday, November 19, 2005
I was pacing along the front of the large redbrick warehouse building when something caught my eye - A small movement across the surface of the vast wall - a rash of dark flies were sunbathing in the morning light and they moved as one when my shadow fell across them. On closer inspection, I realised that they were blowflies just emerging from behind a triangular metal sign that clung by a couple of rusty nails to the red brick. The blowfly was given the wonderfully evocative name of Calliphora vomitoria by that master taxonomer Carl Linnaeus in 1758. As the name might suggest, it has the unappealing habit of feeding on carrion. The adults have an unerring ability to find a body within hours of death, so much so that pathologists are able to estimate with some accuracy the time of death. All they need to note is the ambient temperature, and the size and number of the maggots present (for more info, click here).
These flies, however, were not actively seeking corpses but merely preparing for hibernation. They were emerging from their communal bed like festival campers emerging from beneath their flysheets, the 'morning after the night before'. Ablutions were the priority with each fly delicately brushing their feet together (fore- and hind-) and then sweeping over their big compound eyes. The temperature during the night had dropped well below freezing point, so now they relied on the sun to raise the temperature of their cold blood and make their muscles work. As I moved away from them to head home, about twenty took to the wing briefly while the remainder were still emerging, stiff-legged and sleepy.
I awoke to a beautiful frost, so I ventured out with my son's very cheap digital camera to capture the essence of my chosen location.
Frost on the field next to the railway.
An old cattle trough, frozen.
Sunlight on frosty grass
The overgrown track
Old railway sheds
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
I live in a small and very rural village in the centre of England. I have recently started working from home, partly to be there for my children whilst my wife works full-time, and partly to escape the insanities of office life which I suffered for too many years.
About a quarter of a mile from my house is a disused railway line. I am told that until the 1960s it was fully-functioning and that a small station once stood just where the track crossed the main road through. The route of the railway is still there, a grassy path lined with brambles, burdocks and hawthorn and populated by a selection of small birds and mammals.
The old railway line was, until quite recently, a regular route for dog-walkers and Sunday afternoon strollers. In February 2001, Foot and Mouth disease struck this country and suddenly country walks were forbidden. The ban lasted through the summer of that year and gave nature just enough time to reclaim the railway sufficiently to discourage all but the most intrepid. Brambles crept across the path and hung loosely from overhanging blackthorn. Fewer now braved these prickly assaults and parts of the route became impassable surprisingly quickly.
Today was a perfect autumn day. The air was still and cold, the sunlight bright and clear. I decided to use an hour to walk up the railway path as far as I could. I spent much of my childhood with my nose in undergrowth, looking for bugs, and an appreciation of nature is cut deep into my soul. Modern, grown-up life seems to conspire against me satisfying that need as often as I should. So, as I stride out in the autumn sunshine, my eyes blinking against the low sun, I feel my heart open and peacefulness suffuse my mind.
At the entrance to the path is a large old oak tree, maybe two or three hundred years old. To the left, a derelict old red brick railway warehouse. I start up the grassy track. Steely sloes still cling to the dark blackthorn bushes and are in stark contrast to the vivid red fruit of the hawthorns. The blackbirds, woodpigeons crashed noisily through the hedges, wrens and finches skittered along more secretively.
The walk was therapy, it took about forty-five minutes punctuated by several long pauses, leaning over gates, breathing in the day. As I walked back to the warmth of my house, I committed myself to chronicle one year in the life of the disused railway, record what I see and how life changes week-by-week. It will do me good and I hope that someone else will appreciate it too. Watch this space.