At Coate Water.
At Coate, on the growing skirts of Swindon, the new housing estate laps against the remnant fabric of the farm where Richard Jefferies, nature writer, journalist, agriculturalist and naturalist was born in 1848.
The busy Marlborough Road slides past the old farm wall and its scattered outbuildings; yet by the time Jefferies was born, much of the surrounding farmland had already been flooded by the Wilts and Berks Canal Company. The reservoir of Coate Water was as known to him as the big sweep of Liddington Down beyond. Jefferies was just 38 when he died. Novelist and Historian, Walter Besant wrote of Jefferies writing “Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not.” An observation no less true today and poignant on many levels.
More rain and high winds are forecast. The old farmhouse at Coate, which houses the Richard Jefferies Museum is closed for the season, I know. But we make a pilgrimage anyway and I elicit a promise to return, late spring.
Gulls wheel over the big water that has lain above the drowned fields and stone circles for
almost 200 years. Rearing above it all like a calcified tsunami, is the concrete, Art Deco diving platform. Preserved, but after winter, mossy and birdslimed, it is beautiful: clean-lined and hopeful, leaping up with a between-wars exuberance. Swindon Corporation created the much-loved Coate Water Country Park in the 1920’s to provide leisure and sport for the city’s new railway workers and their families. The swimming stopped in 1958 after pollution and national health scares. 33ft high, utilitarian but elegantly cantilevered, the diving board remains a memorial to hope, Polio and public spiritedness.
We walk to the wilder lagoon and the M4’s white noise. Everyone here speaks or nods a friendly greeting. Generations of community togetherness and shared fun ghost infectiously off the water. Someone having an earnest conversation about Swindon’s libraries, stops me in my tracks. Like our neighbouring council, brutal cuts look likely to close all but one of their 15 libraries. It strikes me that place, community and the protection, buffer and support that engenders isn’t valued; only money is. They are burning books, and all that represents.
Then, suddenly, there are birds. We find the heronry. Improbably huge nests sway in tall
island trees and great blue-grey and white birds hunch like Dickens’ characters, cloaking yellow dagger bills. Their long black, white and spotted breast and crest feathers lift in the wind like cravats, or tassels on a mortarboard. These strangely beautiful birds, redolent of pterodactyls, are incongruous as storks at the twiggy tops of the trees. They ride ancestral nests, old as the water. Minding their rolling eggs, humped against the rising wind, they must lift the great oars of their wings into ‘m’s’ for balance.
I take my nephew down to the (closed) bird hide, but there are birdfeeders, and so confiding birds: I give him my binoculars and engineer it so he picks out a great spotted woodpecker himself. Galvanised by his success, he spots the mouselike movement of a treecreeper and then a goldcrest that comes so close we can see not just its fire-trail Mohican, but its dipped-in-paint, pale yellow feet. The wind gusts. A kite whinnies and trees squeal. A party of siskins and brow-kissed redpolls tease the seeds out of the intricate filigree of alder cones against the sky.
Aside from family and friends, everything we hold most dear is threatened: closed down, cut off, endangered, gone. The cloud lours. A deep depression precedes another. We console ourselves with the birds that remain, busying themselves with spring that is surely coming, if only in day length. We milk catkins, relaxing into lambstails, for the gold dust on our fingers. And walk back to the kiosk for a cone of chips.