On Speen Moors, Part I
Just past sunset, on the trail of a locally made You Tube film tweeted 2 days earlier, I park the car somewhat irresponsibly off the A4. And walk down a footpath familiar to me 20 years ago, shouldering my binoculars. I am wrong footed, immediately. There are lights moving and winking through the trees and the sound of what I first took to be birds and water – is the roar of traffic. I am in the wrong place and find myself walking parallel with the bypass I fought to prevent two decades ago. My nerves are frayed and I feel a little undone. But I press on. I am on borrowed ‘murmuration’ time and the rest of the week’s forecast is grim.
The senses I rely upon for walking alone in dark places are compromised by the road. I step down onto the pale concrete track and think for a falling, dizzying moment it is the river. I feel like I might cry. But the possibility of seeing tens of thousands of starlings in an unprecedented display (for us, in modern times) is compelling. Yet the hour and season is late.
Abruptly, where there should be chalkstream, the path ends in a dark rectangle of stagnant water that glints like oil. I cannot make sense of it at first. I have been here before and remember when advanced engineering work left a great yawing chasm where I knew there should have been grass and my brain would not register it.
Bats loop thorough clouds of early season midges and water drips loudly in the gaps between traffic, making me jump. I am not ready to turn back yet. The underpass is flooded, but there is, as far as I can see, a concrete ledge. I make a leap in the dark and cling as best as I can to the smooth concrete walls towards the pale square on the other side.
The light has gone from the sky and there will not be starlings now.
But the landscape of Speen Moors is familiar and welcome. My memory sharpens with the first stars. I recognise the filigree shape of alders, a rickety bridge and the flint-coloured chalkstream I once rowed across in a borrowed coracle, using my hands as paddles. Just as I am about to turn back, I hear the high whistle of an otter.
Retracing my somewhat light and fearful steps, a roadsign high above my head and criss-crossed with branches, masquerades as a tree camp; a rattling plastic bag, a flag. And then my imagination is in overdrive. I think I see people in pointed helmets, trees like pikes, lowered and bristling at the road. I know full well the second Civil War Battle of Newbury was fought here. Fear breeds fancy.
But at the same time, this great sponge of a landscape takes up water and human memories so strongly, they may seem to play back over like mists; echoing flooded and reflooded, taken and re-taken ground. What business has this road to be here?
And then something stranger, but more tangible happens. I am hyper alert – to what I am not sure. Invisible threats, strangers, ghosts? My senses have heightened, wound up to maximum. I can see better now in the almost-dark. I can smell petrol; but above that, cherry laurel blossom from the old keepered woods, fox and brackish water. And
impossible but true, the evensong of birds is enhanced loudly, over all the road noise. Song and mistle thrush, dunnock, robin and a wren that
feels like it might burst my eardrums. It is beautiful, clear and powerfully felt.
When I spot my car roof, gleaming under the streetlamp, I feel raw, but stronger. Like Proserpina emerging from six months in the underworld into a warm spring evening, where the blackbirds sing at dusk.
Jan Fisher’s video of Speen Moor Starlings: https://youtu.be/5CWU8ICnRw0