On Speen Moor, Part II: The Library and the Starlings.
An hour before sunset, we walk to Speen Moors, stopping at the Ladywell. The ancient stone predates the Romans and covets a sacred spring. The path to it is damp and full of a chill, green, mysterious brightness the colour of duckweed and moss. Wild garlic leaves scent and lick the air. Ahead of us, one of two women jogging pauses to dip a hand into the water.
Speen Moor is an atmospheric fen or carr, full of peopled history and drama. Tonight, I have returned from a previous evening’s adventure to try again for a mass murmuration of starlings before spring advances further. Speen itself is older than the adjoining town of Newbury and is a restless place: 3 protestant martyrs were burnt nearby in 1556, Parliamentarians fought with Royalists here during the Civil War and an early welfare system for the rural poor was thrashed out here, in an attempt to assuage the Swing Riots lighting up the villages. And then, there was the bypass.
We walk past wet woods, double their depth in still, reflected flood water. Towering cumulous, pink and gilt-edged, sit like wet washing piled up in the tawny basket of the moor. Everything shines. The river is high, fast, milky with chalk and the flooded fields mirror a complex sky. There are otter tunnels in the grass.
The starlings start to appear. Purposefully, heading towards Round Hill and its battlefield like a stream of text running across a screen of sky: here is the news.
Like an afterthought, they return to form the shapes we’ve been waiting for. There are far less now, but they are mesmerising all the same. They make the shape of a swaying balloon tethered in high winds, stretch into flying saucers, scatter like poppy seeds, then fly back through themselves like an inverted stocking to twist into a double helix, a shirt thrown up in the air, a pair of pants, then a dark, beating heart.
I have seen them many evenings, like this, in much smaller numbers from Newbury Library, at closing time. The big windows of the building let in light and birds as, for me, do the books inside it. And all the myriad treasures and opportunities and forms of flight that buildings like this – and the people within them – hold. In times of revolution, they are places of greater safety. Somewhere to consider all thoughtful options. Places to build from. Wellsprings of knowledge.
I have associated starlings with books since my first library – and another chalk stream moor. Pangbourne was my ‘Anahorish’, my ‘place of clear water … where springs washed into the shiny grass’. I would clutch my borrowed books to my heart, listen to the starlings chatter their cryptic telecommunications from the aerials and go home via The Moors where more starlings beetled their iridescence across the meadows.
For a while, when dusk coincides with closing time at Newbury Library, the starlings fly up like letters escaping off the pages of books, reforming into new ideas before pouring themselves away for the night, to return by morning.
It is time to leave the moor. The first stars appear and the starlings make the shape of an upended, unhandled pot for themselves and pour from a great height like tea leaves into the marsh.
It is time to leave the library too. But I must write something before I go. The Librarian hands me some scrap paper. When I am done, folding it reveals some random printed words on the back; part of a game for a children’s Chatterbooks session. At this moment in time, they read like a particularly poignant poem. Words that might seed themselves in fertile ground, like bright, iridescent starlings: Boldly. Slowly. Happily. Silently.