Chalk Hills & Woodlarks
My son’s first cycle race recently, was up our 974ft Walbury Hill. More than 130 cyclists took on the time trial up our usually lonely down, powering up the incline between hill fort, scarp and its ‘moon field’ below. We were given sticks of coloured chalk to write competitors’ names on the road for support – but instead, we picked a nugget of the hill itself, from the old chalk pit and wrote his name with that.
On the way up, a peregrine falcon hunted partridge off the summit. On the way down, badger tracks (a hidden secret until harvest revealed them) gleamed like a confluence of silver streams through the stubble, where the animals beat the standing corn into paths.
The season turns.
Thistles have hardened into black, pufferfish pouts, whilst tiny tin foil suns are all that remains of others, the thistledown long blown away. The pom-poms of wild basil seedheads are still fragrant when walked on, or a sprig is picked for a pocket. The miniature, inverted urns of agrimony seeds stick in spaniels’ ears and, after a gallop up the holloway on the horse, burdock Velcro’s to the mare’s mane and my knees like tiny, hooked planets.
Riding home provides a slower conveyance past high hedges of seeds, nuts and berries. Among hips and haws are damson and bullace, strung with necklaces of bryony, nightshade and the little green cones of hops. Then, in a presentiment of rain to come, the curled brown and silver cigarillos of whitebeam leaves roll down the road behind us. The dry, ticketty sound chasing autumn on at our heels.
The following day, the hill is lost in low cloud and columns of steam. On the way to work, I think I see my first redwing where my first swallow came in, though from different points of the compass.
Clear skies follow rain with a china-blue fragility. More birds are moving through. A whinchat grips the wire. Its long claws overlap, mimicking the barley twist of the barbs it sits between. Wheatear bounce over anthill tumps, white bottoms visible as a bullfinch’s. The country vernacular, ‘whitearse’ (sweetened to a Victorian ‘wheatear’) comes back to haunt me when I smile about it later: walking down the chalk track, treacherous after rain, I slip and land on my bottom.
Crossing the stubble, an arresting song tumbles from the sky. Something in me stirs like an old memory before I recognise it, or its source. The first few notes are like a nightingale’s – and then the cadence, lilting slow and quickening downwards, falls into place: a woodlark! Two! Lullula arborea are rare enough, particularly over stubble or plough fields as they are here. The pair sing into sight with undulating, fluttering flight. Then three more birds materialise. Their song has a lyrical musicality; the loveliest, saddest alleluia; a lullaby in a minor key with several key changes. It is beautiful. Lovelier, I think, than skylarks. For now, it seems like even they have stopped to listen.