Nature Notes

Mercurial, argent: winter chalkstream.

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Below the high chalk of the North Wessex Downs, rainwater that has percolated through the porous substrate, flows at a near-constant 10C into benign, gin-clear chalkstreams.

For otters in winter, this is a good thing. And there is potentially a better chance of spotting these elusive, mercurial creatures now: with their super-fast metabolism and evolutionary niche of heat-sapping, riverine living, they must spend much of their time hunting.

I have come down to the river having abandoned a search for hawfinches, somewhat perversely swopping one, hard-to-spot creature for an even harder one. Possibly. But perhaps not this year, when it seems hawfinches are everywhere I am not. I have been haunting churchyard yews, beech hangars and wild cherry holloways, but each time, something has called me away, or the weather has been wrong, the light, lost. I have a creeping, vague feeling I haven’t earned them yet.

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Otters are regularly (and irregularly) seen on the Rivers Kennet and Dun that flow through Hungerford. Much of the river is private, but Freeman’s Marsh is just that: a quiet, oozy gem, a free marsh. I should know better than to go out with the aim of seeing a particular creature, because this is when you’re least likely to see them and are in danger of being blinkered to other wonders.

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In an hour I glimpse a water vole buoyantly ferrying a width before vanishing and siskins, redpolls and goldfinches in the alder carr: a jewel-box lattice work of birds. Three times, the small, sodium-orange and teal comet of a kingfisher burns past.
Not so long ago I dreamt every night about otters and thought I saw them in unlikely places. Writing a natural history of them for the RSPB, I felt, for months, as if I had an otter curled up wetly in my brain like a strange hat, leaking river water out over my eyelashes.

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The last otter I saw crunched crayfish on the parapet of the road bridge into town at dusk. It disappeared, pouring itself into water and becoming it, before resurfacing under the feathery skirts of a sleep-floating moorhen. Like a practical joke.

The low sun gilds the marsh and lights the river. A grey wagtail bobs on a raft of water crowfoot, its yellow belly a blob of butter reflected in a river, argent and syrupy.
Then the world turns abruptly graphite; pencil drawn. There is the unexpected hiss as a brief snow shower passes. Its sound is startling, as if someone (or something) has swept by in a long coat. A high piping whistle pierces the babble and hiss. I peer hard at the water: the grainy shape of a flat, broad head floats, followed by the bump of a long rump and the hump of a thick tail, Loch Nessie style. Everything whispers otter, but does not shout it. A ripple twists and firms into fur, that melts into water and is sunk, gone downstream on a long-held breath.

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Photo: Ann-Marie Haggar

This article is a version of one that appeared in the Saturday Daily Telegraph, 20th January.

 

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Nature Notes

Song Thrush, Firebox.

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Away from everything, there is a profound quiet in these short, grey-white days that feels reflective and inward. The sun levers open the lid of a tin-coloured sky at dawn and dusk, to peer up at the underbelly of grey cloud before closing its eye.

A fox has been using the field shelter to lie up in. When I go out in the morning with the hay, I swing the lamp in the hope of seeing him – but just his strong scent lingers. I find chewed pheasant wings and a breastbone licked clean on the muck heap two evenings running. One of my Nan’s famous retorts comes back with a smile: ‘a fox can’t smell its own stink!’ This must be the warmest place to lie, if a smelly one. He passes the farmyard at a trot, barking three times as he goes, causing a covey of red-legged partridge to explode into flight as he passes and I hear, quite clearly, the harsh keer-rick of our native grey partridge among them. I drop my pitchfork with a clatter in my excitement to see them and they whirr away in an arc, over the barn roof and back to the wood’s edge. The fox continues on, calling every hundred metres or so for a vixen. I can map his progress through the almost-dark – round the corner of the wood, across the park and onto the stubble. Pheasants cough up their indignation as he goes, and late-settling blackbirds pink, pink their alarm and fury.

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The fire sulks in the woodburner and will not go. It has unreasonable nights like this without explanation. The wood is dry, seasoned ash we have cut ourselves and is covered in black ‘cramp balls’ or King Alfred’s cakes – a fungi that is a natural firelighter. All is quiet, velvet, atmospheric dark density in the firebox. It demands reverence and has the rustle of folds of jackdaw wings about it; a sooty, withholding, a coveting of unexpended energy. Each time I approach with a lit match, it huffs it out. The newspaper faggots will not light. There isn’t much wind, but it went last night on one match in seemingly identical weather. I open the front door to provide a draw: nothing. I wonder if there is a ghost in the chimney. Hours later the wind bellows a call down the stove pipe and it explodes into life as we go to bed.

In the morning a song thrush is singing repeated half-phrases, sentence by sentence as if learning his lines – loudly, exotically from the oak top. Its spotted cream breast visibly trembles with effort, bill thrown wide, a purl of condensation rising like a question mark on the air. Cyclists stop in the lane to marvel: what could that loud, loud bird be? It vibrates the ear drums. It samples a car alarm; some notes of a green woodpecker’s laugh.

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I feel a direct link with all those souls down the centuries that have lived and passed through this place, and all places in England, who have heard this astonishing proclamation from a tiny, bird voicebox on the greyest, shortest days and felt such joy, such relief, such reassurance and confirmation that life will begin again.

The robins take up the mantle and shift their soft, melancholy minor-key song up a notch, to sing the same song, but louder, in a jollier major-key.

And suddenly, singing the snowdrops and the winter aconites up and out, we have ourselves a dawn chorus.

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Nature Notes

An Epiphany.

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The night after Twelfth Night, we take down the tree and all the decorations. We do so with as much ceremony, nostalgia and silliness, as when it went up. There is a kind of ritual that the family have learnt, seized upon and added too – and there is an underlying reverence for Midwinter. A folk memory of bringing the green in and gentle lights in the dark.

I wrap the tree decorations with care: ones the children made when they were smaller, Nan’s last remaining antique glass bauble, a much-loved dog, ornaments brought home from Canada, long ago (a goose, a loon, a tiny beaver in a walnut shell). There is an Australian fairy wren, coloured glass birds and foxes, hedgehogs, deer and each year, the newest one Mum has given me. Each is imbued with significance, sentiment, memories of Christmases past – and wishes for future ones

These shortened days of muted, pearly, mistletoe-light are full of simpler, starker beauty. Magic, where you look for it. Misted, amber droplets hang from thorns of bramble arches like fairy lights; a wet yew stump gleams a rich, sinuous mahogany. In high winds, a flock of linnets returns across the white sky like a handful of salt grains thrown into a head wind.

Winter storms have brought big trees down: an ash, snapped like a pencil in frustration, a sweet chestnut split along its barley-twist seams and towering wild cherries: damson-coloured ribbons and curls of frilled bark hanging like torn rags. On the hill, the old dewpond is frozen and dappled with the morning’s brief snowfall. Lichens and moss brighten the woods with unexpected colour. On the lane, a field maple branch, encased entirely in lichen, had smashed onto the lane. The brittle, twiggy bones denuded of bark and cuffs of encrusted lichen had been moved to the side, leaving a pile of shocked, powdered Verdigris in the road, as if it had shattered off an elaborate candelabra.

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Some of the pine boughs, holly and ivy brought into the house three weeks ago go on the fire, sending sparks up the chimney, into the night. I take down the mistletoe with an old reverence, and hang it outside in the apple tree. I smear some of the berries, wedging sticky pearls into nooks.

Days later and I’m still missing the Christmas tree smell and those evenings where we give ourselves permission for the fire, the tree, family, a book to be everything; and enough.

My youngest daughter wakes from a bad dream. To dispel it, we fling open the windows. The night is starlit. We lean out the window to look up at Orion, hands up for a slow, nightly cartwheel over the slope of the downs. A fox barks three times, ow-ow-ow, at familiar constellations and she is comforted. Even in January’s bareness, there is still fire, love, comfort and wonder, lighting the dark. Of course there is.

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Nature Notes

A Raven in Snow.

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Our house is an island in the mud. Our plank drawbridge to the lane falls short.

And then, at last, it snows.

We wake to a white and would-be silent world, were it not for the wind ghosting eerily through the house in its unsettling northiness. We rush out to feed the animals.

A cock pheasant takes off, coughing up its alarm and flies straight into the barn roof, mistaking its snowy slope for the white sky (as I have mistaken its evening silhouette for the down, before). The pheasant hops onto the apex, shakes itself of embarrassment and snow and flies on, leaving an imprint of angel wings.

We walk down the foamy hedgerow, pushing a surf of small, twittering birds ahead of us: linnet, chaffinch, yellowhammer and goldfinch. The wind has blown snow through bitter holes left in the hedge by a savage hedgecutter and there are drifts. White-rumped bullfinches flit in warm cherry-damson and navy pairs and a flock of fieldfare and redwing come alive in the snow, in slate-grey, chestnut, black and white relief, the latter with the radiated hug of dying embers under their wings, as if they are carrying coals or, as if a thermal imaging camera is revealing the heat from a small, hot, beating heart, flooding against a snowy breast of feathers.

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What occurred in the wild, cold early hours is printed across these snowy white pages. The entrances to rat holes are thawed and those that are occupied, steam gently. Vole holes pock the banks. Fox tracks lie as neat, parallel seams, until they wobble, interweave and meet with a scuffle of snow in a foxy love-match. The snow has part-thawed and refrozen under sleety rain and we sledge down the Park pale, bailing out before hitting the barely frozen pool of melt water.

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And then we make the hill. The great curves, ditches and edges of the hillfort are smoothed and dramatized with deep snow and blue light. The snow creaks underfoot. The vale of uninterrupted meadow anthills bobble the landscape and, where the hoarfrost tops them, it furs the surface like a stole: the crystals like Yeti fur, like the pelt of an arctic fox. The snowfield glitters and we hold our breath with the spell of it.

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The north wind has blown Gallows Down to green, but on the leeward side are great shelves of snow. The track is churned white. Just a thin layer of turf and soil separate the whiteness of snow from the whiteness of an old-ocean’s depth of chalk beneath.

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From a tree below at Flying Leap, a raven apprehends us with loud, astonishing, un–birdlike calls. The wood stops to listen. There are guttural clucks and growls, a repeated ‘cloop, cloop, cloop’ like stones dropping down a well and a frog like ‘quark, quark’. Is he calling out co-ordinates, summoning a court, or delivering the weather report? He finishes on a metallic note; a hammer ringing off some ghostly forge. He bounces down the trees’ scales, showering snow, wings folded behind his back, head down, pacing a branch like a thoughtful speaker, broadcasting the news.

A squally wind whisks the trees into a short blizzard and the bird ends its oration chiming with the bells of St Michaels and All Angels in the village below.

In the gathering dusk, and wanting the light and warmth of the woodburner, we give in to the hill and slide down on our bottoms, graceless and giggling.

 

Nature Notes

Wild Writing.

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Three lovely women join me for a Wild Writing Workshop at BBOWT’s Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre. We discuss ‘the new nature writing’, its ancient roots and tradition; its resurgence and the reasons (and need) for it. And we try to define something that, in its wild essence, defies catagorisation. But we come up with some characteristics.

Nature writing is about connection and celebration and it’s about loss (personal and environmental) and that is nothing new. It’s about close observation, personal discovery and experience, wonder, awe and mystery. It has an open-minded attitude to what ‘wildness’ and ‘nature’ is and is literary, lyrical, intense and humble. It breaks open old ground, anew.

We work on making sensory connections with memory with the title ‘On Remembrance Day, I remember.’ We listen for redwings, search for parties of long-tailed tits, spooling out like bunting through the alder trees and identify the whoosh of a raven’s wings as it flies overhead, before we see it. We talk of ‘emotional weather’.

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Sunday, I seize a stolen hour at sunset with my middle daughter. Squeezing the last juice from the day, we ride out of the farmyard. Twenty minutes later, we are cantering down a tunnel of light: the beech wood is at the stillpoint when its lacquered, toffee-penny leaves are as much on the trees as they are lying thickly on the earth. The wide holloway is illuminated by the low sun and the leaves glow from underneath, around and over us. Our chestnut horses are incandescent, their hooves drumming up a muffled, military beat.

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It is cold, but I can feel the warmth rising from the horse into my own body. I know at that moment, I could ask anything of her. I imagine a battlefield between her pricked, willing ears, haloed by the sunset, and think of those war horses – and the men that had to ride them in.

A woodcock jinks down the lane ahead of us. The sun goes and we trot home in the near-dark, her shoes sparking off the metalled lane.

And in the moment, when I feel utterly free, I realise that writing is an act of freedom in itself: an act of wildness. And what I remember then are two quotes. The first from the old canon of nature writing (Richard Jefferies, 1883) and the second perhaps from the new (Seamus Heaney, 2010):

‘It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine.’

Then:

‘I had my existence. I was there. Me in place and the place in me.’

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Nature Notes

Earthstars and Peacocks.

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The belt of trees between the down and the arable field is protected from both the hedgecutter and spray drift by a wide, conservation strip. The grass is long and pale, full of spiders, beetles, bugs, moths, butterfly eggs, mice and voles and – as I walk its length – about a dozen brown hares, their fur soaked with dew. The belt is a thin wood – or a wide hedgerow, whichever way you look at it – and full of fruit. There are sloes, hips and haws, the dripping rubies of guelder rose, dogberries like small blackcurrants, wild privet berries and crab apples. Black buckthorn berries cluster like tiny bunches of grapes along the branches. A field maple is thickly encrusted with lichen the exact same butter-sunshine colour its leaves have turned. Only a closer inspection reveals that both are giving it this vivid colour.

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In the scrub on the down, gorse, wild privet and box create warm, waterproof hollows and dens for all sorts of wildlife. A muntjac bombs away, a fox burns away, looking back at me between narrow shoulder blades. Its brush, a little thin at the base, seems to linger while the animal has already gone – the white tip following on like a cigarette in the dark as the fiery chestnut stole is snatched away like a jealous afterthought, as if I were after it. A peacock emerges then, from the cover of this wild, remote place. I am not as surprised as I might be. A small population survives here after being dumped, years ago.

It walks in self-conscious grace, with a slightly embarrassed air in these wild surroundings, its magnificent, though slightly battered tail trailing behind like a rich, torn, paisley gown slung over a shoulder. I feel I’ve interrupted the morning after last night’s ball.

Further along, I slip on the leaf-covered roots of a beech on the steep wooded down and land on my hands and knees. My thighs and wrists ring from the latent sting of old nettles. For a moment, I crawl because it is easier and, looking down, come face to face with seven earthstars.

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A rareish find, these fungi look like cups and saucers. The first layer opens and peels back like a wooden flower revealing a central globe. The pouting sphere puffs a smoke of dry, powdery spores when flicked: dead stars, burnt-out comets, still smoking from the fall. Yet some of the outer ‘petals’ have curled back in their second stage, raising the earthstar up on its own platform, in a gymnastic ‘bridge’ above the leaf litter. Very much alive, they look crab-like, as if they’d been sidling up the hill, and only froze when I found them.

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When the night comes, it is clear and cold at last. More redwing, fieldfare, golden plover and woodcock come in from the north, calling down and reorienting my compass. Even past Bonfire Night, there are peacock-bright fireworks, rockets and comets on the hill and laughter. And just along from the car park, into the true darkness, all manner of wilder wonders and mysteries.

Nature Notes

Red Ophelia, Part II.

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The days prior had been a kind of portent. Something in the wind. The weather got stranger, the clouds took on an unusual quality. The sepia air darkened. There were ‘rain gods’ walking the downs – those great, broad brushstrokes of cloudbursts that finger down from the sky, obliterating their portion of the view. Great summer-fat raindrops fell where there were no clouds above – and no summer; only a sort of uneasy, autumnal ochre haze – a ‘foxes wedding’.

At work, at school, a text from Mum: ‘Is it me? What’s happened to the sun?’ She’d been puzzling over a reflection from an industrial light in the canal – only it turned out to be the sun. The lights came on – and I went outside.

The atmosphere was weird and eclipse-like; except nobody had forecast this. The sun was an intense orangey-red ball, mostly too bright to look at, or marbled by cloud. It got darker still. People came out of school and their houses. The world looked like a sepia photograph – only one we were all living in. People rubbed their eyes, blinked at the strange miasma. Red kites went to roost and the rookery fell silent.

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Imaginations went wild in the secondary school: there was talk of a ‘blood moon’ a zombie apocalypse, the end of the world. It was exciting, fun – with a real frisson of fear and wonder. Before long, the wild imaginations were overtaken (and complimented by) the scientists, the seekers of facts, of truths, curiosity and explanations. This midday sunset, this dark-as-dusk day was caused by Storm Ophelia, whirling up Saharan sand, ash and wildfire debris from Spain, from Portugal, and scattering shortwave blue-violet light, leaving us peering murkily through a longwave filter of red and orange.

As the afternoon wore on, we didn’t get used to it. The strange gleam reflected off cars like the sodium lamps we don’t have, out here in the sticks. It felt hot on our cheeks, on the napes of our necks, over our shoulders – making us turn round to marvel at it again. The familiar, golden yellow shafts of light falling on furniture thorough windows, gone noon, were a hot, fiery colour; were all wrong. And, there was a smell, wasn’t there? Of sulphur? Or eggs? Or bonfires?

What was astonishing – and life-affirming – about the day the sun turned red, and the sky yellow, was how it affected us all. How we talked about it, feared it, wondered about it. It brought us together in curiosity and awe: we are more animal than we know, more connected and excited about nature and the wild world than we realise. And there is hope in that, like a shaft of light coming down between storm clouds.

Nature Notes

Presentiment of a Red Sun. Part I.

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The wood is under a sepia spell. Everything tinged, foxed and coloured like an old map of itself. Mid-October, yet warm enough for July. The late harvest moon was spectacular when it rose, coloured like a honeysuckle bloom off the horizon. The atmosphere in the wood is strange. Misty, steamy even. It is as if the brown dust of fungal spores, puffed from the pout of an earthstar, has permeated the air and tinted the light.

The deer paths are a narrow, thick impasto of cloven hoofprints: pairs of empty brackets in a sentence. In places, the ground has been pawed and churned into perfect beds for jays to place acorns in – and lose them. Between the stalls created by the branches of a fallen oak, there are flattened patches where the fallow deer have lain heavily, as if tethered in a row for milking. Here, the smell of ammonia is strong enough to prick the eyes, and mingles with fox musk and fungal spores.

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Above me on the steep slope and without warning (though I should have been more vigilant) a tree lurches up from the earth in rocking horse motion; branched, stag-headed like an old oak, holding its crown of thorny antlers high as a raised candelabra, wide apart enough to hold a piece of sky. The branches are festooned with pricked leaves and draped with grasses dried into pale tresses of hay. Pushing this impressive headdress skywards, the body of the animal rises, thick as the brown trunk of a tree, and pounds away powerfully on strong, sapling legs. The spirit of Herne the Hunter is alive and well. A fallow doe follows, coming up like a bolt from the earth, too; sun-dappled, though it is overcast and ochre-coloured, her mouth downturned, part-open, her great leaf ears swivelling, gathering all the prey-sound behind her.

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I slip on rolling acorns, but even then take care not to grab elder (it won’t hold) impale my hand on hawthorn or worse, risk a septic wound from blackthorn. A squirrel intent on insulating its drey berates my clumsiness, wheezing like a wet squeaky toy and punctuating its irritation with flicks of its question mark tail.

Feeding the horses at sunset, the sky appears aurora cold, blue and lemon. Yet it was hot when working. From the north, the sound, then sight of 13 redwings arriving over the barn roof. I turn, catching the wheelbarrow handle in my skirt pocket and send the lot, hay, apples and pasture mix spilling into my wellies and onto the yard.

Later, the faint, chalked star-belt of the milky-way looks like an animal track. I can still hear redwings coming in. A friend texts to say he heard the first fallow buck bellowing in the big wood hangar.

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A Writing Workshop, coming soon!

I’ll be exploring the sensory mnemonic and meaning of autumn in a Wild Writing Workshop for adults at the Nature Discovery Centre, Thatcham, for BBOWT. Saturday 11th November, 10am-4pm. More: bbowt.org.uk/events All welcome!

Nature Notes

The Wild Other.

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‘Between the laundry and fetching the kids from school,

that’s how birds enter my life’.

This quote from writer and poet Kathleen Jamie, orbits my more reflective, mindful moments. Especially when I find myself in, when I’d perhaps rather be out. It’s a wry reminder and a comfort that actually, this is how nature and the ‘wild other’ is in my life; on an ordinary, everyday basis and in myriad forms.

And so it goes: the week sometimes is a little series of vignettes – of conversations, or articles read, of observations, passionate protests or poems on Twitter – or a delightful doorstep conversation with the birder who delivered my shopping, and talked about Poole Harbour’s Ospreys. My phone pings with sightings from the hill: a peregrine hunting red-legged partridge or the arrival of short eared owls. Going down to do the horses, a sweet chestnut leaf comes bounding over the stubble like a stoat, mesmerising me for a moment; a wren whirs through the mouldboards of the red and green plough. There are scarlet hips against fresh-turned earth (and its evocative scent) where, just half a year since, there was a confetti waterfall of marshmallow-coloured dog roses. The piebald gulls are back.

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Late for work, I duck back under the apple tree for something forgotten and am waylaid by the amplified buzz of a queen hornet in the auditorium of a hollowed orange pippin.

On another morning walking the dog, a hare lollops right by, the big cog of its hindquarters barely engaged, so slow and close I can see its dew-soaked paws; its eye like a new pound coin.

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On a busy Sunday, an adder coiled in the workshop gives Will the farmer a shock. I break from what I’m doing for a glimpse and love the stories of our remnant population when it was stronger (and Will was tasked to hunt them with a forked stick and a sack) and I wish for that population back (but not the hunting) and tales of sloughed snakeskin under the Rayburn.

At night, a roe doe is illuminated like a garden centre statue in the headlamps of a wet October evening.

I make a cake for my entomologist daughter’s tenth birthday in the (taxonomically accurate) shape and colours of a scarlet tiger moth. It wouldn’t win Bake Off, but she recognises it and we are both delighted.

This is how the wild life enters my own: in all ways, all of the time. It is a presence and an awareness I cannot switch off, anymore than I could stop breathing, or seeing, or knowing, or feeling. It is inked in. I carry it with me like grass seeds on the soles of my boots, or when I arrive at work, with the morning’s found owl feather still in my hair.

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Nature Notes

A Common Playground.

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I did a lot of my growing up on Greenham Common. A place William Cobbett (farmer, journalist, champion of the rural poor) described in 1830 as ‘a villainous tract of rascally heath’; and Victor Bonham-Carter (farmer, author, publisher) as ‘a mighty wilderness … threaded by a single dust road’, seventy years later. Greenham was my wild playground. I knew it before the fences went up. I saw the nuclear bunkers being built and was there when 96 cruise missiles (+ 4 ‘spares’) were flown in by supersized Galaxy Starlifter planes. The haunting wail of the siren ‘test’ was part of school life – as was the pointlessness of the 4-minute warning, where we lived. School holidays were spent on horseback (often without a saddle) racing American soldiers in jeeps around the perimeter fence. There were guns. And all the while, the edifying force, gentleness and persistence of the Peace Women.

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Re-enactment of Peace Camp, Greenham War & Peace, 2017

Our wild places are also people places and it is hard to think that certain spots do not absorb human history, strong passions and lives and exhale it. A spirit of place, perhaps? Greenham Common exudes this in a shimmering haze, through every pore and each pop of a gorze pod. Every woodlark rising will be singing a song listened and attended to by people connected to extraordinary moments in time, in this place. A woodlark’s allelu-lu-luia becomes a hymn for this common ground, an individual weight of meaning we might all recognise and claim.

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Re-enactment, Greenham War & Peace 2017

Last weekend, in celebration of the Common being returned to its wildlife and people twenty years ago, a stirring community theatrical event was staged on the remaining runway of this former RAF and USAAF Airbase. Involving music, drama, dance, mass choirs, live painting, banner processions and re-enactors, it was a fitting, moving and emotional tribute to our Common – and what it meant for the eyes of the world to be turned upon it. The central character ‘Peggy’s’ narrative was my story too: and poet Steve Wallis’ muse in last year’s telling of Greenham’s story. For me, too, ‘Peggy’ is also the spirit of this paper’s first female journalist, aptly named Peggy Cruse. Peggy lived in my downland village and would have witnessed its closing off to the public when secret, earnest practices for D-Day took place up the big hill, shortly before Eisenhower delivered his famous speech, from Greenham below. Peggy was all of us. Greenham Common, its sunset-gravels, alder gulleys, heath & view of the downs, part of my narrative landscape. And Peggy’s story was shot through with birds and birdsong, too. This is where I come in spring to hear nightingales – and in summer, nightjars. A bird that, for me, pulsed out sultry lullabies on warm, crackling, heathland evenings and once upon a time, made the sound of a Geiger counter.

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