Nature Notes

Hill forts, islands & leavings.


When we booked our recent holiday, reading out the description instigated a family fit of giggles. Our holiday destination nestled below a 298m hill and its Iron Age hill fort. It was the gateway to a National Park under official dark night skies and a historic, bloody battle was fought on its slopes. Our house sits below a hill just 1m lower with its own impressive Iron Age hill fort. It is within the North Wessex Downs AONB (perhaps 1m down from a National Park?) under designated dark night skies. If you were stretching the comparison, practice for the Merville Battery assault during D-Day was enacted here, on the slopes, with real ammunition and bloody consequences, albeit later.

But of course: Northumberland was wilder, more remote, more rugged. The house was bigger, nicer and there was a brilliant chef (in the form of my lovely Father-in-law). And the dark night skies were infinitely darker.

We took the causeway out to Lindisfarne where the sea glittered like shook foil off  expansive white sands. There were eider ducks and flocks of knot and dunlin out on the spits and sand bars, and between the bottling, bobbing heads of hundreds of seals, an otter, porpoising.


We took Billy Shiel’s boat from Seahouses to Inner Farne on choppy seas under louring cloud. We were soon out among the birds: gannets forming huge yellow-and-white ‘W’s in spectacular dives and puffins whirring past like bright bees. The seabird colonies here are globally important and I inhaled the famous scent of guano from the ice-creamed cliffs and declared it a mix of wet sheep and otter poo, a subtle nuancy no-one else on the boat recognised.


It poured. On the island, puffins ran down turf burrows and razorbills with white ribbon bridles jostled with chocolate-brown guillemots. We spotted cormorant and shag nests and the blue enamel pears of guillemot eggs. On the boat home, soaked to our underwear, a pod of six dolphins broke the surface, rolling like the smooth submerged cogs of something working below the surface we couldn’t fathom.


On our last evening, we climbed Humbleton hill again, huddling in strong winds in the 17thC summit cairn and looked out to Scotland, the oxbow of the ottery River Till and Wooler Water below us, with views towards Yeavering Bell and its ancient herd of wild goats. Squared plantations and garrisoned woods darkened into ranks, bristling with pike-pines as we thought of the 800 Scots who died here fighting Hotspur in 1402.

The dark night sky darkened. There are stars in our hair and on the shoulder of the hill. The lights from a distant car sideswipe the hill like a searchlight, we shy away from it instinctively, fugitives from the light and the rest of the world.

The last bird I hear is a grey partridge calling me home and the ‘go back, go back’ cries of red grouse. We take an emotional leaving and pack off back to our own hill fort and its dark night skies. 1 metre lower and a whole country distant.





Nature Notes

Eastwards: the Cheviots in Spring.


Low, red-roofed Homildon Cottage forms the gatepost to Northumberland National Park and St Cuthbert’s Way all the way to Lindisfarne. It nestles below historic Humbleton Hill (the cottage keeps the older name) and its garden gives way to bilberry, heather and the unfurling fiddleheads of bracken. There are lapwings nesting beyond the back gate and curlew calling from the hill. All the luxurious lie-ins we’ve promised ourselves are irrelevant in an instant.

We are out first thing on the high, domed Cheviots, mountain biking, walking, birding. The dry stone walls are limed and whitened with lichen, punched through with oak and sycamore roots, haunted by wrens and redstart and threaded through with hunting stoats. The hills are alive with meadow pipits, skylarks, bright-billed oystercatchers, wheatear, whin and stonechat. And an evocative soundtrack to die for.


Red grouse display and call ‘like a duck falling downstairs’ according to my son, and follow with their famous, ventriloquistic ‘go back, go back’. But we won’t, not yet. Snipe ‘sing’ with the sound of someone sawing through wet wood and when one goes up drumming above me, my heart catches at the sound: atmospheric and all but lost at home. As this small, slender bird with a long bill flies, it makes silvery twists and dips, shouldering in to scoop the sound out of the very air, making it flow over right angled tail feathers that stick out like horizontal stabilisers on the tail of a plane. The sound is a thrumming, a wuthering, a kite on a string that swoops and rights itself before hitting the ground: a sound like someone furiously bowing a cello.

We are here at such an exciting time. The migratory spring birds are coming in off the East Coast, the numbers of willow warblers doubling daily, their song a lilting laugh. Harthope valley is full of golden gorse and its scent of coconut ice cream. We walk alongside the beautiful Carey Burn as it tumbles round rocks marked by otters. I scan warm shale slopes for ring ouzels and get left behind as I try to take it all in.


The boys bike over Hart Heugh and Broadstruthers for some exhilarating descents whilst my daughter goes for a wild swim with the dogs in a mountain pool below a waterfall. The rest of us are in fleeces. A dipper pipes back and forth over her head and a lizard skitters over golden saxifrage. And we are there the moment the sand martins return, all dusky brown and glittering as if the Saharan sand is still on their wings.

On the wide, white sands below impossibly romantic Bamburgh Castle, we gaze out to The Farne Islands and hatch plans among the incoming puffins.




Nature Notes

Cherry Dew.


The scent of cherry laurel in the keepered woods is a sensory mnemonic: it triggers a search. The bluebells are emerging where the canopy is native and open and, near the badger sett, I go looking for toothwort and find it. A ghostly wildflower that lacks chlorophyll and springs from tree roots, it resembles a teetering tower of piled teeth, built by a toothfairy.

Wild cherry rings the woods and a song thrush repeats its ‘cherry dew, cherry dew’ refrain. A wych elm leans out towards the light, the pale green rosettes of its papery seeds clustered like garlands along the branches. This is a time of confirmation; of waking up, breaking out and checking: I visit the same haunts, looking for different things; hoping that despite man’s best efforts to ruin and ignore the thing it relies on for life and imagination and sanity, spring will still deliver its promise and comfort.

A richly furred bee-fly checks its long needle-like proboscis into the tilted jars of the toothwort, monitoring the health of the season. One parasite feeds from another: a word that has such negative connotations, yet is part of the necessary interconnectedness and shared reliance of life on earth that we still struggle to appreciate.


There are reassuring firsts: swallows scissoring up the air in colours like a Breton top and the first lilting, laughing, descending notes of willow warblers. I search in vain for adders, but find a slow worm solar-powering up on a bank of violets, primroses and wild strawberries.


We tentatively search out badger setts and fox earths, appraising them for activity, good viewing and wind direction, keeping a distance around the fox earths, using binoculars to check for fresh scat and food remains. The vixen will move cubs without hesitation should she sense us. The Hever Wood badgers have heaped great mounds of fresh white chalk rubble from their tunnels, scraping deep grooves in earth that resembles porous bath enamel: almost impossible to get a spade into. The soil is thin, the sloping tunnel entrances worn smooth as luges.


In the middle of the afternoon, across the deepest of the hidden combes, a vixen basks on the sunny hillside. She burns orange above a neat white ruff, swivels wide, black-tipped ears towards us, yawns and lies back on the grass. Her 7-week old cubs safe and no doubt sleeping in the earth nearby.

Later, writing the word ‘lapwing’ in my hut conjures them up: I hear the bubbling cry and spill my tea to look for them. I worry how vulnerable they are, nesting exposed on the open fields. The tractor and sprayer goes out again and I wonder if the driver will spot them, marked or not. My eyes are drawn habitually to the hill and the sheep scattered over it. The shepherd’s not moved them off the big down for the fifth spring in a row, as he should – meaning it will not, again, be golden with cowslips and their attendant insects.

I heard a new word this week. Solastalgia. A word coined with an interesting etymology, increasingly in use. It recognises an old, localised, previously unnamed phenomena, on the rise, experienced globally. It is a homesickness or grief for a familiar, loved landscape that has changed as we live in it: through clearances, enclosure, development, agribusiness, war, mining, climate change – the word has settled in my heart with a mixture of fear and confirmation.

We are stockchecking spring, with our hearts in our mouths, like we might stockcheck a Library before having to close it, despite its increasing relevance and our need of it. We are ever hopeful, yet fearful this might be the last time lapwings nest on this field or that one; that the hedgehog run over by the phone box, might be the last. That the adders have gone. That, for the first time in 1,000’s of unbroken years, a cuckoo will not return to this place and be recorded by someone; a shepherd’s nod, a villager’s smile, a child’s echo down the lanes to school, a housewife’s tweet.

Nature Notes

A Spring of Hares.


April weather and the season is on. Celandines that had pinched petals in tight pursed pouts, open to shine, glossy and reflective, back at the sun. In a week, balled fist-buds in a landmark sycamore give up the fight against winter and relax, opening palms of crumpled, damp-handkerchief leaves that tremble in new winds. The tree becomes a lime-green beacon among fellows yet to release their grip. I drive home daily into a storm of blackthorn blossom between chequerboard hedgerows, the white flowers-before-leaves of blackthorn interspersed with the green, edible, leaves-before-flowers of hawthorn.

In the woods, chiff chaffs chime like anarchic metronomes and at the badger sett, bedding has been pulled out backwards to air. On the field-edge, a hare bolts from my feet. Its flattened ears come up as it slows to a rocking-horse lope. And then it does something I’ve heard of, but never seen. It stands right up on its hind legs, balancing on tiptoe, like a meerkat. It is completely still, perfectly poised and, forepaws held down by its side, looks like a strange child. It stands over 3ft tall.


Later in the week, the same fields have been have been drilled with spring oats. From the top of the hill, they form a chain of creamy chalk squares, a tilth fine and pale as apple crumble; white fields that dazzle in the sun.

When I am on them again, I spot four pairs of long ears on the ridge: eight sundae spoons dipped in chocolate, rising, falling, swivelling in a language I’m not privy to. I creep closer. The four animals sit in a circle, facing in: a counsel, a trip of hares, a wisdom of ears.

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One stands up, dog-like, then arches its back like a cat; another leaps vertically, kicking like a bucking horse – and the race is on. They gallop along the ridge of crumbly white earth, the whole of the deep-shadowed down behind them. A fifth joins in, rising from the earth. They look magnificent, a sleek string of racing thoroughbreds; the engine house of their hindquarters powering them forward like a great cog, hindpaws overreaching front. The lead hare, the doe, rounds on them suddenly and the bucks jink away; the fourth leaping over the third. This jack tries his luck, sniffing round the jill. She half rears in warning. He backs off and another approaches. She leaps forward to cuff his whiskered face: he retaliates and the fur flies. They dance like boxers on their haunches, wildly paddling front paws, before making contact, claws like gloved knives, sending puffs of fur on the wind. Then they are down again, looking improbably tall, these ‘corn stags’ until, one by one, each lays their ears flat along their back and lies down, sinking into the earth as if nothing were ever there. I breathe out. A blackcap sings from the hedge.

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Nature Notes

An Apparition: Starlings & the Peregrine.


On a bright afternoon, we go birding in the Land Rover, not anticipating much. The last embers of redwing and fieldfare flocks glow – and babble like a stream through the trees. Near the dewpond, it becomes apparent there is a huge flock of birds, just over the ridge of the hill.

We pull up and get out. Below, and at eye level, is the biggest flock of starlings either of us have seen on these hills. They have formed a great feeding flock before dispersing and migrating north. Thousands of birds ripple in a black, lacy wave above the escarpment, 1,00ft up. They rise and fall as if someone were lifting and settling a bedsheet.

Lit by the evening sun, the view below is breathtaking. We are higher than the kites chasing and tumbling in pair bonding displays. The starlings feed on worms and invertebrates, among the sheep dung. They are spotted with petrol iridescence; their plumage dotted with wet scales from a rainbow. The feeding flock twitters and warbles with a sonic mix of radio, internet chatter and static. When they lift and come over us like a great net, with a perfectly positioned and choreographed flap-and glide of thousands, it is with the sound of the sea.

Something changes.

The flock drifts eastwards, but a spectral ball breaks away, rises in front of us and hovers: a dense orb of birds. A black eye that obscures part of the valley below like a migraine absence on the retina, that shifts unnervingly like a mote in the eye. In this most atmospheric of places, it is a powerful image; eerie, disconcerting and utterly thrilling.

The flock feints, stretches into an ellipse, flattens and elongates like a bouncing ball, hissing as it shape-shifts. Yet this unearthly swarm is doing something very real: it is performing the collective trick of safety in numbers. It is surviving.


We search for the cause and find it: flung high above the starlings like a deadly Japanese throwing star is a peregrine falcon. It reaches the heights, then plummets in a stoop. The flock moves, a beetle-black fluctuation of jet and stars and silver, a single, intelligent organism of thousands of individuals.

The falcon tries again. Again, the sound of the sea pulling back from the shore: the globe of moving static and white noise flinches sideways.

The falcon powers upwards once more, drops and plunges into the shoal black glitter of birds and the effect is instant. Like a needle piercing a cell, a pin popping a balloon full of feathers, the form explodes and the birds fall to the ground.

Out of sight over the ridge, the peregrine has killed one of their number. For the survivors, the panic is over. There is no grieving. They cover the hill like a dropped veil, resume their chatter and feed.

Nature Notes

The Dewpond on the Height.

“Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim …
We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales—
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed, that never fails”
— Rudyard Kipling


Just off the beaten track of Wigmoreash Drove, not far from the beech hangar, is a dewpond. The high chalk ridgeway rises in a long, smooth curve between two villages and is a remote place of open downland and dark night skies. On a good day, the views are far reaching and panoramic. On a good day, the pond is a mazy jewel set between the vertebrae of the whaleback. Today is not a good weather day. We have come, our two families, from either side the hill, to restore the ancient dewpond. And we are wreathed in cloud.

Romantic and mysterious, dewponds are the only source of water up here. There are no springs, rivers or natural ponds. Rainwater sheds quickly off the smooth-domed hills, or percolates slowly through their chalk to refill aquifers that run the chalkstreams in the valleys far below. For a place that was once the sea, it is exceedingly dry.

The idea and construction of dewponds is as old (if not older) as the hill fort and long barrow that sit upon the same ridge. With no apparent source of water, they rarely, if ever, dry out.

The top of the lonely path that skews up Gallows Down and past the pond, has long been a place for summer picnics, driven to by pony and trap. The beeches, perhaps 200 years old, are scarred with initials, dates and memorials. It is difficult to know how long ago Wigmoreash pond was made, but 341 years to the week that we are in it, its name changed to Murderer’s Pool. Adulterous lovers from either side the hill apparently murdered wife and child, leaving the bodies in the pond. The two were sentenced to hang in Winchester Gaol. Their bodies brought home and hung from a double gibbet, built for the purpose on the no-man’s land between the two parishes, on top of the ancient long barrow.


Pioneer willow, ash and thorns have grown up in the centre of the pond, threatening to suck it dry and crack the bowl of it. James Sadler from Combe gets in with chest waders to cut the trees down, and we haul them out, creating a bund around it for now, that will serve as a season’s nesting place for birds. It is cold, wet work, but a privilege. Care has to be taken not to break the chalk pan – but it holds water and is sound.

Gangs of dewpond makers would travel the country through winter and spring. It would take four men four weeks to make a pond that might last 100 years. A wide, shallow lens, just 3ft deep in the centre, was dug out and layered in thick straw then crushed chalk. A cart and horses would be driven through and over the final layer of chalk, crushing it to a fine powder. Water would be added until it became a thick cream, which was smoothed into a porcelain saucer and left to harden. The dewpond makers from the deserted village of Imber would make as many as 15 a year. Before filling naturally, their surface would ‘shine like glass’. The filling of them and their mysterious retention of water even during droughts, has long been debated.

The insulating straw is said to create a thermos effect and initiate dewfall above the surface of the pond. Appropriately for today, they are also known as mist or cloud ponds; their creation – especially near a key overhanging tree, distilled water from the very air, year round. It is considered now, that the shallow bowls simply hold rainwater: yet the shepherd testifies that water is replenished by morning – though the night is dry.

When we are finished, we bump along the drove in the back of the Land rover, splashing through milky puddles. The gibbet appears then disappears through shifting mist and sheep cling to the gorze like low, wet clouds. The creaking of gate hinges that are no longer there and the tinkling of sheep bells turn out to be the whistles of red kites, brought low by the weather, and goldfinches chiming through the docks. But the sonorous cronks and knocks of wood on wood come unmistakably from the ravens; judging, passing comment, passing sentence.


Days later, after a sudden storm, we go back up to the dewpond. The view and tranquillity of the place is restored. The pond is fenced for its preservation and is a wonderful resource for birds. Next to it, a trough and bowser provide water for sheep. Buds on the cut trees have burst, the sap still rising. The soft grey fur of pussy willow catkins, in their halo of yellow pollen, are pale, lit matches.


In evening sunlight, the little disc reflects back, clear-eyed and brilliant: a lens, a satellite, a mirror to the sky. And when cloud dulls the surface, it is a fallen moon. Skylarks sing upwards and yellowhammers flit between thorns. Then for a moment, a rainbow arcs right over the hill like a banner, its middle lost in cloud, an end in each village.


Nature Notes

Winter’s Spring.


The weather swings between seasons. Water fills ditches and rivers travel backwards; the River Lambourn’s source backs up to higher East Garston, where it is winterbourne. Another dusting of snow makes the hill blanch pale. At the snowline, a snipe goes up with a cry like tearing fabric.

The wind bites, so I take the sheltered route up Old Gallows Lane, the grass showing through snow on the old cart track, with its castellated banks of snowy anthills. Curtains of bramble catch at my shoulders and hair. I am not the only one seeking shelter: blackbirds, bullfinch and bramblings flit through the thorns, a small muntjac trots through a square of sheep fence and a hare bolts from my feet.


In the open, the north wind takes my breath from me. It flings grains of snow like sand, stinging my face, hands and wrists. The hard snow rattles against bunches of ash keys and the last, curled leaves on the whitebeams; the wind blows like an oboe through the gate.

A faint tinkling draws me to a stand of hogweed stems, the weathered seedheads, tattered frames of inside-out umbrellas. In this micro climate, there has been a mini ice-storm. No frost, but all is cased in clear glass, from the low cloud freezing. Each square of the sheep fence has become a hollow ice-cube; has an angled, 3-dimensional glass shadow, blown out into the air above the hill. The barley twist wire and its barbs have been immured and smoothed, sheathed by several millimetres of ice-glass, so that the fence looks preserved in a clear amber glaze.

The hogweed stems and seedheads are encased, too. Tiny, horizontal icicles, 2-3cm long, have formed in the wind and point the way it went, accusingly: petrified, glacial fingerposts. In gusts, the ice-needles fall, tinkling against the glassed, slender, doric columns of the stems.

On the way down, snow cloaks the nape and shoulders of the stunted oaks – but they are built to take it. Nuthatches trip up and down the boughs, in measured steps.

All is soon green again, save for snowdrifts of honey-scented snowdrops.


The temperature rises, doubles. Spring seems to arrive. The warm sun gladdens us all. A Queen wasp emerges from hibernation in my hut and flies out the open door and the first bats flit down the lane at dusk. It is gone Valentine’s and the birds are building. There are the roofed baskets of magpie nests, stuck like footballs in trees and sparrows peel ribbons of honeysuckle to line their eaves nests. At evening, the little owl returns and begins calling for her mate. Fieldfare flock in their hundreds in the bare trees, babbling like a rushing stream – and when they fly away like shed leaves, the tree silhouettes have changed: the twig tips thickening and clotting into bud.


Nature Notes

Black Kites, Bicycles & other Local News …

img_5535To celebrate our local newspaper’s 150th Anniversary, I show the students at school a short film from 1952 when Newbury (through its newspaper) was chosen to represent British life to the Commonwealth. It raised an interesting debate on the changing face of journalism, women journalists and the importance of local news – as well as how the town and its villages had changed. The film was sent around the world and translated into twelve different languages.

I was thrilled to see it featured Peggy Cruse; local reporter in my own village and the paper’s first female journalist. Peggy emerges from a cottage garden I know, cycles off to collect stories, and returns home to write them, as I am doing now. I liked her style. Her reports included local news and reviews, fashion – and when the first nightingale was heard. Peggy died last spring, aged 93. Regrettably, I never met her.

But I grew up reading the paper, some of her words and particularly the nature and farming columns including From the Hedgerows which inspired my Nature Notes (now in its 14th year).


Deadline day is drawing near and I am wondering what to write about this week. I only get stuck when I have been stuck indoors; for inspiration, all I need do is step off the doormat. But then, just before dusk, I receive a text from my friend on the other side of the hill: rare bird, 50 guesses is all it reads. I give up after 3.

From the Land Rover, we spot it high over the valley, its positive id beyond my certainty. It was seen earlier by an experienced birder and my friend (who knows a thing or two). Black kite, heading for the trees: we slew sideways at speed over slick, just-thawed thin turf. It’s an exhilarating chase. We catch up with it at the kite roost, its comparative differences easier to pick out: grey-brown, slightly smaller (yet oddly larger looking, too). It flies through the carousel of dozens of red kites going to roost, its tail a clear fan, lacking the diagnostic wafer delta of a red’s. It’s a thrilling, rare, unlikely thing.

We don’t offer our sighting officially as, without a good photo, it would not have been accepted. Instead, I record it here.

Notes and records of intimate, local knowledge matter. Our impact, small, personal, impermanent: as easily undone as accidentally lasting, but a record, all the same. Words written and read (for clarity and action) are important. My friend keeps a blog, but makes an impact on the landscape too. Conserving it where he can, planting trees, hedges, woods, beetle banks, bird cover and nectar strips – and possibly, hopefully, reinstating dewponds that Peggy will have picnic-ed by. I am reminded by a quote from the poet Norman MacCaig, ‘Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?’ Neither, of course, is the answer. I plant mistletoe in the trees that may appear years after I am gone from here. I like that mistletoe is a tenant, too and cannot be guilty of trespass.


The mistle thrush sings now in the lighter evenings. A counterbalance of melancholy-joy delivered from treetops in Nightingale Wood (empty now of nightingales) and into the teeth of the gales that assail us. It is the same song sung down the centuries, its impact greater at this time of year. It’s a song that goes back millennia, linking centuries like a flock of long-tailed tits, spooling out through the birches and across years like bunting. It’s a record that all will be well again, that the snowdrops are up; that bluebell shoots are poking through the earth.

The 1952 Film from the Office of Information can be viewed here:

All complete copies of the Newbury Weekly News can be viewed on microfilm in Newbury Library, from its first issue in 1867.

Nature Notes

Silver Downs and Anthills


The night before it snowed, I took the moonlit road to the downs. The ribbon of tarmac gleamed like chalk and disappeared somewhere among the stars. At the top, the sheep lay like grey wethers – stones deposited by the last ice age; ancient beasts with the moon on their backs. The few lights of Newbury twinkled brightly in the clear air below – but there was not a light behind me.

The full moon lit the amphitheatre of slope and valley and in a moment I saw why the field below is known as the ‘moon field’. The circular wood, off centre, appeared like the dark shadow of the moon, held in a silver bowl: a photo-negative of the sky above.

The snow that fell quickly was almost gone by the following afternoon. Except on the hills, where the snowline was clearly defined. Here it lingered in frost hollows, field edges and slopes that fell away from the low winter sun. From home, the big hill gleamed through the black trellis-work of Nightingale Wood like a white sheet. And beckoned.


The hidden valley was filled with snow, 2inches deep: the violet-whiteness of a shirt in moonlight. Meadow anthills rose above it, a foot high, gently steaming where the sun had warmed the tops. They are always warmer than the surrounding air and the earth they’re built from; perhaps from the activity within, or the angle of the top, tilted like a solar panel to the sun, or simply because they are raised up. Each one cast a long, blue shadow twice their height, so they stippled the combe like a trout’s back, or dappled it like a horse’s flanks.


Yellow meadow ants farm and protect the larvae of the declining chalkhill blue butterfly. The anthills are dry cushions; fragrant pillows of wild thyme in summer that make excellent mounting blocks, or stiles, when you find two either side a sheep fence. You can jump down whole hillsides, leaping from one to the other, there are so many. They are raised platforms for fox poo communications, peregrine plucking posts (scattered with feathers and the scarlet gobbets of woodpigeon flesh) and sentry posts for summer wheatears that perch, straight-backed and militarily, to look-out. And they provide food for partridge, that scrape an entrance into the ants’ colony, or green woodpeckers, who unfurl a sticky clockspring tongue from behind their skull for them. Then, the excavated, misshapen mounds heal and grass over into strange shapes.


After the snow is gone, the frost remains and sinks each day deeper into the ground, stretching out white fingers with the wood shadows, further and further each day. In the horse field, my daughter picks up ice formed in the pits and divots of the deeply muddy pasture, turns them upside down and finds exquisitely formed ice kingdoms and tiny palaces.


On the hill, water freezes over flints to make smooth, glaciered cobbles of sharp, knobbly stones and the ridgeway is white with crushed ice several inches thick. My son lifts a 4ft shard of ice, lines it up with the sunset and stands it against the hill fort fence, like a megalith.


Nature Notes

Love & Comets: A Brother’s Re-Leaving.


My brother and his family came home for Christmas. And by home, I mean where our parents are. He lives in Australia. My nieces have not seen (nor the eldest remember) an English winter.

We want snow for them or at least, a lasting, Narnian hoar frost; but instead, we have bone-damp weather and mud to the doorstep.

My city-living eldest niece loves horses and this we can give her. But we worry ours are not the sun-glossed animals of Australia as they come schlocking through mud past their fetlocks, with burrs tangled in manes stiff with mud. We groom them, and wear their mud.

We ride into a swirly, vanishing mist that mingles with steam from the horses’ flanks and nostrils. The sun strobes through freshly smashed hedges that smell of Christmas, but look like hell: especially to the birds that have come (like Waitrose’s robin) from Scandinavia to find them.


My brother talks of exotic wildlife the other side of the world: flying foxes big as kites, possums, parakeets and light too bright to look at. His clothes’ labels read ‘dry in the shade’, which makes us fall about. Our trees are bare, our colours a mud palette; a patina of wood-browns and dead grasses, long folklore and the subtle, cryptic colours of tawny owl’s wings. But shafts from a weak winter sun are mirrored by wet holly leaves and the wood glimmers with a billion tiny suns.

This is no pastoral, but I’m bound to it all the same. I trespass a frost-cornered field to avoid the indiscriminate flail’s deepest, unkindest cuts. At night, poachers leave the entrails of a field-gutted deer, and a cairn of dead hares piled like mockery. Worse, a barn owl is found shot with a .22 rifle, off a fence post. It is a bird I know.

We walk. On the edge of my brother’s hearing, blackbirds shrill a ‘pink, pink’ with voices like knapped flints. There is a predator, I say, an aerial one, from their alarm, chipped out like flint flakes. I expect blue sparks. There is the scent of fox, the sugar beet smell of decaying sycamore leaves, and the particular crunch of chestnut leaves, frosting up. If I were led here blindfold, I tell him, I’d know where I was, and that it was January.


The Narnian frost comes after all and is breathtaking. My brother runs for miles over the hills.  On his last evening here, my youngest daughter and I spot a solitary figure on the hill, silhouetted next to the gibbet on its high long barrow – and I know it is him. I am driving the two miles from Mum’s and flash my lights. He knows it is me. Above him, the pink comet of a contrail makes an arc and becomes a black javelin as it clears the down’s shoulder. The sky, cobalt at its height, fades to snow-blue, then lemon.

On Twelfth Night, it hurts to take the tree and all its decorations down after such a wonderful, memorable Christmas. Through the short days, we leave a few lights for the dark.

On the morning he is gone, the vapour trails of his and other journeys are rose-gold in the sunrise. And a little snow is forecast.img_5269