The trick with many a National Trust property (if not all…) – whether or not you want to nip into the restaurant for a sneaky coffee and breakfast flapjack (which I did…) – is to get there early. At Charlecote Park, this morning, just after opening time, there were definitely more gardeners than walkers; and most other visitors were confined (sensibly) to the Orangery: which was doing a steady trade in warming drinks.
Out on the paths, the few fellow hardy souls I encountered – weathering the chill wind; wishing for the uncertain sun to stumble through the scudding greyness – were far between: a brace of well-insulated toddlers, with their dad, viewing the heavily-pregnant Jacob sheep with awe, before pouncing through the frequent puddles to collect freshly-fallen twigs; and a couple of sensibly-dressed folk with walking sticks, making light work of the soggy trails through West Park (so damp that the frequent imprints of cloven hooves were remarkably deep and distinct – see photograph – with only the occasional evidence of a surprised skid). Even those responsible fallow deer were somewhat somnolent; and the journeys there and back were also notable for their curious (rapturous) insufficiency of traffic – which enabled me to slow down, just a tad, momentarily, to observe the mini-murmuration of starlings that currently flows between Oxhill and Lower Tysoe.
Such quietude, of course, is my delight: and I was able to meander around the extensive parkland at my own, slow, pace; relishing the peace, and the resultant almost-springtime alertness of the wildlife around me – obviously unafraid of the solitary, plumped-up, quilted figure concealed by bush-hat, dark glasses, and fleece-lined trousers; my dirty boots the perfect camouflage!
On the edge of the Wilderness, a solitary, slender robin – the front of its folded wings painted with a fine streak of almost-white – called sporadically from one of the rungs of a zinc-coloured garden obelisk. Only after a few minutes – and a wary, querying stare that probed my very soul – did it then hop up onto the finial to carry on its territorial (or perhaps lovelorn) conversation with an echo from across the Avon.
The river, too, although still coloured with silt, flowed less ferociously than the last few weeks’ torrents – the only evidence of which (apart from the spongelike squelch of the lower ground) was a continuous contour of broken reeds, wooden splinters and miscellaneous dreck, strewn sinuously along the grass (and most noticeable in Place’s Meadow: whose two inhabitant swans sat within necking distance, lazily tugging at the circle of moist, green blades within a beak’s easy reach).
Later, in West Park, sadly – whilst having a one-sided conversation with the deer (mostly sat, ruminating; and mostly unbothered by me: only the youngest scurrying for shelter under the nearby lime trees) – I disturbed a kestrel (perhaps the one I had witnessed earlier, wafting above the Avon, on the other side of the house?) from its stump-of-a-dead-tree perch: but even this normally guarded falcon only flapped sluggishly to the nearest hanging branch, its beadiness now focused on this rude intruder, rather than hunting for its lunch.
So I wandered on. Past the tag-playing rooks, chatting and chauntering; occasionally flapping short distances en masse for no reason I could fathom, before resuming their prattle. And my incidental stealth was thus rewarded with a sight that still stops my breath: the gentle bobbing of a green woodpecker (my eye caught by its startling red mohican and glowing underbelly, as well as that signature, inverted arc), swinging low across the river, before finding a suitable branch for rest. The heron, rigid beneath, glanced momentarily at this harmless interloper – fish-spear of a beak temporarily raised in salute – then resumed its fluvial gaze, deep into waters that were opaque to my eyes.
A good day for wildlife, then – especially for espying birds of all sizes (frequent paired blackbirds; the exasperated mallards on the Dene; an overheard wren shrilling from inside a hedge; blue and great tits feeding on the few remaining nuts by the hide…) – and a feeling that a week of prophesied sunshine may well herald a new season (as well as the wearing of lighter clothes).
The hazel-blooms, in threads of crimson hue,
Peep through the swelling buds, foretelling Spring,
Ere yet a white-thorn leaf appears in view,
Or March finds throstles pleased enough to sing.
To the old touchwood tree woodpeckers cling
A moment, and their harsh-toned notes renew;
In happier mood, the stockdove claps his wing;
The squirrel sputters up the powdered oak,
With tail cocked o’er his head, and ears erect,
Startled to hear the woodman’s understroke;
And with the courage which his fears collect,
He hisses fierce half malice, and half glee –
Leaping from branch to branch about the tree,
In winter’s foliage, moss and lichens, drest.
– John Clare: First sight of Spring