There is a hierarchy, it seems, to Tysoe’s with-sun-rising birds. As the first sodium-bright slash of dawn slices the horizon, the barn owl – its wings the shade of the night-mourning sky it haunts – yet circles the windmill: peeved, perhaps, that my presence has quiesced the small creatures in the verges, trembling umbellifers, ruffling daisies. The hedges here serenade me with the river-runs of goldfinch; the gossip of sparrows; the bossy robin; the caution of blackbirds. The crops, a sea of skylarks: effervescent; ubiquitous. But none yet leave their roosts. It is the raptors which rise pre-eminently on the cool air: a lone buzzard, one lazy, subtle flap of its wings propelling it yet higher. A glint-eyed kestrel shearing across my path; grasping the dead branch of a wayside oak from which to study me. There is nothing here to interest such a hunter; but yet he waits until I have passed before busy wings pull him beyond my sight.
A male pheasant, paranoid, dull-witted, staggers away from me: its drunken pose and anguished cacophonies aimed at naught; only rendering it more manifest. Thirty paces I tail this manic meandering, before remembrance of cover emerges between those frenzied eyes.
Ebony pellets of enraged rook shotgun from the high trees: mobbing one more ghostly presence – a pallid gem besieged by specks of coal – whose business I can only surmise. The corvids’ melodramatic saws are echoed by far-flung singletons, flying low, back toward the silhouetted nests – dark blurs amongst the precision of new leaves – inquisitive; eager to be involved in the arboreal ruck. The swarm grows, like wasps above marmalade; then falls, like dust, hidden, peaceful: its mark – an overtime barn owl – vanished.
Songs resume: atonal, vivacissimo, harmonious. A wren – brave or impudent – perches on a rare fencepost, just beyond my reach: its descant clear as the breaking light. Its presence, so close, pulls at me in challenge. But it is so involved in its coloratura that it does not espy me until I shift my weight. It dissolves back into the hedgerow of melodies. Later, gloomy grackles will skulk between such cover: testing the green air; puckish redbreasts will flash in the new sun; and wood-pigeon, clumsy and clashing, will circle and return, directionless, argumentative, bored, lost in space and time.
Three alternate days have I broadened this pastoral jurisdiction – just as I have stretched my stride: instructing my body in the way of hills; gathering strength from the fields I cross as I would blackberries. Today, the climbing is simpler: and thus my eyes finally stray from my feet.
As I descend Windmill Hill, the cows of Lower Compton Farm single-file, habitually, towards their parlour, coached by the dayglo herdsman astride his buzzing quad. On Friday, the hour’s difference – my tardiness – could only catch their return: the languorous, heads-low processional somehow sorrowful to see. When I chance upon a similar cortège at Downs Farm, two hours hence, that replicated feeling of tribulation will be hard to elude. Only the farmyard dog’s verbose tocsin will galvanize more cheerful conceits; will lessen the weight of my imaginings.
I thus – albeit sluggishly – reach White House with ease: the crossroads familiar, now; course embedded in mind. In preference to Wednesday’s descent via Epwell Road, I defer to Quarry Farm, rounding Orchard Hill (no hint of fruit-tree to elucidate its name). The skyline flames have faded; but encompass me complete: upping the world’s grey canopy; shattering it into cornflower, lead, ash, sea-foam, forget-me-not, bruised salmon, saltires of soaring wayfarers, the azure of days. On the bridleway, I raise two red kites (the colour of soil and sunrise) – one each side – reflexively mantling their kills. They tower effortlessly, circle above me as buzzards do: their twisting tail-feathers the only indication of toil. Once I have moved on, they fall back to earth: breakfasting in the sweet-scented cleanness of cut grass.
Repeatedly quartering a sector of a similarly-cropped field, beyond, it is the body-length plume which christens the creature ‘fox’. Clad yet in juvenile darkness, only the young day’s blaze extracts the expected ruddiness of its yet-blunt face. For fifteen minutes I stop, upwind: my presence unremarked. Only when a vole, mouse, or shrew is seized – now motionless between the cub’s smiling jaws – am I sensed. (I cannot know through what enchantment.) Its gimlet gaze meets mine; its ears sharp as flint arrowheads. Uncertain of my significance, the shortened muzzle returns to the ground – but to be lifted repeatedly. Finally, the impasse is resolved. The prize is clenched with piercing tightness: death’s torpid tail drooping like loose linguino. I am glared one last, stomach-hollowing stare; and, brush pert and parallel with the ground, my quarry lopes away, to dwindle beyond deep verges.
My body stung from standing, my rigid joints ablaze, I stretch, and slowly move on. Not too many steps, and their flagging easiness returns.
Atop Windmill Hill, the gusts were cool and calming; the meadow of leading-light buttercup and supporting milkwort glistening between the surging breakers and beckoning blades of green. Solitary tortoiseshell and peacock, and a pair of orange tips – the female’s forewings drawn a subtle, pencil grey – had steered me here: a lepidopteran relay swaying ahead through the uneven flurries, unaffected by such power, pulling me beyond the willingness of my aching legs. Even when these fluttersome guides alighted – on cow parsley or budding nettle – they rested easily: floating calmly in time with their newfound perches – only the peacock tumbling to the ground, spreading wide, to apprehend the rays of aching heat.
Unseen larks burbled above – all other avian life quiescent in their midday intermissions – their only companion a pennoncelle-profiled puff of purest white…. (On my descent, this mayfly cumulus had dissolved into the tiniest ellipsis of cotton-wool balls: punctuating the rich, sapphire sky. Momentary others then clotted in the thick air – creamy understudies shadow-casting elusive peak-points in the landscape: one over the triumvirate of Shenlow, Rough and Epwell Hills; another by Oxhill….) And the too-bright sun, of course – its light as clean as polished platinum; its warmth as comforting as mother’s milk – seemingly the destination of such high-flying birds.
Two days before, under opalescent, ice-blue skies, at a time designed to beat the burgeoning heat, the mill was merely a staging-post – my first stop on a circuit encompassing Compton Wynyates, Broom Hill, Lady Elizabeth’s Hill; and a gentle going-down via the Epwell Road… – then the skylarks’ song (coalescing with so many other choruses, calls and conversations) had been my constant companion. Dew – perhaps the only moisture the crops would sup, this week, had soaked my trousers; brought forth minute mushrooms, and slack, monochrome molluscs – the latter plentiful between the steepled stalks. Surely, beneath this firm, fragmented earth, reserves relieved their thirst? How else would these other-worldly things hold out between each dawn’s dampening donation? (On Sunday – retying my laces, the hill reconquered – my boots would be parched: the dark air too warm to distil its needed nutriment.)
Now, here, only scintillating bronze-backed beetles surveyed the green colonnades: a seasonal city of skyscraping blades for them; shelter from less-determined predation… – the paths no protection, though, from my stumbling boots. Thus they scurried, warned by shadow or heavy tread.
Rising with the scything sun, I retraced my weekday way as far as the vantage point beyond Broom Hill. Homeward, the Edge Hills are outlined with green shafts; Upper Tysoe is luminescent, rising from its dark reveries: its roofs afire; its walls aglimmer with Sunday sun. All is seemly; all is true. Never alone, I meet no other of my kind….