Just under 40 years ago. No texts, or mobiles.
A handwritten note was shoved in my pigeon hole.
“Please call in at the Porter’s lodge.”
I’d been finding my feet towards the end of my first term at university, and breezily popped over the short distance across the front of Chapel Court to the Porter’s lodge. The message was that I needed to phone home, and I was pointed to the phone tucked into the corner alcove.
A mounting dread.
Half of me dies.
Yesterday, a cheery conversation with Will, a third year medic at Sidney, who’s working the phones, calling old alumni in a bid to twist arms for worthy college causes.
“Did I know that a third of Sidney Sussex undergraduates now receive bursaries to help with the weight of costs of a university education? Funded in part by alumni gifts.”
I didn’t, though I’d been forewarned in a mailshot about just such a call, so it wasn’t strictly ‘cold’, and part of the interesting banter was him finding out about my (unusual) post Cambridge career, and me asking him about his plans.
“Just about to start my third year elective in pathology. What subject had you chosen as your elective?”
Applied Biology, I reply, explaining that partly I wanted a dossy subject break from the grind of the veterinary course. And partly because at the time of making the choice, I’d just met my future wife, who’d also just left Cambridge for a teaching job on the South coast, so I reckoned I needed a bit more free time, to keep the relationship going – along with a supply of 10p coins for those brief, occasional phone box communications. Anyway we’d got married whilst I still had 2 years of my course to go.
“What really? Married before you’d qualified?”
Yep, and never looked back.
But the significant missing, and to Will, inappropriate surplus detail, was how we’d met.
A ‘chance’ meeting on Wellington high street between Dad, the local G.P, and the local small town solicitor, 39 years ago, just before Christmas.
“Nigel. My daughter Sally is having her 21st just after Christmas, but she’s short on lads. Any chance you could persuade some of your sons along?”
We didn’t do parties. We never had, and being from an all boy household, going to an all boy grammar school, girls had very definitely not been any part of our teenage universe. But we had little wriggle room, and Chris and I subsequently spent a (fairly) enjoyable evening in an unfamiliar environment. We were even asked back for a coffee by the 3 Baart sisters who were there (before the coffee ads came along). This really was a step too far, but back in Cambridge, and much to Fiona’s surprise, I’d followed up.
Fast forward again, to August 2015, and a run of visitors and weather, meant that for the first time we missed out on any real wedding anniversary celebration. Instead, we’d resolved to nip away for a couple of nights shortly afterwards, distanced from the smallholding shackles, in early September. Airbnb was used to plump for Abbot’s lodge in Wigmore on the Herefordshire/Shropshire border. Getting there was fun along some narrow lanes choked with scattering pheasants.
Click here for a link to this exceptional B and B. John works as an architect specialising in oak framed construction, and the B and B conversion reflects his passion for this natural material, used in a great contemporary setting. Janet provides the lovely food, and everything is carefully considered. Janet even knows the brand of mattress, without looking, since so many visitors, ourselves included, have commented on it being the most comfortable bed ever experienced.
They also very kindly gave us a key to look around an oak barn that John and a friend built from scratch at the very edge of a piece of native woodland that they own across the valley, with stunning views over a hay meadow and the distant Shropshire hills. They’ve just got planning permission to convert it into a holiday let, which given its character and setting, will become a very special place for a get away from it all, break.
Carefully selected bedside reading and a few DVD’s appealed to this pair of TV less visitors. We watched the moving and comic Oscar winning Canadian French film “The Barbarian Invasions” (Les Invasions Barbares) on one evening (for us this was the first time we’d seen the shocking actual footage of the second plane hitting the Twin Towers, and this is indeed the source for the film’s title), but of much more interest was the story – of a father, dying from terminal cancer, and his last days with family and friends gathered around him.
But what also caught my eye was Thomas Pakenham’s book on my side of the bed. Flicking it open, I was struck by an image of the largest Sessile oak in the UK, over 1,000 years old, located at nearby Croft Castle. I suggested a visit the following day, at which point Fiona reminded me that we’d been to Croft on our honeymoon. Really? How my long-term memory lets me down these days!
A breezy, cool day was nevertheless a great day out, with some memorable plantings in the grounds. But no butterflies around the Verbena bonariensis,although a sad, Red admiral trace, was left, devoid of body, on the muddy ground behind the venerable quarry oak.
Perhaps not much life left in the ancient tree, but what it has lived through.If the Dryden quote from Pakenham’s book is to be believed, it is certainly on borrowed time. Just a few smaller branches with active growth from one side of the enormous girth – around 36 feet I think.
The parkland surrounding the castle contains many other venerable trees, and is well worth a visit if in the area. Click here for details.
On to the garden at Stockton Bury, not perhaps the best time of the year to visit, but still a beautiful place with a very warm welcome, and thanks to finding Gordon potting up home grown Tulipa sprengeri, some local(ish) bulbs and seeds to have another go with. Click here for details. And an Ermine moth, Yponomeutidae, in the plant sales area.
Then all too soon, the next day drive home.
And that Friday another phone call.
And later drive. And tearful visit.
And then a strange in limbo time. Our days were filled with the laughter and noise and bustle of visiting family with grandchildren. Moulding clay, and unearthing a special stone which hasn’t seen the light of day for millenia.Tyre quiz dancing, collecting pebbles, building sandcastles and eating bubblegum ice creams (well not myself). And the much more upbeat screen experiences of Anna and Elsa in ‘Frozen’.
Quiet returned on Monday, after a laden car groaned down the hill, and mundane ditching and bulb planting filled in time.
But the peace was shattered as I exited the back door to grab some lunchtime tomatoes from the greenhouse.
What was wrong with the turkeys?
We’d moved our last batch of poults outside, a few days previously and there’d been a little settling in, but there was a very different edge to the cacophony coming from the runs just now. Walking quickly beyond the greenhouse I glanced up and caught a glimpse of her.
And dashed inside, simply shouted at a shocked Fiona to run up to the turkeys as fast as possible, whilst I grabbed the camcorder from the end room and followed behind.
Large bird of prey.
Not a Buzzard.
Crashing about into the netting above the roosting/egg laying area.
Where were all the youngest poults, hatched and fed?
Trained to come to my poor interpretation of a turkey whhitt, whhitt, whistle?
Correction. A headless, distorted bundle of turkey poult body.
Raw neck muscles projecting beyond feathered crop, skin recoiled.
In the run beyond, a gaggle of mature birds,
With 2 of the youngest poults amongst them,
Neck stretching and wing posturing with incessant and noisy, aggressive intent.
Hang on, how did the young poults get in with the adults?
What do we do?
Meanwhile the hawk crashes off the roof shelter and down into the corner of this fenced and netting covered run, just the other side of a double pig and chicken netting fence, to where the adult birds are clustering in a state of terror and fury.
Most of these images are indeed camcorder screen captures, but at this point I should say that we fairly quickly worked out that this was a large, young, female Goshawk, and that in the following 3 days I decided that right now was the time I should read my copy of ‘H is for Hawk’, by Helen Macdonald (HM), which had been sitting on the bookcase since we heard her, in conversation, at this year’s Hay Festival, and picked up a copy.
And so I’ve discovered much more about these fearsome predators, through her eyes and words, and those of TH White, whose sad life story, writings and attempts at training a Goshawk, are considered in much detail by HM. But most importantly ‘H is for Hawk’ is focused around her hawk’s, (Mable), pivotal role in helping her come to terms with the grief she experiences after the sudden death of her father, a respected national news photographer.
Elements of our predatory hawk don’t quite fit the description though. Where is the fiery orange eye? It’s a very clear yellow. Perhaps it’s just a large young bird from this season? But its size, talons and white eyebrow are typical. HM says that lots of people claim to have seen a Goshawk, and it never is, always being likely to be the smaller Sparrowhawk. But two friends have confirmed from these photos, that this was indeed a close encounter with a female Gos. Which we’ve never before seen close up.
Heavily built for a life of hunting amongst woodland it has enormously strong talons, with which it grip’s its prey in a death vice. Quite different to the build and lines of the more refined Peregrine falcons which also occasionally fly high over our hills.
And I can’t make out the detail of the crines, the specialised small feathers between the beak and eye, which are designed “to catch blood so that it will dry, and flake, and fall away”. HM introduces much of the other jargon associated with falconry, including the word yarak, used to describe the perceived state a falconer recognises when their hawk becomes “in the mood to slay”.
But these images of this hawk do not capture yarak.
This is a true ferocious feral hunter, used to killing.
(Click here for the typical diet of the 200 or so pairs of Welsh Northern Goshawks – Accipiter gentilis.)
Suddenly in unfamiliar territory.
The consummate killing machine moments away from potential oblivion.
Cornered between a group of ferocious noisy larger birds, intent, and capable of serious harm (I’ve not before mentioned here, for reasons of personal censorship and guilt, having to remove, and despatch, one of the turkey hens which had been ripped apart by our normally benign stag earlier in the year), and a pair of not entirely dispassionate human observers.
What if the camera held to my eye, carried a different type of viewfinder, with cross hairs?
A flipping of roles.
A unique occasion for us.
And do those eyes, and open beak, and strange body posture not demonstrate the ultimate fear of being on the very edge of this world.
Towards the end of HM’s book, she briefly references the role that hawks had in some Celtic, and other nations’, mythology.
And as I repeatedly viewed the minute or so of film and cut it into its individual frames, I focused on her apparent intent and actual progress, before, in the apparent blink of multiple watching eyes, she had escaped from the sealed cage, and seemingly vanished into thin air.
The more I studied this, the more I tried to imagine her state of mind.
Although was she even capable of ‘thought’ as we know it?
Or maybe it was just an autonomous calculation to a novel set of circumstances or neurologically gathered data input?
(S)He crouched ever lower, ever lower with fear.
“They can’t let me die! They can’t let me die here!
I’ll cover myself with the mud and the earth.
I’ll cover myself! I know I’m not brave!
The earth! the earth! the earth is my grave.”
Don Maclean – ‘The Grave’
But this was no grave.
There was no acceptance of the inevitable.
The head turns, the eye’s still bright, and she’s seen what we, and the baby turkey poults, have clearly missed for the last several months, that the lower rings of chicken wire have been worn through, and lifted.
Perhaps there is a material benefit from selecting to devour the grey matter from the brain of any prey, after plucking, before any other part of the animal?
At the second attempt, she summons all her energy, regains take off wing and tail posture, and then with a couple of paces is airborne. Feints high right, for a bare yard, then curls back.Hits the ground, and in one movement squeezes her nearly 5 foot wingspan through the 4 inch square mesh.And is swiftly through. And airborne on the other side, a mere 3 feet from the turkey claws. Freedom assured.
But eternity knows him.
Probably never to be seen again.
Rather than leave this agonised piece hanging in mid air, and in the hope that as with the Goshawk experience, I can share something which has moved and comforted me recently, a link below to a simple song with, I think, an achingly beautiful melody and harmonies, which readers may already know, and enjoy.