Wild ducks at Stiffkey

wild ducks on stiffkey scrape

Tawny owls hoot through the night. Thick intervening silences are broken only by the occasional quacking of mallard. Alone on the old farm, days begin sitting at a window birdwatching, looking down over the lawn to a freshwater scrape where wild ducks fly in at first light. I have come to a miniature nature reserve half a mile from the sea, green oasis in a world of steel cities and white noise, John Clare’s over grown prisons that shut out the world and all its beautys.  Insulated from all sounds bar those of nature, the silence is intense. Insulated by lush trees cradling the valley, the place is uninhabited: wouldn’t I be frightened to be alone there, friends asked, or bored being away from ‘civilisation’? Never, the immediate and emphatic response to both. With the beauty of a natural wilderness around me, birds and animals for company, and silence being the language my soul understands, this is Paradise. Richard Jeffries’ autobiography is open on the windowsill: The sun and the deep sky, the limitless ether, were only the continuation. There is no break, no chasm, between here and there....I have never felt so much myself, an individual, as a part of this whole...in the same stream of space.

In the middle of the lake there’s a reedy island where tussocks of marram grass encircle a green mound. Beyond lies a stretch of water where seagulls float and rushes grow thick along a bank in a tangle of reed mace and Himalayan balsam. Mature trees cover the hills behind. Two fat coots are feeding contentedly on the lawn, a couple of moorhen swim in and out of the reeds. I watch the incoming wild ducks slide on to the water in an effortless landing. Gadwall, teal, mallard, shovelers and tufted ducks float around tranquilly, unaware of my presence on this cloudy October morning. A heron stands sentinel on the island shore, tall, majestic, shaggy white beard wafting in a light wind. Between intervals of standing completely still he preens, or turns his striped head to look out over the water, or down into it, or across the lake. After an hour or so he flies away, flapping large, languid, blue-grey wings.

The sun is struggling to break through, leaves hang damp off the trees, listless. Gradually sunshine lights up the water, the morning brightens. It turns colder as jackdaws circle and cry over the woods surrounding the scrape. A string of geese fly overhead, making inland to their feeding fields from the Fen where they roost. That evocative cry of the wild geese: glinting in the sunshine, with pale underwings and pink feet lit up by low clear sunlight, a gaggle of pink-footed geese fly over the hill every morning at the same time, making their steady way through the sky with a chorus of cackling, calling to each other in symmetrical formation against the white clouds. The formation billows, forms into a ‘v’ with ruler-straight lines, a few strays fluttering untidily within to the ‘v’ before the leading line billows again into airborne curves. 

I cross the farmyard to the deserted cart-shed, past a 17th century granary built with massive timbers rescued from ships wrecked on nearby dunes in centuries past. On the flagstones a stock dove, river-pearl grey with iridescent collar and blush-red front, has joined the flock of white doves who have flown down from the dovecote to feed on their morning grain. The pure white, brilliant white doves take off as one, wings whirring and rustling as they rise, startled, from their feeding.  Beyond the five-bar gate beech and sycamore, sweet chestnut and oak grow tall on the sides of the valley. The autumn trees are just beginning to turn, hints of bronze and copper glinting among dark green and yellowing leaves. Dogwood is vibrant in dusky pink and pale green, stems reddening to bright crimson. Branches of guelder rose, heavy with berries, make a splash of scarlet.

Blackbirds are chinking in the woods. My feet squelch into a sodden blanket of leaf litter, pheasants grate and clatter into the undergrowth as they take fright, and the thin tsee-tsee of goldcrests fills the canopy above my head as I walk through the avenue of fir trees.  Blue tits and great tits are flitting and calling, a robin investigates as I pass, and a wren gives me a loud ticking-off. I have entered a universe in miniature, a world of interdependent plants and birds and mammals and insects and invertebrates, Nature’s supreme ecology. This one, mercifully, is managed with a light hand so as to be left largely to its own devices. I stop to examine a smooth fungus on a moss-covered log, velvet to the touch, and think of Richard Jeffries, he who recognised that we all live in two worlds, the visible and the invisible, he who loved solitude and allowed his soul to yield to the green earth, the wind among the trees, the songs of birds, sensing transcendence in immanence. It is, he wrote, very curious to touch anything: it is as if the soul thereby ascertained the existence of matter

I follow the sound of water rushing over boulders to where kingfishers lance the reedy river under one of the wooden bridges. Here otters live, diving into hiding with a heavy, extended sploosh as I cross. A buzzard mews from high above the sheep field. Through a screen of reeds I can observe the wildfowl on the lake without being seen: they are so shy these wild birds, the least disturbance will spook them and they will fly off to the Fen over the other side of the hill leaving the place empty: it feels forlorn without them when this happens, they have become my unknowing companions. Three egrets have flown in, standing bright white on the emerald grass of the island, heron-like. A pair of female shovelers are shoveling for food below the surface, not far from their male counterparts in handsome livery of rust-red flank, dark head, striped black and white body with wingtips crisscrossing over a sharp tail and white bottom. A pair of gadwall sail past, the male so smart in his Savile Row tweed front, charcoal belly and dark tail, and flush of rust on the wings. Low afternoon light illuminates little teal standing on the bank, the chestnut heads with green teardrop, short beaks and grey underbelly with straw patch almost luminous under the tail.  And the smoke-blue bill of the black and white tufted duck. Low sunshine glints on the water, breaking into silver rags of light as a breeze ruffles the surface. Moorhens are running around nibbling at the soft deep lawn, mallard float in the tranquil quiet of mid-afternoon. The innocent beauty of the lake refreshes my inner world, heals it of the vulgarities of the world, of the crude trivialities that dominate mass culture. 

A mountain of cloud banks low above the treeline where a sinking sun lights up bronzing leaves. The blueness above pales into bleached brightness. I walk to the Fen as daylight fades, where a single whooper swan is feeding, so elegant a bird with its long slim neck, preening gracefully with yellow black-tipped bill. A small bird strikes an evening song from a tangle of bramble alongside a ditch, a young hare runs across the field. Migrating waterbirds swirl over the marshes, unaffected by the tragic follies acted out in human lives below, answering only to each other and to the windy sky. I watch the black and white rounded wings and loose wingflaps of the lapwings, circling to settle for the night on a mud spit. A fling of dunlin scatters silver from pale undersides as they gust up and over the mudflats, undulating specks of light. The glimmering sheen of evening glides over the water. The silence is punctuated with the triple whistle of the redshank, the piping of waders, the cackle of geese, the peeeuwing and fluttering of wild waterbirds. The immensity of the sea beyond the sea wall, the infinite sea and the sky, instils an ache, knowing that soon I have to leave, and that being absorbed by this natural beauty with its great silences is more real and more deeply experienced than ‘the real world.’ The eternal is bonded on to us. It calls out for our share, wrote Saul Bellow.

The woods are sleeping now, the earth slumbers. A full moon rises, I return to the hooting of the owls at night, the quacking of ducks in the inky black of the night.