It is a grey and gloomy day as I set off east, away from the Fens and deep into Suffolk. I am seeking an enormous group of starlings, a murmuration 50,000 strong, that has been gathering these last few days in the Dunwich area. I head out into the foggy afternoon with high hopes.
But I am running late, and it is taking longer than anticipated to reach my destination. As the gloaming descends and the light fades, it starts to dawn on me that I might miss them. Nonetheless, I press on and, as I get closer, the murk begins to lift and I approach Dunwich with spirits restored – confident yet of seeing this extraordinary spectacle.
The village, or what is left of it, is atmospheric and revels in the grey mist. Medieval Dunwich was a major centre of trade and religion, as big as London! But 700 years ago huge storms sucked most of the town out to sea. Centuries of erosion have allowed the waters to swallow much of what was left. They say you can still hear the church bells ringing from under the waves. I drive in through the ruins of the Abbey, past the pub and down to the beach car park. To my surprise, it is deserted.
I had expected crowds, so perhaps I am too late after all? Or, worse, the nagging thought comes that I am in the wrong place. I am alone on the beach and quickly come to terms with the fact that I have made an error – in my heart I know that I won’t be seeing any birds today. But I walk up the beach regardless – and it is an exceptionally gloomy place. Not quite monochrome, but any variety in colour, such as there is, confines itself to the grey spectrum – slate grey, gunmetal grey, silver grey, bluey grey. They are all represented as I trudge along the beach, the soft shingle making it hard going. I can hear the waves and the crunch of my feet, but no birds.
I keep going, in the faint hope that the birds will tire of the Heath, for that is surely where they are, that they will suddenly sweep out over the cliffs, across the strand and out to sea! But it remains just that – a faint hope. How can I have missed them! 50,000 birds! Feeling slightly foolish, I turn and head back to the car as the night falls.
A pinprick of light across the sea penetrates the grey, presumably the lighthouse in Southwold, and reminds me that I am not alone. Humankind, for better or worse, is still out there – my only company for the last half hour having been a huge and malevolent looking herring gull, casting unsettling glances in my direction. I strain my ears – is that the sound of ghostly church bells? Or perhaps it is the sound of 50,000 starlings laughing as they swoop and dive and wheel around, the electric air thrumming in their glory.