I’m driving into the Fenland equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle – a muddier version, as marked out by Chatteris, Welney and Ely. But there’s no sign of the paranormal out here – just a grey and gloomy day, spatterings of rain and an incessant wind. Ignoring the siren song of Manea and its Brigadoon-like mysticism, I am bouncing along a godforsaken road across the Bedford Level and out to the Ouse Washes RSPB reserve at Welches Dam.
This is an unplanned excursion. An hour ago, I was on the way to Peterborough on a quite different kind of morning; the world was shining – the moon still fat and high in a pastel blue sky, while the sun rose behind us bathing trees and buildings in a pink light. From the road bridge, I could see that the lush green pastures of the Levels had all gone – replaced by a vast inland sea. This is not in itself unusual: the whole area acts as an overflow, a crucial part of the system of dykes and drains, embankments and pumping stations that keep the Fens from being inundated by the ever threatening waters. But, for all that it is a common occurrence, the sight is no less spectacular and I decided there and then to investigate.
The early morning sparkle has now gone and the dank car park, dark under the trees and tucked in behind the embankment of the river, is enough to give a man second thoughts. Steeling myself, I pull on my wellies, dig out a woolly hat and set off. There are two rivers here, both now following man-made courses that lie parallel to each other. I cross the Old Bedford River onto a second embankment that separates it from the River Delph. Except that there is no River Delph; just acres and acres (or should that be leagues) of water. The thought that there are fields and hedgerows, tracks, gates and paths under the cold water gives me the shivers.
The sun has re-emerged and I walk north, past the huge Welches Dam Pumping Station, a great slab of 1940s architecture that looks more like a London Underground station than something to be found out here on the Fens; I peek through the tall windows at the heavy machinery inside, silent and apparently idle but quite possibly working away under my feet, shifting thousands of gallons of water out of one river into the next. The embankment is made of a sodden yellow clay, and I slither along the path towards the first of the hides as the wind gusts around me. I’m on the Old Bedford side, and it’s eerie – not a bird to be seen. I should have stayed in the car; the drive over had spectacular shows of red kites and a near miss with a big old buzzard that came in too low over the road out at Holme, rollicking crows aplenty and a good few kestrels hanging above the fields.
The hide sits high on the bank but, instead of finding myself in the more familiar old shed stylee of bird-hides past, I walk into a surprise of space and light. Long open windows look out over the endless watery vista: I feel like I am on the bridge of a great liner. However, I am not the captain of this ship; that would be Nigel. He is stationed in the corner with views to the North and the West, and he is peering down the lens of an enormous camera – it looks like a surface to air missile launcher. Both it and he are seriously camouflaged. My hat is bright red; the birds will have seen me coming from half a mile away.
This might be the time to confess that I am no expert when it comes to birds. I like watching them and seeing them when I am out and about but, in the same way I enjoy cricket despite never having understood the fielding positions, I am for the most part ignorant about the birds I am looking at. I can tell swallows, swifts and martins apart, but I can never remember who is who when it comes to coots and moorhens. Nigel doesn’t need to remember: he knows.
Actually, he turns out to be terrific company. This is his first visit for forty years: a wonderful schoolteacher, an inspirational type, brought him and a minibus-load of kids here and sparked off a lifelong obsession. It doesn’t take him long to clock on to my shortcomings and he is soon pointing things out – cormorants, the odd lapwing whilst, in front of us, a huge raft of sleeping pochard float on the water. We marvel at their ability to stay in the same place, oblivious to the wind and current, as if they are anchored to the spot. We speculate that under the water their legs are paddling away furiously, but that doesn’t seem likely – heads tucked in under their wings, they all look too zonked out. Swimming and diving amongst them are half a dozen moorhens (“coots”, says Nigel) who are perhaps enjoying the safety in numbers that the snoozing pochards offer.
A small flotilla emerges from the many; “Tufted ducks! Look at the third one – you can see the tuft quite clearly.” And I can – it is much easier birdwatching when you have Nigel to refer to. I am excited to discover that this morning’s near miss was most probably a rough legged buzzard, a rarity on these shores. He wears his knowledge lightly, and is generous with it. Nonetheless, it is time for me to set off once more. Saying my goodbyes, I head north to the next but one hide. Similarly well appointed, this offers a bleaker view: with even less land to break up the monotony of the water it is almost entirely featureless. But I am rewarded handsomely by the quiet arrival of perhaps a thousand lapwings. Even though their flight is unmistakable, they are silhouetted black against the sun and I begin to doubt myself – are they perhaps crows? But then they turn and their white plumage catches the light – and gosh, it is quite beautiful. I am spellbound as they start to rise and fall, tumbling as they play on the wind. I am reminded of Tim Dee’s wonderful description of the lapwing’s wheeling display looking like somebody washing windows with a cloth. I realise I am holding my breath.
As I leave, a skein of geese swoop over, low enough for me to feel the swish – they are huge, magnificent birds. Thrilled, I bow my head into the wind and head for home.
Postscript. I looked it up, and I’m pretty certain it was the rough legged buzzard that buzzed me as I drove through Holme. The paler plumage was the giveaway.