It can be a noisy old business, walking through the Fens. The clomp and swish of welly through wet grass, the fizz of cagoule on corduroy, the creak of bag strap – it is only when you pause for a breather and take in the view that you can properly hear the silence. The air is quite still today, not the faintest puff of wind – if it wasn’t for the birds, there wouldn’t be a sound. It’s crystal clear too; there is a glorious and heightened definition to the world, and my heart soars at the beauty of the moment.
Not for the first time in recent weeks, I’ve been lucky with the weather. The rain was so heavy this morning that I thought seriously about an afternoon snoozing with a book. But by midday it had cleared up and I jumped at the chance to get out. I’m on the banks of the Wissey, following the path as it cuts through the fields, twisting and bending its way towards the Great River Ouse – then it’s a sharp turn to the north and the Denver Sluice complex of locks and gates that mark the convergence of the Ouse, the New and Old Bedford Rivers and several relief and cut-off channels. There is water everywhere; the fields are flooded, there are rivers and ditches, runnels, drains and dykes in every direction – the very land itself is sodden.
It is a day for birds but I have left my binoculars in the car so, apart from the usual suspects, the crows, gulls and pigeons, I don’t know what anything is. No matter – I enjoy watching them all the same; big groups of something wadery, with a haunting call, swoop in over the floodwaters, their display spectacular and mesmerising; swans pass by, the wing beat heavy; moorhens and pheasants flee in panic; and then a huge bird slowly lifts itself from a field to my right. I can’t think what it is – too big for a buzzard or kite, and strange colours too. Lots of white, with patches of buff brown, or maybe that is just the light playing tricks with me. I see it again a few miles on; a heron, surely. The size, the shape of the wings – what else could it be? The next bend in the river brings the answer. There are three of them in conference, standing with that stooped-shoulder pallbearer stance, solemn and reflective.
I find a bench at Denver and sit to watch the river slide by. The muddy water swirls slowly, it eddies and oozes past me, picking up pace for the final stretch to Lynn and The Wash. The sun slips behind a cloud and the temperature suddenly drops. It is a reminder that it will soon be dark (we are only two weeks from the shortest day) so I drag myself up and head back. However, I have been favoured by the gods, for the sun returns once more before a dramatic exit, stage right. A gorgeous pink light saturates the landscape and, for the second time today, I am almost breathless at the wonder of it all. It is deeply moving.
I leave the riverbank and drop down into some woods where, in the gloaming, I am treated to the rasping bark of a roe deer. It is extremely close, and getting closer. I stand stock still and wait. We see each other simultaneously and, with an almost imperceptible movement, it melts into the undergrowth and vanishes from sight. I can scarcely believe my eyes – clearly, there is sorcery at work, a suspicion confirmed by a large bat which skitters around my head as I march on.
“Where the river bends, the blind men fall in” – wise words from Ivor Cutler. You can find them here at 7’37.