A Cuckoo calls, as clear as church bells on a quiet evening. It is 27th April and the first one I have heard this year. We walk further on in Lower Canfold Wood and hear it again. Is it the same bird or another one? Only males sing the familiar ‘Cuck-koo’ and are marking out a territory of about thirty hectares. Crossing Bookhurst Road into Upper Canfold Wood and Sayers Croft, we hear it again, more distant but unmistakable. The bird is elusive and as I look up into the trees I recall that Wordsworth had no better luck in catching sight of it:
‘To seek thee did I often roveWordsworth (To the Cuckoo, 1802)
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.’
For the poet it is a symbol of something not quite captured, lying in the hinterland of his imagination, irrevocably lost but, nevertheless, teasingly there each year. To me it is not a sign of spring, that seems to have happened much earlier in the year; instead it reminds me that there is an unchanging cycle in which these birds will always return and always surprise with that unique call. They will also break up families with the inevitability of instinct; their brief stay in England will see female Cuckoos plant alien eggs into the nests of unsuspecting roosting Dunnocks, Willow Warblers or Meadow Pipits and leave them, with their malevolent chuckle echoing in the woodland, to fend for themselves. And fend they do, with a self-interest which would make the most Machiavellian politician blush, turfing the rival, (legitimate?),eggs and hatchlings out with the ruthlessness of Richard III.
The Cuckoo is not the only reminder of spring in the village; Moorhens have returned to Larkfield pond and we see four chicks grappling in the pondweed. Their downy bodies are soft black balls and yet they appear happily independent of their mother, who forages in the bank. This week we also saw myriad tadpoles in the pond at Plough Farm; later in the week this population had declined, as the tiny tadpoles are very vulnerable and it is estimated the less than one percent of tadpoles will reach metamorphosis. They are funny creatures to watch, all head with a tail attached; the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon tadie or tadige meaning Toad, which is combined with poll, a head. Like many children I collected frog spawn in jars and watched with wonder as they developed. I love Seamus Heaney’s tactile description in his 1966 poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist.’ It brings my childhood right back to me:
But best of all was the warm thick slobberSeamus Heaney
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
I am tempted to scoop up some tadpoles to put in my tadpoles pond at home: my daughter steps in to forbid these illegal migrants passage. Modern ecologists would throw their hands up in despair if they knew what country boys used to do to amuse themselves!
Apparently the enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had little impact on Ewhurst, however there is much evidence that the poor agricultural workers in the area had a hard time. A historian friend of mine tells me that in Victorian times Surrey was the poorest county in England. It is hard to believe this now, although it is still wrong to assume that all Surrey dwellers are stock-brokers or mercantile bankers: worryingly there remain many living on or below the poverty line.
The Enclosures Acts saw communal areas given over to land-owners who fenced these off, depriving ordinary folk of their long-held common-law rights. The partitioning of the country in this way, mostly during the Georgian Period, led to what W.G Hoskins described as the characteristic pattern of English landscape: fields with hedgerows at their boundaries and pockets of woodland dotted throughout. In many parts this is no longer the case but Ewhurst still has its hedgerows and woodlands and they are a haven for the naturalist.
Any day will give the rambler a treat. Today we walked the footpath past North Breache Wood; it was nearly midday and we heard the hoot of a Tawny Owl coming from deep within the trees. At the same time a Buzzard circled over the field, looking for prey. Buzzards are often seen in Ewhurst and I think they are nesting in the tree-tops of the woods. They form lasting pair bonds and are usually loyal to their territory; two or three eggs are laid in late April and it takes just over thirty days for them to incubate, so we might see young buzzards flying in a couple of months. An exciting thought.
There is something quintessentially English about a wayside. I think it is why Frederick Warnes’ popular early twentieth century nature series was entitled, ‘The Wayside and Woodland’ books. These books were later condensed into the even more popular ‘Observers’ books which some of you may remember were children’s indispensable guides to wildlife. I suspect many of the hedgerows in Ewhurst are ancient, pre-dating enclosures. Dr Max Hooper in 1974 proposed an equation to date hedges. He suggested that the number of species in a thirty yard stretch of hedge varies with the age of the hedge, so Age of hedge = (110 × number of species) +30 years. Hooper, who justified his calculations, but I won’t bore you with the details, went on to suggest that a two species hedge is 250 years old and a ten species hedge 1,130 years old. He did add that the calculation is only very approximate and, ‘could easily be as much as 200 years out either side.’ Looking at our local hedges I see that many have a mixture of Hawthorn, Hazel, Blackthorn, Maple, Elder, Oak, Ash, Beech and no doubt others. These give cover to animals and birds and also along their margins can be found an abundance of wildflowers. This plenitude can be hard to register, especially in the spring when new plants appear on a daily basis. Amy Levy is not a writer much remembered today but, like many Victorian poets, she had an eye for nature and the ability to communicate its moods:
The spring breathes in the breezes,Amy Levy
The woods with wood-notes ring,
And all the budding hedgerows
Are fragrant of the spring.
I am fascinated by the country names of these flowers; they tell us of the folk-lore associated with plants, they hint at medicinal uses to which they were put and, above all point to a reservoir of history that we are in danger of losing touch with. I will leave you with a list of plants I saw in the hedgerow today: Shepherd’s Purse, Lady’s Smock (or Cuckoo Plant), Buttercup, Common Vetch, Herb Robert, Primrose, Cleavers, Field Speedwell, Groundsel, Ribwort Plantain, Yellow Archangel, Bugle, Red Campion, Stitchwort, Cow Parsley, Ransoms, Dandelion, and my favourite name, Jack-by-the-Hedge.