Of all the seasons-within-seasons, the end of winter, or springter, is one of the least enjoyable for walking I find. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy getting out into the countryside; it just means that when I do, I look around and think “meh” quite a bit. There’s still a lot to look out for in early March: old man’s beard (clematis vitalba), hazel and alder catkins, blossoming blackthorn, the vigorous growth of bluebell shoots, redwings and fieldfares flocking to migrate east, small birds breaking into song, the passage of gulls at high level etc, but the predominant colours are grey and brown, the air is still harsh and raw, mud clings to your boots and you slip on steep paths.
On recent walks to Hosey, Fackenden Down, Bough Beech and Downe, I found plenty to like but not much to inspire. This was partly because, apart from at Fackenden where there was an eyecatching sunset, the sky was unyielding and grey. Drama is needed in the sky at times like these, and springter often provides it as great air masses come into conflict, showering us with rain, hail, snow and sleet and producing fascinating aerial vistas. But at Hosey, all was monotone, at Bough Beech a thin Sunday drizzle dampened down any sense of vitality and at Downe, the morning brightness was consumed by a blanket of altostratus – the precursor to an approaching front – which had stealthily taken over the day as I was en route. But everyday is different if you look closely enough and the sun, a white ball behind the veil, did its best to make the stroll memorable.
That terrific birder Dave accompanied me at Bough Beech, educating me as we went on the courtships of goldcrests, the behaviour of gadwall – a much underappreciated duck, he said – West Ham’s unsatisfactory season, the calls of marsh tit and treecreeper (I’d forgotten, again), and the distribution of local chaffinch populations. Although we made it to 39 species we saw no snipe, barn owl, brambling, kestrel or even buzzard as we hoped. The bird of prey fraternity was represented only by a solo red kite who lazily loitered above the low weald landscape for nearly half the walk, sometimes close, sometimes distant – an almost spectral presence so unfettered was it by the subdued, squelchy land below.
Thinking back to that red kite (which by the way would have been an extraordinarily rare sight in this part of the world until about 10 years ago) my springter moans and groans appear misplaced; these grey walks were brilliant.
Photographs by AMcCulloch