I formed my own small, very small, welcoming committee this afternoon. It was an impromptu event, the result of a late afternoon walk. I had spent most of the day completing some paperwork and with my eyes zoned into the time-distorting bright lights of the computer screen I hardly noticed that outside the rain had slowed, then stopped, and the clouds were breaking up. Once I did surface and break free of the cyber-net, the urge to get outside was irresistible.
The sky was pale and insipid, washed-out by the deluges of the morning and the sun already too low to have significant impact on the cloud cover. My boots knew their route, the old familiar way, down through the factories, between the houses and gardens of the estate, and onto the track. Pick your way between the puddles and ruts beside the coach depot, noting the first bluebells emerging there on the bank cradled by the roots of the oaks and holly, and out into the open, into the sleepy gaze of the distant, ever-present downs. Sunlight illuminated the new bursting of the oak where blue tits fizzed and flitted. Cattle lazed, chewing the cud, spread out like a confused dot-to-dot drawing across the field, seeming as relieved as I was that the rain had stopped. The grass if not quite yet beginning to grow had at least taken on a subtle shade-change, one hue greener.
In the patchy hedgerow, house sparrows flocked along with grey-headed linnets. The sparrows are always here, a remnant of a population in the remnant of a hedge. ‘House’ sparrows may be the name we give them, the box we allocate them in our organised view of the world, but these noisy birds, although they share the garb and language of the city urchin ‘spadger’, prefer the rural life of tractor shed and silage barn and cattle dung flies and impenetrable bramble thorn.
The track bends beside the barns, wrapping around a small copse where once a sandpit would’ve been busy with both men and martins. The sand martins do not come any more and the pit itself has become almost lost under sapling sycamores and scrub. A storage place for discarded water troughs or machinery parts. I wasn’t expecting the honesty. Beneath the budding maples, barging their way unapologetically between tractor tyre and trunk and gate post, the violet-purple flowers spread through the faded-beige stems of last year’s growth. Somewhere in the branches beyond a chiffchaff was singing. I was distracted for a moment tracking down the source of a buzzing sound to my left, it turned out to be a hairy-footed flower bee, like a speeded up, black velvet, small bumblebee. The bight yellow pollen sacks on her back legs suggested a successful foraging foray, possibly thanks to the honesty.
I was about to turn for home when they arrived. Or perhaps I arrived as they turned for home, it is hard to tell exactly. I had reached the apex of my walk, the last few hundred yards that lead past the ‘manor house’ and its barn with the always broken window. Appearing as if from nowhere, but as if they had always been there, the paradoxical swallow, or in this case a pair. The quintessential bird of the English farm yard and the summer countryside-sky, which conversely is actually more absent than present, only spending a short few months with us. Each year, at barns and stables across the country, people pause, a brief insignificant moment of their day suddenly weighted and given a new clarity, as a distinctive familiar twitter and swooping twisted flight breaks the monochrome sky. Each year we welcome them back as old friends.
They were smart birds, with cream underparts and crimson bib below a blue back. One bird had long tail streamers, the other shorter, a male and a female. It is hard not to transpose human emotions onto the two individuals; they were back home, they’d made it, and they were together.
As I stood watching this first pair it was as though I could feel the the earth turning beneath my feet; after a slow start, spring has suddenly remembered itself and is now almost tripping over its own feet in its hurry to move the season along. I was pleased that I was there, to note this moment, to record it, to be the welcoming committee.