September 13, 2014

The city limits

I love London, but I needed to get away for an afternoon. For months I'd been up against deadline after deadline; my time hadn't been my own. I was tired and used-up, and as the autumn equinox approached, with its feeling of change, I wanted to see what the countryside felt like, wanted to watch autumn setting fire to the trees and taste the tang of coming winter on the air.

It was a warm September afternoon with that kind of close, stored heat that you get at the end of summer. Moulted pigeon feathers blew about the station platform, and from the train window I looked out onto dry grass, drifting thistledown and exhausted allotments.

Egham was purest suburbia, the M25 tearing a swathe through the town before passing over the Thames and heading north. I walked from the train station to the bypass, negotiating a busy roundabout and passing a Ferrari garage. Already, I had misgivings. This wasn't what I'd set out in pursuit of.

The path that led off the bypass towards Runnymede was pushchairs-and-dogwalkers territory: a well-used cut-through from one part of town to another with empty drinks cartons, cigarette ends and lost dummies marking the way. I was finding it hard to tune out the roar of the motorway, hard to ignore a creeping sense of disappointment. The walk I'd wanted to take was obscuring the walk I was actually on.

Then, a little way into Cooper's Hill Coppice, I found two bright green parakeet feathers on the shady path; bending to pick them up I saw a clump of fine grey rabbit fur caught in some leaves. A section of the path ahead was splashed with white, and I looked up, wondering if I was standing beneath a raptor's plucking post; immediately, high above the last, tired leaves of a sycamore, there was a red kite riding a thermal overhead.


I watched it turning and wheeling lazily for a few moments. Then came the 'kee kee kee kee' of another bird of prey – and suddenly there was a kestrel, too, speeding from one part of sky to the next:

I laughed out loud then at how easy it was, how near they were, how close I still was to London.

After a little while I walked on, startling big grey rabbits that fled into cover and green woodpeckers that launched up from the pastures like B-52s. There were swans on the Runnymede, too, and distant geese grazing the watermeadows. I didn't see the heron a local dog-walker told me was usually in the reed-beds, but on the return leg I met the raptors again.

First there was a hunched, kite-like shape high in an ancient pollard willow; I readied the camera and waited for it to take flight. When it did it dropped nonchalantly from its perch, sailing away with hardly a wingbeat to a distant oak, where it disappeared from sight.


Next came the sound of furious parakeets somewhere ahead: something had disturbed them, and they were screeching alarm and invective. At first I thought it was another kite they were mobbing, but then I saw it was a buzzard, its wide wings with their distinct fingers unmistakable against the late summer sky. Five birds dogged its every move, but it seemed to shrug them off easily, wheeling and climbing until they gave up and disappeared into the trees.

I had been looking up, watching the drama unfold, so when a huge bird took off from the ground ten metres or so ahead of me it was a surprise: another red kite, powering itself up languidly into the air, the sound of its wingbeats clearly audible. With a wingspan of nearly two metres it's hard to overstate how big they seem up close – and how impressive. Again, I found myself laughing as I span around, shading my eyes, looking first at the kite, then at the buzzard, and wondering what might appear next.

I realised, then, that the walk had done exactly what I wanted it to do – which was take me out of myself, as well as out of London. I'd needed something, but I had mistaken what it was: I thought the answer lay in a particular type of countryside, a particular view, and I believed I could arrange it for myself as easily as I might buy a particular bottle of wine, say, or find something relaxing to watch on TV.

I didn't get the walk I wanted that day; not even close. But I got what I needed, which was a dose of the wild – despite the roar of the A308, despite the litter. It was a brief, joyful moment of contact with a wider reality, one that had nothing whatsoever to do with me and my human concerns – and when you've been mired for too long in the anthropocentrism of city life there's nothing so necessary or so restorative as a reminder that, as Ted Hughes said, the world's still working.

Clockwise from top left: buzzard, red kite, wood pigeon, parakeet