The murmuration of starlings

November 12th was a golden morning, as bright as a ripe rosy apple. After the heavy gloom and rain we’ve endured recently, we just had to take advantage of the weather and take Rosy, Ferdy and Pippin out down the lane and for a trot along the muddy track in the sunshine. Charles had received an intriguing email that morning about an unusual event.. a murmuration of starlings that would be spectacular to witness and that it might take place at sunset at Titchmarsh Lakes.. During the winter months large numbers visit Britain from the continent and converge together at night to rest . We knew just had to go and invited our friends to join us.

It was a scramble to get there by 3.30 as the car park and verges were covered in parked cars . We joined the stream of people quietly but purposefully walking towards the lakes – it felt like a pilgrimage. We stopped on an open path between the two lakes. There was no guarantee that anything would happen as the starlings move to different locations. Everyone stood and patiently waited. We looked around us , taking in the beauty of the scene, as the golden sun sank in the still bright sky. Geese and water birds were honking on the lakes and flying around.. Then as if out of nowhere, small streams of starlings small groups of birds appeared in the sky like small dots.. swirling in ever changing shapes as they merged and circled and increased.. They came from all directions, building up to a silent crescendo as thousands of tiny birds swirled in patterns all around us.. As they passed right over all you could hear was the beating of many wings.. the murmuration.. It felt so exciting and alive with the pulse of the starlings moving as one – creating ever changing arcs and shapes in the wide sky. Such a mesmerising performance .. As the sun set and the light dimmed, the swirls of starlings got progressively lower until finally they settled into the dusk on the reed beds. The birds disappeared, leaving us and with just with their chattering . Against the backdrop of a magnificent sky flecked blue and pink we left the scene, as if leaving a theatre after the curtain has fallen, our minds and senses thrilled and awed by the privilege of witnessing one of nature’s spectacles ..

A busy Monday morning

One Monday in early November, We left our neat cul- de- sac behind and drove up to the field with a walnut tree sticking out of the back of our open car boot . The tree had a history. When our neighbours finally agreed that could remove our conifer hedge, we had been surprised to find the young tree growing inside the ugly hedge and had moved it to our back boundary fence. It had flourished until our new neighbours at the back had objected… but Philip had plenty of space -we could plant it up at the field .. It would provide shade in summer for his sheep to enjoy as they have no shelter. Life is much less restricted up there .. thank goodness we have our country life to relax into.

Whilst Charles dug a big hole and planted the tree, I got ready to worm Rosy and Ferdy . Rosy’s wormer had been squirted into a sweet apple laced with honey to mask the bitter taste. She happily munched on her extra tasty apple. Ferdy reacts as if we are trying to poison him if his apple doesn’t smell right, so his wormer has to be administered into his mouth without him seeing the syringe. This is no easy operation as Ferdy is surprisingly strong and quick. Whilst Charles held his head steady I swiftly and surreptitiously inserted the syringe into the space behind his teeth and plunged the nasty white paste down his throat. Poor Ferdy. His big head dropped slowly almost down to the ground as we stood quietly beside him for a few minutes, waiting to be sure he’d swallowed his wormer. He finally lifted his head, munched slowly and with dignity on a large sweet apple, before walking off quietly into the field to graze as if nothing untoward had happened at all. We carried on with our trot down the lane , whilst the 3 remaining sheep turned to watch us go and life settled into the rhythm of a quiet and peaceful day in the wide field.

In this unsettling time of the ongoing pandemic and as we collectively endure a second lockdown, it is a comforting thought that the walnut tree has been added to the landscape for posterity and hopefully will still be there when we are long gone.

Flo learns how to get on

On Friday afternoon in mid October, we collected Flo from school and drove her home to Oundle for a sleepover .. Flo is just 9. She has always enjoyed going up to the little farm on the edge of the small town and helping me at the field , whether with catching Rosy and Ferdy, mucking the old wooden railway- carriage stable, sprinkling fresh straw, feeding, grooming and tacking up. She has been going out on either Rosy and Ferdy since she was very small on a leading rein .. This time it was different. She not only came on her own without her parents and younger brother Oscar, but with the specific aim of learning to mount and dismount and ride independently. Once she can do this, she can start riding lessons at the local riding school, but Covid protocol specifies that she cannot be physically helped to get on. It was late afternoon when we got up to the field and already the sunlight was fading. We climbed over the gate to avoid the mud at the entrance. .Ferdy bellowed loudly as we walked across the wet grass, an incongruous sound from one so small. Rosy approached the wire meshing fence and whickered softly. As always, both animals eagerly anticipated the apples they knew were waiting for them once we were in the yard. We plodded up companionably in the late afternoon sunshine. Flo led Ferdy in his muzzle .. he is always keen to get it off and crunch on a small apple before meditatively leaning over to lick the wooden fence.. We left them side by side munching on their supper of hay. Pulling the metal gate behind us set off hand in hand for the warmth of supper at home. It is a treat for us to have the company of our granddaughter.. reminding me how short a time it seems since I was enjoying sharing the same routine with our daughter Zanna.. now in her mid thirties and far away in lockdown up in Durham in the North East of England ..

The morning dawned bright and sunny.. Flo got dressed in her purple jodhpurs and all her riding gear and we cycled up to the field together along the pavement.. the first time she has done this with me. She was surprised to find it was uphill all the way and I said how enjoyable it is to whizz home down the hill .. We cleaned the tack until it gleamed , brushed Rosy and Ferdy, picked out their hooves and got ready to set off. As always when up with the animals we relaxed, and time just ceased to exist. I made sure Ferdy’s girth was secure and that he had not done the classic trick of puffing his tummy out- there is nothing worse than a saddle that slips round as you try to mount and you find yourself deposited on the ground in an ungainly heap.. .. The moment to get on had arrived. I showed Flo how to stand by Ferdy’ shoulder facing his bottom, then gather her reins, put her left foot in the styrrup and swing herself up over and into the saddle.. On the 4th attempt Flo mounted calmly and perfectly with good style and and sat smiling in quiet triumph in the saddle. We set off down the lane in our usual convoy.. Pippin and Twiglet led the way, tails waving whilst Charles walked next to Flo and Rosy and I brought up the rear. Flo sat proudly with her back straight urging her tiny stead on confidently.. Ferdy is only 10 hands high.. the size of a Shetland pony but he rose to the occasion and Flo’s new found mastery and walked and trotted in a very collected way.

Learning to get on and off independently for the very first time, set Flo up for a good outing today and a confident way forwards as she moves into the future. Learning to stay grounded and connected with the skills needed for riding is a great lesson for developing resilience and confidence as you move through life.

Dark angry cloud appears

I got up and left for my ride at 8.30 which is earlier than usual. I felt angry and did not want to spend any longer in the company of Charles. Yesterday when sweeping the kitchen , I had been shocked to find pieces of broken pottery on the kitchen floor.. one of my favourite mugs.. made by Adam and irreplaceable, as Ad has needed a break from pottery recently . Charles said he hadn’t told me as it had happened whilst we were doing our last minute tidy up to go on holiday at 4 am ..he’d tried to push it onto the shelf and it just fell off and smashed.. I know he gets exasperated at times as we all do and sometimes seems to want to break things.. This morning when I went down, I found another broken pottery triangle.. that was the final straw. I gathered windfall apples and crusts and set off on my bike up the hill. The air felt chilly, the sky was a soft grey. Rosy and Ferdy emerged sleepily from their stable looking slightly surprised to see me so early and we companionably shared the titbits.. I relaxed into their quiet predictable company and whilst they munched hay I cleaned the tack, which I hadn’t done for months.. I love the smell of glycerine and the transformation as the dirty leather becomes supple and shiny. I even polished my boots. By the time I’d tacked Rosy it was 9.30. I let her eat some clover, savour some green lush grass and munch appreciatively on the yellow flowers and milky stems of cow thistle, before we crossed Glapthorn Road to trot down the verge and into our ride.. The golden stubble had gone, the brown fields were ploughed into heavy autumnal clods . I decided to go round them anyway before the wheat and barley were sown for next year. It is good to have a change of ride and landscape.. We walked and trotted along the brook and up by the hedge towards the old barn with the rusted corrugated roof. As we neared the top the cloud lifted, the sun came out, the sky became blue, a white butterfly flitted by and a swoop of yellowhammers dipped and dived along the hedge in front of us..Then I noticed with pleasure that the next field was stubble, we could canter along it.. My anger dissipated completely.

We galloped along in the sunshine, both of us seemed energised and connected.. We didn’t meet or see a single person or dog. I love these timeless moments of exhilaration as I fly along on Rosy – nothing else exists except being free in the elements. We even managed to gallop up the verge towards home when no cars are around . As we crossed the lane, Ferdy heard us.. He eeawed loudly. Certain now that Rosy was coming home, he stopped pacing anxiously up and down the fence, but walked nonchalantly off into his starvation paddock to graze. He ignored us completely as I untacked Rosy. I watched with pleasure whilst she rolled and detached her sweaty girth and numnah from her saddle to wash at home. Having scooped up the overnight droppings in the corral yard, I put on Ferdy’s muzzle, checked the water trough and left the animals to their predictable day. I cycled home in the sunshine to Charles feeling relaxed and apologised for getting so angry with him about a broken mug.. I also made a mental note to send Ad a message in far away America to check how he is getting on and ask whether he is making his lovely pots again.

The delight of new spring grass

Spring has finally arrived and with it the new green shoots of grass.Whilst we have been on holiday for a week over Easter, Rosy and Ferdy have spent the whole time in their paddock with no outings down the lane and no chance to nibble on the fresh green grass. Rosy can hardly wait to get out. As we tack up, she tosses her head, rejecting the dry hay on offer although Ferdy finds it acceptable and munches away. I mount. The corral gate is opened. Rosy sets off at a very brisk walk leading the way down the field through the gazing ewes and frisking lambs. She paws the ground with her hoof, waiting impatiently to be let out of the gate. Finally she is released into the lane where tantalising stems of new spring growth are everywhere. It isn’t good riding etiquette but I allow her to snatch big mouthfuls. The fresh grass of spring is such a treat. I almost feel as if I’m eating it too.. She moves around, swishing her tail, impatient to sample different types and flavours. Ferdy is more measured in his approach and picks delicate morsels, seeming to savour them in his mouth whilst Rosy greedily stuffs in as much as she can. Our ride is not very collected as Rosy keeps wanting to stop and eat. Finally, I have had enough and insist we keep moving at a steadier trot along the track. Pippin races ahead through the young wheat field – the skylarks still sing above us . There are very few insects but I guess they have all been sprayed out by the insecticides used to protect the crops. As we reach our galloping point where we turn away from the brook and back into Glapthorn, Rosy jiggles about in anticipation of charging up the hill and we fly off together into the wind , leaving Ferdy plodding behind. Once Pippin has emerged from her dip in the water, she speeds up to join us but by then Rosy has already dropped her head to sample a clump of tempting green grass and herbs. As we clop our way back up the lane, Charles and I discuss partitioning off the paddock with electric fencing now that there is so much grass. At their recent annual health check and teeth rasp, the equine vet had firmly pronounced that Rosy and Ferdy are both too fat and need to eat less. Even though they are shut in at night and Ferdy wears a permanent muzzle when he is out during the day, he still manages to eat too much . Just like us, whilst it is fine to have the odd treat, it is not good for our long-term health to overeat. Later that day we put up the electric fencing to make a restricted paddock and have ordered a new battery to make sure they get a shock if they put their heads underneath the strands of wire to eat the grass beyond. Rosy is frightened of the fencing and would never venture to touch it, but Ferdy is inquisitive and always works out when it is not working. They do not complain but I know Rosy will be delighted when we next go out together and she can try some different grass. It is good for equines to eat a variety of different herbs too. We leave them grazing in their smaller area, whilst the ewes and lambs who do need to put on weight tuck into as much grass as they can. We cycle back down the lane to our town life in Oundle and our coffee and toast.

Surprise encounter in the woods

After letting Rosy and Ferdy out to graze, on a bright Sunday morning in mid April we strolled through Southwick Nature Reserve. Pippin charged round under the mature oak and ash trees, dashing through the clearings of young green shoots flecked with the deep blue of spreading bluebells. Recently I had met the warden who’d been looking for deer to cull as they move in from the neighbouring fields, but luckily for them, neither of us had seen any .. I have never come across roe deer on our frequent walks in these lovely woods . The week before with the birding group, we’d been absorbed watching coaltits bobbing about in the thorn trees by the entrance, whilst catching glimpses of the ceaselessly moving tree creeper. Time stood still as we’d paused to listen to the melodious song of the mistle thrush and spy him high up above in the tree top. Using binoculars, I had been shown where to see a highly vocal blue grey nuthatch in a distant oak tree, listen to its drilling and insistent sound and admire its chestnut flank, whilst following its movements up and down the branches, often on the underside before it flitted off to another on . As we had walked on through the woods reverberating with birdsong, we had spied a fast moving treecreeper. An elusive wren flitted across our path followed by the surprise of the trilling song emerging from such a tiny bird. We paused to concentrate on the short distinctive call of chiffchaffs and from afar the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker. There is so much to experience, especially when you are shown by experts, although the lesser spotted woodpecker has not been seen or heard for years .. The blackthorn blossom billowed like a white cloud, celandines glittered at our feet amongst small clusters of purple violets and everywhere the bluebells were just starting to open. Suddenly there was a rhythmic rush of movement and a herd of at least eight roe deer passed by and disappeared into the woodland as mysteriously as they’d arrived, without Pippin even noticing them. It felt a magical moment with a dreamlike quality. How glad I was that the warden with his gun was far away . I returned home feeling enriched and with the sights and sounds of the spring woods imprinted deep within my mind’s eye .

The skylarks are singing

It is March 21st -the vernal equinox – and spring seems to have arrived in East Northamptonshire. Philip the subsistence farmer and our landlord has moved his first newborn lambs with their mothers out from his big barn where they were in tiny separate enclosures and into the big open field right next to ours..It is a surprise to find at least a dozen small young lambs sitting together in a tight little nursery group watched over by their vigilant mothers who are grazing round them. One ewe stamps her front hooves in warning as I walk past to reach our fence, where Rosy is watching form behind her corral gate.Philip’s stock is never the smartest nor does he ever have top quality animals. Perhaps he gets the bargains at the end of market.. His ewes are shaggy and unkempt and often seem to be either lame or have coughs and even their lambs look grubby. The day before we had been in the Peak District, walking up Whin Hill high above the Ladybower Reservoir and admiring fluffy white sheep and lambs in the sunshine against the backdrop of the sweep of green stony hills. Nevertheless these bleating lambs are sweet and tiny and already so soon after birth are able to orientate themselves towards their mothers and their peers and will soon be skipping around together in the sunshine . I walk through the field to muck out and decide to tack up Rosy and go for a short ride. Soon we are trotting along the stony bridleway track leading towards Cotterstock with arable fields of wheat shoots on either side.. there are two wide strips of set aside grassland bordering one field almost like two sides of a triangle – as we move along steadily I hear the long pleasant liquid warbling song of the skylarks rise above the clop of Rosy’s hooves and her rhythmic breathing and snorting, as the barely visible birds hang in the air over their territory. I can’t see them but their presence is unmistakable. Soon the brown unobtrusive birds that are a bit bigger than a sparrow will nest out on the open ground of the arable fields and on the ungrazed grassland. They feed on plant and animal material on bugs and snails and whatever grains and seeds they can find around them. It is surprising that we never notice the skylark going about its life in the fields and raising up to 3 broods of fledglings per season, and yet their song fills us with joy as the herald of spring, perhaps even more so as it is mysterious and enigmatic – being heard and not seen.

Wild violets defy Storm Gareth

Everyone relaxed into the warmth of sunny days in early March. Winter seemed to recede and we basked in the pleasure of sunshine on our faces and the brightness of early spring flowers. As I cycled up to the field celandines gleamed in the golden warmth of sunshine while the pale yellow of primroses peeped through the edge of the hedgerow by the little stream. Once they had been released from their corral on these bright mornings, Rosy and Ferdy walked eagerly out into the field to munch with appreciative intensity on the first succulent tips of green spring grass. They no longer wanted dry hay… Their joy was short lived. Suddenly as if out of nowhere Storm Gareth appeared and swept along in forceful gusts of cold wind, squally rain and grey moody skies. The elements regressed back into winter and animals and humans retreated to the comfort of shelter and home. After they had ventured out and found it too cold, we left Rosy and Ferdy eating hay in the stable and drove down with Pippin to walk along the willow brook in Glapthorn. It has seemed the least muddy of the local daily morning walks as recently wherever Pippin has charged along at full tilt, whether by the river Nene or in Short Wood, her paws, legs and tummy become caked in claggy soil, which spatters everywhere and has to be thoroughly washed off. Today the skies were grey and full of wind. We were pelted with stinging rain as we neared the little foot bridge that takes us further along the brook. What a surprise awaited us. There just by the bridge was a small patch of tiny purple violets as if in defiance of the stormy weather and grey skies. Their clear colour and presence gleamed – so pure and simple and steadfastly timeless … a reminder to stay resilient and not be put off or set back by forces beyond our control.

Just get on – Overcoming fear

I had been away for a few days and had left Kathy and her mother Cynthia in charge of Rosy and Ferdy. Sometimes we ride out together. No money is involved but I always bring a present. I was due to pop up with it on Friday afternoon. It had been a wonderful early spring day – much brighter than the weather on our trip by the coast- just perfect for trotting down the lane. On an impulse I asked if Kathy had time before tea for a short ride. Yes she’d love to meet up at the field with her two children.. Joseph aged 7 has weekly riding lessons. He is the only person who can rise to the trot and keep Ferdy moving along in a collected manner. Susie aged 9 is frightened of horses and keeps out of the way – often sheltering behind the bars of the hay section, where she says she’s safely in prison. Today was different, in her own time she emerged from the hay and joined in with the preparations. We brushed off the worst of dust and mud – she was especially keen on watching as I carefully picked out their hooves. We set off, with Kathy on Rosy, William sitting up straight on Ferdy and reluctantly attached to a leading rein. Susie ran on ahead in pink wellies on her long legs – her long red hair flying – she looked like a pretty filly leading the way. It was a happy time going round the track in our usual way. Birds sang and the willow buds were just starting to show. After Kathy had galloped Rosy up the hill whilst we struggled to keep Ferdy going, as he instantly slowed to a snail’s pace when not in the lead, I asked Susie if instead of being at the back behind Ferdy’s bottom, she’d like to be led back up the lane on Rosy. ‘O no, I can’t. I daren’t . It’s so high up. My feet might come out of the styrrups. I might fall off. ” Finally, with much encouragement, she reluctantly agreed to try as long as Kathy led her on the leading rein. Rosy set off gently for Susie’s first ride, ” I like this, ” she said sounding surprised,” It’s a lovely feeling. I can see so far. I was so scared but it’s not like I thought it would be.” It felt such an achievement. As we made our way back up the lane, I reflected that often in life if we can find the courage to take a deep breath and just do it – whatever it is – we can push our boundaries and preconceptions of what we can achieve. This develops personal confidence . Otherwise we limit ourselves to what we know and restrict our ability to try new experiences. It was a delight to see Susie riding for the first time.After we’d untacked and given Rosy and Ferdy their carrot titbits, Susie patted Rosy, probably for the first time. “I’d like to come and ride again please.”