Escaping the world

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The week has passed, relentlessly flinging tragedy and horror in our faces as if to say ‘Had enough yet? How about now? And now? And now?’

On and on and on and on. I can’t process it, cannot imagine what it would be like to be directly affected by any of it.

But still the world turns; life goes on. And sometimes we reach a stage where it is healthy, in the interests of self-preservation, to say ‘Ok. Stop. Take a moment.’

So with the intention of turning this blog, however briefly, into some sort of ‘safe space’, this week I offer a short description of a day’s birdwatching in which, effectively, nothing happened. But that’s ok, because at the moment days in which nothing happens seem as rare in Britain as the myrtle yellow-rumped warbler.

So here it is. No outrage, no opinion, no hot takes. Full disclosure: I see a scarce bird near the end. That’s as exciting as it gets.

I rise with the lark (but only if it’s a lark that’s been out on the lash the night before and fancies a bit of a lie-in), and drive to Ashdown Forest. I’m not sure why I choose that place. I have the car, and most of southern England is at my disposal.

I could go to Cliffe Pools in north Kent, where this time last year a nightingale gave me a private recital and stole my heart. I could go to Frensham Common in Surrey, where a red-footed falcon has been knocking about the place for a few days. I could really push the boat out and head for Church Norton on the south coast, where an elegant tern (that’s its species name – all terns are elegant, but the elegant tern is such an elegant tern that, much to the chagrin of all the other elegant terns, it got the coveted name ‘elegant tern’; this is why some people insist on capitalising bird names) has been wowing all-comers with its elegance and terniness.

But with rare birds come people, and if I fancy anything today, it’s solitude. It might be so much more friendly with two, but I’m not feeling particularly friendly.

The overarching theme of any day birdwatching is, for me, uncertainty. It’s not that I know nothing – more that I know just enough to know how little I know. For all the time I might spend leafing through a bird guide or listening to song on that redoubtable resource,, the experience of being out and about throws up different challenges, each one seemingly designed to expose the many gaps in my knowledge.

Was that a whitethroat flitting down into the bracken, my fleeting glimpse of it so totally at odds with the illustrations in the field guides?


How about that one over there, another little brown job, bouncing off into the distance, just too far away to make out any distinguishing features?


That song, that scrabbling, scratching, indeterminate bunch of nearly-notes – that sounds familiar. But what is it? And where’s the bird?


The trick, I’m beginning to find, is not to worry so much. A lovely bird is a lovely bird is a lovely bird; who cares what name we put to it? But the arch-competitor in me, in cahoots with the 12-year-old cricket-stats-obsessive who first fell in love with birds 40 years ago – oh bloody hell 40 years how did that happen oh god oh god oh god I’m old old old – wants to know, needs to know.

And it’s only courteous to the bird to take the trouble to learn its name.

But I’m learning to let it go, to enjoy the walk for what it is. And Ashdown Forest is an almost gratuitously pleasant place to go for a walk: open spaces strewn with heather and gorse and bracken, coolly shaded woodland with trickling streams, hills of testing but not abusive demands, the whole compounded by the brazen pulchritude of the views over the Sussex countryside.

And there are birds. Of course there are.

Wrens, electrifying the air with song, fifty times louder than is appropriate for a bird that size.

Goldcrests, flitting about in the canopy just out of sight, but identified by their high and thin tsee-bada-tsee-bada-tsee-bada-tsee-bada-scabba-diddle-oo.

Willow warblers, the wistfulness and melancholy of their descending song often given a little uplift at the end, as if they’ve just found a Jaffa Cake underneath a pile of Rich Tea.

Also seen: 8 stonechats, 7 robins, a dozen or so blackbirds, a family of great tits, 9 invisible bracken-fidgeters, 8 no-ideas, and 1 sit-still-so-I-can-have-a-look-you-bastard.

There are treats, too. The tree pipit, singing from the top of a tall tree then parachuting down in slower-than-slow motion. And the turtle dove, its purring call summoning me from the other side of the thick bushes – a poignant sight, my first in this country, and, the way things are going, very possibly my last.

It’s only near the end of the morning, returning to Gill’s Lap car park, that I realise exactly where I am, and make the short detour. And as I stand by the commemorative plaque and let myself absorb the peace and repose of the scene before me, I realise I do know why I came here. All those other places, your Church Nortons, your Frenshams, your Cliffe Poolses, they might have offered more in the way of birdlife, more excitement. But only Ashdown Forest carries with it the redolence of comfort, of escape, of keeping the world at bay that I specifically needed this week.

I came here because some small part of me, my irrepressible inner child, instinctively wanted, for just a few hours, to revert to a world in which a little boy and his bear are always playing.

Which is, of course, exactly how A. A. Milne intended it.

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One comment

  1. Laughter & at the end, almost tears. (I’m a sap.) But all the birds’ songs sounded alike to me. It’s clear I was never destined to be an ornithologist.

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