It began with a low flypast by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, fighter planes from World War II; after that our eyes turned again and again to the deep blue sky. Then Vincent spotted a buzzard, not unknown in Canterbury – see 3 September 2015, Bravado of the Birds.
Not unknown, but worth downing tools for. Who was going to see him off, I wondered, recalling ravens, jackdaws and gulls escorting these predators away from their children – though sadly ravens are not seen over Canterbury today. But no jackdaw nor gull appeared, instead there was another buzzard soaring over us, and then two more. None of us earth-bound humans had seen four together over Canterbury before.
Too early in the year for this season’s chicks to be on the wing, surely? Were these four juveniles or two parents with last year’s offspring? Certainly two bore pale flashes on their underwings, and one of these was audibly and physically corrected when it flew too close to one of the others. We heard it over the roar of traffic from the inner bypass.
From up there the birds could see a long stretch of green: our little acre is on the river and just across the main road that runs behind us lie the Westgate Parks which lead to the meadows, and the cycle path to Ashford which we earthlings visited yesterday.
Hanging out the washing is supposed to be done in the company of blackbirds, but when I looked up it was a buzzard that caught my eye, ‘making lazy circles in the sky’. No chance of a catch for him in town, he was enjoying the thermals and making up-river, minding his own business.
There was a tremendous chattering from next-door’s magpies: all bravado, as neither one nor all three of them had any intention of engaging with the predator. He soared away in his own good time.
A week across the border with Mrs T, NAIB and HDGB: the students preparing to finish their courses deserved a reading week on Anglesey, Ynys Môn. Peace among the daffodils to gather thoughts onto paper or disc.
The sun shone and we sat out of doors with our coffee. A call drew eyes to the sky where six big birds circled on the thermals. ‘Buzzards’, suggested HDGB, but no buzzard ever barked like that. ‘Ravens’, I asserted.
The species are similar in size, both have fingered ends to their wings, though their tails differ. As we watched, it became clear that neither of our identifications was wrong. A pair of buzzards were being attacked in mid-air and sent packing by the ravens, swooping in and pecking the hawks’ wingtips.
We once witnessed a similar display over our heads in Kent, when rooks were asserting their territorial rights. This time the buzzards soared back towards the mainland as the sun’s brightness took them from our sight.
The Cossington Outdoor Centre is in an old watermill, two miles from Llanfair. A skinflint farmer ripped out the wheels and stones in 1929 to use it as a barn. Gradually it crumbled to ruin till twenty years ago, when Jack Wickenden (of Wickenden’s Wicked Lemonade, our local millionaire) had it restored “for the benefit of the young folk of Cossington in perpetuity”. Where bullocks and sheep once sheltered from cold Welsh rain, there are dormitories and showers, heated these days, thank God. The old mill house holds the staff quarters and office; kitchens, classrooms, games rooms and stores are in the outbuildings on three sides of a courtyard. Even the newer buildings are clad in red sandstone, under a black slate roof, all to fit in with the national park. Beautiful. Quiet, till we got there.
The centre has its own staff, led by Bob Kipling, a cheery outdoor type, widely believed to have served in the SAS, a reputation he says nothing to dispel. I remember his last two years in school – they were my first two there. We had enough on each other for me not to let on that he’d only been a part-time sergeant in the West Kent Territorials. His assistants were local youngsters Ellis and Nerys, who could handle a rope on a cliff or a boat on a river, and eat any of our lot for breakfast. Bob and his wife Maggie live on the job, Nerys and Ellis come in daily.
I had allowed myself to be persuaded to drive one of the centre’s minibuses. You may feel this was against my principles, but I’d left my car behind – I hope they aren’t painting that green too – and thought I might need an escape from the Cockles or the students occasionally.
There was a welcoming committee in the courtyard when we arrived at the Centre. They had heard us at the top of the drive half a mile off. Bob soon had the boys lined up with their bags at their feet, while the girls stood in a bunch at the front of the bus, waiting for a word from Maggie and Mrs Cockle. I had the camera rolling.
Great Elms School Trip to Wales
Passage cut from Scene 6
Unloading the bus at the centre
Edited by Paul Thompson and Emily Miles
Camera: William Turnstone
Scene: main courtyard at Wickenden Mill. Present: GES staff and students, Wickenden Mill staff.
Enter Shep, a collie, sniffing the air.
Stacey bends down to pet him.
Shep ignores her, wanders over to the boys, tail held high, sniffs at Darren’s bag. Darren’s bag wriggles, nearly topples over, whimpers.
Mr Kipling, unable to pull his dog away: What’s in the bag, what’s-your-name?
Darren: Darren, Sir, Darren Hogben. Clothes, Sir. Boots, Sir. Towel, toothpaste, stuff like that… Er, Everything on the list, Sir.
Mr Kipling: Does ANYTHING on the list make a noise like that, Darren Hogben?
Darren: I don’t know, Sir. They are new boots, Sir. Mum said they might be squeaky, Sir.
Mr Kipling: Open the bag.
Darren opens the bag, to reveal the dog he had been seen with by the cliff.
Mr Kipling: I thought so. Well, Sir, your Mum can soon find out if your boots are squeaky, Sir, because you, Sir, are going straight back home in that bus. I will NOT have unauthorised, untrained, mongrel curs chasing round the place.
Darren: But, Sir!
Mr Kipling: If me no buts boy, there are no buts!
Stacey: It’s Scruffy, come here, boy!
Coach Driver: He’s not coming back on my coach. I was paid to bring you people here; not to take you back again. My company has done its risk assessments. I don’t carry no unaccompanied dogs, and I don’t carry no unaccompanied minors. As far as I’m concerned, he stays here till I comes to take you home at the end of the week. Meanwhile, I want to be back across the bridge before my break, so if some kind person will come along to open the gates, I’ll be seeing you on Friday.
Emily: I’ll go! Climbs into coach and leaves to open field gates for driver.
Mr Kipling: Right then, Darren Hogben, let me get this mob sorted, then it’s straight into Abergavenny and I’ll put you on the train home. Now, let that creature have half an hour on the lead while I make some arrangements. We should be able to have you back in Cossington for eleven o’clock tonight.
Darren: Did you say have Scruffy on the lead?
Mr Kipling: On the lead!
Darren: He doesn’t need no lead. He’s well trained. Scruffy! Sit! Lie down!
Scruffy: lies down.
Shep: goes to Scruffy, who rolls over while Shep licks him all over.
Mr Kipling: Shep, come here!
Shep: ignores him.
Mr Kipling: Shep! Heel! Come on boy. Shep! Here!
Mr Kipling: Stop them, can’t you?
Darren: I wouldn’t do that. It’s just Scruffy telling Shep he knows who’s boss, and Shep making friends. That’s dogs, Sir. It’s what happened with Scruffy and my Nan’s old dog. If you stop them now we could have them fighting all week.
Stacey: Your Nan! Oh help! Runs to Gemma and whispers excitedly.
Text Message sent by Stacey Oxenden,
HI MUM. ARRVD OK. QIK. GET OLD MRS HOGBEN 2 CUM 2 T. NOW. V IMPRTNT. NOW. THIS MIN. LUV U. STACEY. NOW. X.
Second Text Message sent by Stacey Oxenden,
HI JASON. B NICE 2 OLD MRS HOGBEN. KEEP HER TALKIN. PULL HER FONE WIRE OUT WEN U TAKE HER HOME. JUS DO IT OR ELSE. 4 ME + DAZ. STACE. LOOK AFTER RATS.
Text Message sent by Mrs Angela Oxenden,
STACEY. R U IN TROUBLE? IS DARREN IN TROUBLE? WOT R U UP 2?
Third Text Message sent by Stacey Oxenden,
DONT ASK QS MUM. JUST GET HER ROUND. NOW & KEEP HER. FEED HER, MEGA IMPORTNT. LUV U. S
Second Text Message sent by Mrs Angela Oxenden,
STACEY. I DONT TRUST U. BUT NO HARM IN GIVIN HER A CUPPA. U SURE U NOT IN TROUBLE?
Darren on the Rocks.
Darren was in a mess and I was his ex-form tutor, in loco parentis. I had to do something, but just what could I do? The first thing was to talk to the boy himself.
“Come on, Darren, let’s give Scruffy a run for his money. If you don’t mind a field full of Herefords, I’ll show you the way to the river. I hear these waters rolling from their mountain springs with a sweet inland murmur.”
We kept Scruffy on the lead across the centre grounds but as Darren said, he was well trained and trotted at heel once he was released, ignoring the big red-and-white cows and the bull in the midst of them. I had to congratulate Darren on Scruffy’s behaviour.
“Thanks, Sir, it’s been hard work, but he’s really obedient now. And very intelligent. I couldn’t leave him behind.”
“Wouldn’t your Mum look after him?”
“She’s gone on holiday with Aunty May, to Ibiza. They should be landing there at six o’clock.”
“So she let you bring Scruffy?”
“Not exactly. I was meant to take him round to Nan’s this morning. But she’s terrible; she feeds him sweets. He’ll put on weight and I’ll have to stop him begging all over again. So I gave him half one of Nan’s sleeping pills and put him in my bag.”
“Wasn’t that a bit dangerous? What if you’d overdosed him?”
“Well, Nan’s only little, so I thought a half would be OK. He looks OK now, doesn’t he, Sir?”
I had to admit he did. Scruffy had a great time chasing sticks in and out of the river, while I was glad to see the sand martins on the far bank and a buzzard circling high above us. Twenty minutes of breathing space, before we had to go back and face the music.
Another question I wanted cleared up before that, “What happened to Dean’s rat? He hasn’t brought that has he? Not after I specifically told him not to?”
“No. She’s gone off to get pregnant at Stacey’s. Her brother Jason lost his female and Dean said he could have half the babies if he had her for the week.”
“That should make life a bit easier, if no-one’s actually disobeyed orders. Still, if we were to send you home … I don’t think your Nan has a spare room in her flat, has she?’
“She hasn’t, has she?”
“No, not if you say so, Sir.”
”Whatever you say, Darren. At least there’s a bed for you here, and we are in loco parentis.”
“Yes, Sir, if you say so, Sir.”
“Have you been here before then, Sir?” asked Darren on the way back to the centre.
“Years ago, when it first opened. I cannot paint what then I was. Mr Kipling was in his fifth year at school. I was a new teacher. Your mother … well, a lot has changed since then. Reliable hot water in the showers for a start, and no doubt the cooking’s improved; this path down to the river and all the wheelchair access. We couldn’t have brought Ollie in those days. I expect Bob Kipling’s a bit more safety conscious as well.”
“Yes Sir. What do you mean Sir, more safety conscious?”
“Hmm, nothing, Darren. Let’s concentrate on the here and now. You’re in enough hot water even without taking an early shower. I take it you do want to stay?”
“Yes, Sir. But will he let me? I mean, even if he does, he’ll be on at me all the time won’t he?”
“I can pretty well promise you that he won’t. Be on at you I mean. Though of ample power to chasten and subdue he’ll have other things to worry about. And I can’t see you being chastened or subdued for too long. If Scruffy doesn’t disgrace himself, we should manage it. Now, here we are at the gate. Get him back on the lead.”
Sometimes you actually do contrive to go around with your eyes open. This last Sunday morning was one of those times. On our way up Abbot’s Hill to church there were blackbird and robin babies around. The young blackbirds from our ivy were being shown where to find water in next-door’s blocked roof gutter; the robin hopped across our path by the college. Joy enough there, but there was a wren too.
Walking home, aside from ubiquitous rabbits, and the ducks and moorhens on the college pond, so beloved of Sunday afternoon walks when the children were little, the first sighting was of two green woodpeckers, parent and child perhaps, probing the ground softened after the storms overnight, at least until we came around the corner. The bird that flew up into a pond-side tree, however, was much less familiar: a young cuckoo, finally chased away to fend for itself by its exhausted foster-parents. Was it the child of the one who sang for us all day in May?
A hundred yards further, and the cries of crows above us drew Mrs Turnstone’s eye, then my own. There were three rooks, making a great deal of fuss, mobbing a buzzard who was certainly low to the ground and perhaps a little off his usual beat, or maybe it was another juvenile bird trying to make his way in the world. The crows won the day, at least in their own eyes; the big hawk soared away up the valley and the rooks returned to their own business, perhaps to contend with the woodpeckers who were already undulating their way back to the rough turf near the monument. The buzzard was soon out of sight above the wood; no doubt to find some unsuspecting victim before the day darkened. Was he bothered? Not much I suspect, but the rooks were happy to see the back of him.