I’ve recently been discussing landscape with a good friend and it has reminded me that my taste in landscape is an acquired one. She is excited to be among the baize and bone of chalk downland; I am thrilled by marshes, space and the absence of ‘landscape’. We both grew up in the same part of Suffolk. She turned inland in the search of English hills and I turned outward, looking for the edges. She thinks these marshes are boring. I think I get it from dad, who as a child asked to go on holiday ‘somewhere bleak’. I’ve always felt the same, as if taste in landscape was genetic and not formed from a patchwork of childhood memories involving seawalls and shingle beaches and ever-grey skies.
I mention this in lieu of explanation. It was dad’s fifty-something
birthday and we were stood on the selvedge of a seawall, admiring the
scimitar curve of Essex. We were stood on an island but it is almost
indistinguishable from the mainland. Behind us: a yachting village the
other side of the river. The Crouch washes the bank metres from our feet
and stretches east, merges with the Roach and dissipates into the
shallow muddy expanse of the North Sea. In front of us: Kentish power
stations are dark smudges in the murk, the Thames hidden and betrayed
only by ships apparently sailing through dry fields. The marsh is
essentially a building site. It has yellow cranes and diggers —
emblazoned with Hawk — spread across it. Here is where the dirt being
dug out from under London by Crossrail is being shipped to and turned
into a new island in the river. The island will be an RSPB reserve and
the noticeboard has optimistic images of Spoonbills. While they have
high hopes for here, politicians bicker over whether to build a
Crossrail station over my local park.
If the new nature is that which we can find in the margins of our urban lives, then I guess this is the new old nature. The desolate and remote locations of old nature, but a nature made by diggers and trains instead of fences and signs. We can lose sight that nature is as often man-made as it is man-destroyed. And the wildlife? A Rough-legged Buzzard hung over the marsh, flickering wings and spread tail, showing its patchwork of peat and cream plumage. A Hen Harrier ghosted low along the ditches, terrifying partridges and a Marsh Harrier drifted higher over the wetter areas, worrying the wildfowl. They do not care about the diggers.
But the real highlight was the Corn Bunting. In a crop field by the car park we found one. Dumpy, streaky and very brown, it is what is thought of as a birder’s bird. We found another, and another, until the crop field was alive with birds moving amongst the leaves. The flock was at least 100 strong, which would’ve been unremarkable 100 years ago. Perhaps even 50. But since then they’ve declined by 90% throughout Britain. A bird that used to be so local that populations 30km apart could sing with different dialects, they are the canary in the coal mine of British agriculture. I hadn’t seen this amount of Corn Buntings in my entire life, before today. I wasn’t even aware such gatherings happened in the 21st century.
And I remember when I last saw a Corn Bunting. I was a couple of miles into the Sussex downs with the same friend who is now so excited to be moving there. It had rained all morning and we were on the top of the green escarpment. Around us the landscape seemed like a dream of genteel Englishness, a period fiction of the past. From a manure dump a Corn Bunting sang its tuneless jangle. It looked as though it could’ve been shaped out of a lump of soil and straw, earth magicked to life. I was excited. My friend was bored, irascible, thoroughly uncharmed. Evidently an acquired taste.