Thursday, 12 January 2012

Early ride...

I woke early today - 5.00am to be precise, but before you groan with disdain at the idea of me pedaling away whilst you were still tucked up in the land of nod, I should quickly add that I went straight back to sleep. I woke an hour or so later and after a squinty view from the window decided that an early morning ride would be a good start to the day.

The waxing moon was still visible as I set off, the roads were a shiny silvery grey as the day spluttered into life. As I make my way along familiar roads I think how this is like boring a geological sample through the strata of local life. I encounter a dog walker who returns a surprised 'Good Morning' - clearly caught off guard by my salutation.  I pass an old boy in a car who slows down for me and we exchange waves - his is more a signal than a wave; a lingering forefinger raised as if for the peak of a cap. Then I pass another cyclist coming the opposite way. I shout 'Good Morning' and he just keeps looking straight ahead with no sign of acknowledgement. I feel like remonstrating.

Now it is light and the sun is already bright above the horizon. Not at all what you might expect in early January - it's mild, almost warm - I think I am perspiring slightly. There is a mass of low cloud in the distance, violet-grey and peaked like a range of mountains but the sky above is blue with just a few single clouds hanging like balloons. I approach a flock of partridges gathered in the middle of the lane pecking away at the grit - as I get close they scamper away in all directions, some into the hedgerow while others take flight and follow the lane just ahead of me before veering off over the hedge and into a field. There's a team of road repairmen up ahead - their machinery gurgles and coughs and their bright yellow jackets mixed with flashing lights reminds me of a pinball machine. As I pass, one of the workers shouts out a hearty 'Morning mate' - I reply and try to remember if any workmen had ever acknowledged me before - I don't think so.

As I move on through villages and into more open countryside I notice something only a few feet away along a track, I stop and push myself back to take a closer look - it is a sparrowhawk, fiercely elegant, with long yellow legs ending in curving talons. It is perched on top of its prey - I'm unsure what, maybe a starling it has just brought down. As if buffeted by the wind, the sparrowhawk momentarily loses its balance, but then, regaining its poise, it quickly plucks a single billful of feathers from its prey. The wind snatches away most of the feathers, which drift briefly before falling in a scatter to the damp ground. The bird checks its surroundings and then plucks another billful of feathers. Suddenly there is an explosion of desperate wing-flapping as the prey, which I had thought dead, struggles valiantly to throw off its attacker's weight. I instinctively make a move towards them but then realise both the futility and the wrongness of my action. I stop but the movement alone has been enough to attract the sparrowhawk's attention. We stare at each other, I with regret at the probable consequences of my reflex response, the bird with the fierce burning intensity of a predator caught between hunger and survival instinct. It lifts off, flying low over the field into the growing light, leaving me with the impact of its glare and also leaving behind its prey. I move on hoping the bird will return to find its breakfast - and wishing I hadn't stopped in the first place.

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