The timing was perfect. The final remnants of snow from the ‘Beast from the East’ had melted from even the shadiest corners and the ‘mini Beast’ – as it was imaginatively dubbed – had yet to hit. As I drove towards Kingcombe, March was pulling out all the stops, at least above the horizon line. Towering, muscular cumulus clouds with arc-welded linings, golden chiffon scarfs of rain sweeping across distant vales, fingers of God, rainbows, double rainbows even – it was full-on William Blake.
Below the horizon though, the landscape seemed dull. The greens are brownish, the browns tinged with green, and everything’s a different shade of mud. There are hints that spring is on its way – a smatter of white blossom in the blackthorn hedges, tiny buds of silver fur on the supple twigs of pussy willow – but you have to squint pretty hard.
At the wildlife centre, the volunteers have been deployed here and there. Mike is digging over the vegetable patch and planting potatoes; Richard’s in the polytunnel with the broad beans; Tony and Marion are in the wildlife garden, armed with trowels and kneeling next to a small circular bed. This is the ‘grass-free lawn’, already planted with low-growing plants – herb robert, tufted vetch, bird’s-foot-trefoil and daisies. There are eight or nine distinct beds dotted around the edge of the circular pond. The ‘perennial wild flower meadow’, for example, has been seeded with native plants – primroses and cowslips, scabious, knapweed and the like – to ensure a constant supply of nectar for the visiting bees. The ‘cornfield’, which is currently just a bare patch of earth, will, in a few months, be bursting with poppies, cornflowers, oxeye daisies and corn marigolds. The early flowering heathers next to it are already at it, in delicate shades of mauve and pink, and will be interplanted, so Tony explains, with summer- and then autumn-flowering varieties so that the insects have food all year round.
For the team at Kingcombe, the garden’s design and layout is geared far more to visitors with six or eight legs than two. In one corner is a well-stocked bug hotel, thoughtfully kitted out with bits of twig and straw, flowerpots stuffed with hollow bamboo stems, pinecones, hunks of mossy bark and scrolls of corrugated card. The only thing that’s missing is a little swinging sign saying ‘Vacancies’.
The moths, butterflies, beetles and bugs that the unfertilized and unpesticided meadows of Kingcombe are famous for, are nowhere to be seen. Hardly surprising given the weather forecast: mini-beasts are no match for the ‘mini Beast’. Loudly in evidence, on the other hand, are the resident rooks. Careening and squawking, chasing each other, tangling claws and tumbling through the air, and then perching on the round scribbles of nests high up in the trees that line the river, they make an incredible din. Their cries range from low, farty clown-hooter rasps to staccato bursts of disbelieving laughter and snorts of derision. They drown out the sweet warble of the robin, the lyrical outpouring of the wren. Down by the pavilion, area manager Sam Hamer and I could hardly hear ourselves think. Sam aimed an imaginary gun at the treetops, and then lowered it without pulling the trigger. ‘That field is called “The Rookery” on a seventeenth-century map that we found,’ he said. ‘They’ve been here for a lot longer than us.’
He then went on to regale me with stories of the legendary intelligence of corvids: their puzzle-solving abilities and the fact that they can count up to six. A group of students even trained young magpies to spot, pick up and bring them any coins they found which the birds then dropped into a funnel. ‘They made several thousand pounds!’ he said, a Fagin-like gleam in his eye at the thought of this gang of avian scallywags roaming the countryside on the make. ‘And even if that’s not true, it should be!’
As we had been talking, the temperature had dropped by several degrees. Suddenly chilly, I put my jacket back on, and we headed inside where a flock of humans had gathered in the newly redecorated tea rooms. A large, bearded man accosted me at the door, beaming. ‘You here for the astronomy?’ I regretted that I wasn’t. The participants were all bright-eyed, with high colour in their cheeks, due either to the east wind or to the wine, and probably a bit of both. This was the first workshop of the season, and these were the first visitors to the centre after the long dark months of winter. An air of anticipation filled the hall: it sounded like a theatre foyer, or children on the first day of term. As the sun set and the final gleams of Blakean rapture faded from the sky, I left them, eyes upturned, waiting for the curtain to lift on the immense, dark stage of night for the big reveal.
First published in The Clearing magazine, March 2018