A Kestrel Over Stretford Meadows


I mentioned a few posts ago about the re-discovery of local green spaces during the first lockdown. Remember those heady days in late March? When the cold was leaving us and the rolling ticker of infection numbers was driving ever-upwards in dizzying amounts? When masks were a novelty and we all had to relearn how to wash our hands? It seems and feels like centuries ago. There was a strange luminescence to those days, even amongst all the horror of an encroaching pandemic. Our houses seemed to strain with the burden of being excessively lived-in, we became suddenly more attentive about the dullest of things: the shopping experience, the new possibilities of home-based workdays and homeschooling. And then there was this curious reconnecting with nature, our one and only constant friend. The one-hour-of-exercise-a-day mandate came echoing down the pipes as if offered by the coronavirus itself as a sort of partial ceasefire. Among the gloom, we caught glimpses of silver linings in the shape of an easing to the environmental onslaught; those images of emerged and gleaming cities beside their smog-choked former selves, each pic just as photoshop-exaggerated as the other, no doubt. But out many of us went, to local parks or further afield to national parks, where police drones would spy some of the most extreme social distancers and frame them as super-spreaders. Hannah and I downed tools one day, checked Google Maps for the most green of local green spaces and saw Stretford Meadows nestled there, just beneath the loop of the M60. 

We'd lived in Stretford for five years and never even heard of its meadows. The name feels mysterious, as if the place is a cursed scar of land where witches hold rituals and werefolk howl. The locals never talk of it, except in warnings: Don't ye dare down the Stretty Meadows lad, there be all goblinness and foulthing down that-a way. Barely fifteen minutes of easy strolling later and we were there. A wide oval edgeland of wild grass and bramble, hawthorns, young oak and cherry trees, ringed by woods on three sides and the motorway on the other. A peaceful place, as if it had been cut out and dug up from some more distant rural locale and deposited here, a gift from gentle giants. A place that has, no doubt, been eyed by developers, although seems to be pretty safe for now. It reminded me of that other wild inner-city island, the fabled Pomona; a Ballardian strip of the overgrown that lies wedged between Manchester and Salford, bordered by the canal on one side, the trainline and tramline on the other. Awesome playwright and good pal Ali McDowall wrote a weird fiction play about Pomona a few years back which imagined nefarious business taking place beneath the wilderness surface. Pomona is now a building site. Northern Powerhouse. Luxury apartments. Architects of another looming housing crisis, no doubt.

Stretford Meadows is now a regular feature on our run route and we passed through it yesterday. A mild autumnal evening, the first proper crunching through fallen leaves. The meadows were very quiet, occupied only by us, a few cawing crows and one spectacular kestrel, silhouetted against the sunset, wings frantic as it hovered and stalked some prey. We tried to run closer but it no doubt had its tick-tock eyes on us too and soon swept away. I love a good bird-of-prey. So fierce, so glorious, so regal and melodramatic. Earlier in the year, once lockdown had eased a little to allow us back out to the countryside without fear of drone strikes, we took a particularly beautiful amble around Harewood House in Yorkshire where the sky was awash with an embarrassment of red kites. They literally rule the roost in those parts, swooping, soaring, glinting auburn and russet in the high summer sun. 

In fact, this has been a year of excellent bird sightings. Just last month, Hannah and I were inordinately excited about our first prolonged sighting of a kingfisher - a bird I have been keeping my eyes peeled for for years. We were at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, of all places, and there it perched, on a block of concrete down below the dam. We watched the little jeweled thing zoom about before it was joined by another, just a little further along the bank. Two kingfishers in the space of five minutes. I had recently finished all my PhD work, so I treated it like a reward from the nature gods. Not long later, Hannah spoke of getting a kingfisher tattoo now that we'd had that encountered we'd sought for so many years. If she does, it would join her growing menagerie of inked creatures. She has a rabbit on her right arm, to mark our new-found love for all things bunny, and the incredibly realistic goldfinch on her left arm, which has long-held emotional significance. 

Goldfinches, by the way, are our favourite birds. We often seem them chittering past in pairs, singing their hearts out for each other, keeping themselves to themselves for the most part. The scarlet-dipped red faces, the bright band of yellow at the wings, the proud upright stance, their lively yet aloof character; something about them speaks to a certain period of our lives and our relationship in a way I can't ever quite put my finger on. Perhaps one day I'll get a matching tattoo of my own.

So far on this blog, birds have featured more than any other type of creature. This might be because they are more obviously encounter-able, given that its relatively difficult to trip across, say, voles, badgers, or red squirrels. But I have become drawn in by the avian world over the past few years. Beyond our own pets, they are the creatures we see and experience the most, usually audible, often visible, but we tend to recede the most common ones into the background somewhat. I like to think of birds as the most wonderful freebies, a form of animal life we are always guaranteed to see wherever we go. So from the lowliest pigeon to the highest kestrel, it is always worth taking a moment to say hello to the winged. No matter what else life throws at us, there is always birdsong and feathers.

    

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