Caught by the River

Richardson in Zanderland

John Richardson | 18th February 2011

‘Words on Water’ illustrator, John Richardson, has upped sticks and moved east. Here’s how he’s getting on:

A letter from Zanderland: Topography and Typography

The ‘Ice-Age’ has finally departed. Although the ice on the rivers, drains and lakes did take weeks to finally disappear and I don’t think it will take too much encouragement to return. There have been a few mornings when the ice has returned to the margins, tapping and rattling as the wind shakes the reeds. The dawns and sunsets remain incredible and the weather pattern is back to four seasons in a day. There are also bonus unexpected weather conditions and when the big Fenland winds are blowing through the row of poplars a couple of hundred yards away it sounds like the roar of jet engines.

Sitting by a drain Pike fishing, (I don’t use the description Zander fishing in case it brings bad luck), you become aware of all of the many small environments that make up the whole bigger view of the Fenland landscape. There are Wrens busying themselves in the eternal search for food, rooting and probing in the reeds and undergrowth. Huge flocks of rooks and crows often numbering several hundred practising their aerobatic skills, in fact one long, elongated flock took ten minutes to pass. Massive flocks of wood pigeon whizzing across the sky like the RAF Typhoons and American F15’s, although the pigeons are slightly quieter. I suppose that must make the hawks that I see the original stealth bombers. Pheasants and partridges, head down and always eating. You can’t see the skeins of geese and swans honking as they fly over just before dawn but sometimes all you can hear are their wings combing the air.

Fishing late one afternoon just as darkness approached there was scuffling at the top of the bank behind me and finally a cock pheasant appeared, looked right, looked left and then right again, took off and flew over the drain to some ivy covered poplar trees to roost for the night. Odd behaviour I thought, he obviously didn’t spot me amongst the sedges dressed to look like a tree. Minutes later two hen pheasants did exactly the same manoeuvres, then another cock pheasant went through the same routine, no rush, just a leisurely fly and glide – very strange.

Some days we go out in the car to explore the back roads and droves further afield and near Crowland Abbey driving along Welland Bank on a high causeway-like stretch of road we both spotted a ‘creamy’ coloured bird flying about six feet below us and about ten feet away. It turned out to be a Barn Owl who just kept on flying along next to us checking us out for about half a mile then he peeled off into a farmyard and disappeared only to re-appear at the end of a row of trees right next to us again. Finally after a couple of hundred yards the owl glided gracefully in front of us, across the river and alighted on a post, frightening a Heron in the process. What a treat on a gloomy Sunday afternoon.

Talking of Herons, they are back on the riverbanks doing what they do best, fishing. This morning they were lined up like match anglers, a polite distance apart but I like to think close enough to exchange fishing details like anglers do, or to ignore one another like some anglers do.

The orchards are slowly beginning to come out of their hibernation, buds are swelling and the trees are being pruned. The prunings are left on the ground to distract the rabbits, hares and deer who strip these of bark with minimal effort and leave the trees alone. These stripped prunings look like dry white bones lying in the grass.

Walking the terriers in the orchards we have found ladybirds – in January – and finally some mistletoe, I obviously wasn’t looking hard enough before Christmas. When the hard frosts were here the fieldfares, redwings and goldfinches were present in colossal numbers, one orchard has forty two poplars as a windbreak I counted eighty in one tree without completing the count in that particular tree. There must have been upwards of one hundred and fifty birds in each tree, multiplied by forty two that’s one heck of a lot of birds. When they are chirping and muttering the sound is like water running over stones and it’s loud, very loud.

The waxwings, all pink, posh and looking like avian dandys, turned up too. I tried to photograph them but they were less than impressed by me messing about with my iphone, trying to control two terriers at the same time and just as I am ready to shoot they decided – enough – and flew away. Still there’s always next winter or we might well get another cold snap. The sparrow hawks still visit the garden, no doubt attracted by the birds that are attracted to the feeders and bird table. One caught a dove and that was just an explosion of feathers. I found where it was eaten its prey on the land behind the house; all that remained was a circle of down. No doubt the foxes finished off the leftovers.

The telegraph pole at the back of the house is a favourite roost for the kestrels and yesterday in the wind and rain I watched one ‘fall’ off the pole spread its wings at the last minute and catch a mouse and then fly to a gatepost and eat its Sunday dinner. This morning on the gatepost, just some scraps of fur and blood spots were left. It’s a tough old world out there.

Underwater there must be tons of food because some days my dead baits lie untouched, another day I catch pike, the best so far being about fifteen pounds but of that other predator, the one I can’t name, there is no sign. Just gouged dead baits after a run that you strike at, full of hope, only to feel no resistance. I do have a plan though……………….!

Fenland typography continues to amaze and amuse me. No type hierarchy here. No sophisticated layout and certainly no Mac to work on. Who needs type reference books? Just a bit of wood, a brush and some paint, creative flair and then communicate.

In fact all you need sometimes is just a vision, a big idea, a pair of hedge clippers and a Leylandii hedge.

Click here to read John’s previous letters from Zanderland
John at The Two Terriers Press