Words and pictures: Danny Adcock
The heat has been building all afternoon, flooding up on a soft, warm wind from the South which the swifts have been riding like screeching locomotives on tracks in the sky. Above their black silhouettes, falling ice crystals form fair-weather cirrus clouds into letters of intricate calligraphy. In the garden, bumble bees laden with pollen and nectar stumble clumsily through the air from the foxgloves to the jasmine that creeps up the garage wall.
It is that time in the evening when the sun dyes the landscape with a honeyed glow, when even the rather plain houses of my estate are adorned with auburn hues. As the evening draws on, a blackbird begins to sing from his vantage point on the television aerial. Because they are relatively commonplace, the song of the blackbird is often overlooked in the birdsong stakes, but for sheer verve, beauty and willingness to belt out a tune, the blackbird epitomises Summer for me. As he finishes each verse, another takes up the refrain from a house across the road. In the next street another responds and, in different streets and on different houses, at least two more are singing. I wonder just how far I can take this Summer melody, and so I get my bike out of the garage and cycle out the back gate.
I live in Dersingham, a village in North-West Norfolk about a mile from the South-East corner of the Wash, the square-mouthed embayment of the North Sea which is the only place on the East coast that you can watch the sun set over the sea, or so they say. I cycle out of my road and up onto the next one, stop, and listen. To be honest I don’t need to stop — there’s very little traffic and I haven’t been out of earshot of a singing blackbird — so I cycle off the estate and onto Hunstanton Road. I turn off down the eponymously named Post Office Road to the sounds of rival males in each ear, and then stop again when I reach the junction with Chapel Road. I can still hear two behind me, but also hear one ahead of me, and at least another two across the rooftops back towards the village centre.
I pass Fern Hill, and Sugar Lane. The houses are starting to thin out, and I stop again to listen. There are some sounds that are so undeniably English: the lowing of the cows in the field along the lane; the sound of church bells and, of course, the song of the blackbird in the evening, or after rain. I pass the church and the Manor House. A nonchalant pheasant on the graveyard wall clatters into the air as I round the corner. Rooks about the steeple ping their calls across the faces of the gargoyles, and there is a great cooing of pigeons through the air that is frowzy with flies, lit up by the sun into dusty pinpricks. Beyond the rooks and the pigeons I can hear a blackbird, though there is nobody to listen but me and the lichened gravestones.
Up Shernbourne Road I go, and out of the village. The surrounding twenty-thousand-acres or so is the Royal Sandringham Estate, even to the shores of the Wash. Fields have wide margins, copses, coverts and thickets are numerous, and now the unkempt hedgerows are at their most verdant. The anachronism that is game shooting has done much to mould our landscape, whatever your opinion on it. I’m cycling uphill now, and when I reach a crossroads a few hundred yards after the last house, I stop again. On a telegraph pole a blackbird sings; three poles down is another. The glimmer of a yellowhammer flashes across the road, and another trills its ‘Little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ song from somewhere in the hedge.
Norfolk is not as flat as most people imagine, and at the crossroads I turn left into Mill Road and continue uphill, climbing the back of the sleeping chalk hills. Mill Road surfs the back of this particular chalk ridge, then segues into Chalk Pit Road. The hedgerows are brimming: pink and white dog rose flow either side of the road, and waves of blackberry break across the uncut verges. Brown hares flatten their ears and press their bodies to the sod. A pair of red-legged partridge run before me, taking to the wing at the last possible moment. This reluctance to fly earned them the nickname ‘Frenchmen’, because it was said they didn’t like to face the guns. The landscape opens, and I stop at a gap in the hedge. From here, up behind the village, I can see the sun setting over the Wash at low tide. Crepuscular rays shine through a long grey cloud hanging just above the horizon, and there is a mirage of constant movement over the sun’s glowing gold reflection on the shallow seas. The song of an invisibly stratospheric skylark burbles on endlessly. The field margins are full of ox-eye daisies staring skyward. Green seas of barley are calm in the dropping breeze, and a marsh harrier has drifted inland from the Wash to quarter the fields. Somewhere, the throaty ‘Choooor-chuk’ of a pheasant on sixty a day reverberates, and swallows lope low over the ears of the crops. And, of course, a blackbird sings.
Freewheeling downhill I flash past some sheep, but not so fast that I can’t hear the blackbird singing from a stable roof, and on into St Thomas’s Lane where two more sing from opposing barns. The gradient steepens into the Ingol valley and I stop where the little chalk stream flows under the road. There is a glimpse of its clear waters, but all too quickly it’s smothered by a dank, dark tangle of nettles, alder and willow. High above me in a row of poplars a blackbird sings, and if I listen carefully when it pauses I can hear another in the distance.
St Thomas’s lane rises up and out of the Ingol valley. A spring has burst forth somewhere in the road verge and flows back down the road towards the river. At another crossroads I go straight over, past the allotments in the next village, Snettisham. There are at least two more blackbirds singing as the dusk gathers, though there is still plenty of light. St Thomas’s lane finishes on Church Road, Snettisham. I turn towards the village, and pass a row of terraced cottages on which a blackbird sings. Then Snettisham church and vicarage are left behind, as is the blackbird singing from the wall.
I’m sure if I had reached Sedgeford, and beyond, there would have been a constant stream of blackbird song, but there is something at the end of this road that also interests me. In the cool, stone-floored interior of the Rose and Crown a few minutes later I order a pint and sit down and, through the open door, I can hear a blackbird singing as the sun sinks beyond the Wash.
Danny Adcock on Caught by the River/on Twitter