“EXCUSE me, when does it start?” The whispered question was accompanied by a tug at my jacket, and I turned to find a pair of bright eyes staring up into mine. They belonged to a well-wrapped-up child whose parents, similarly clothed against the bitter breeze which flitted around us, were standing near by and gazing into the sky. A New Year firework display? An open-air concert? No, the starling murmuration at Leighton Moss, the RSPB reserve. Each evening during winter, the starlings gather to sleep in the reed beds of the Moss, and their aerial acrobatics, as they prepare to roost, draw crowds from miles around.
The first indication that the birds are arriving is the rushing sound of thousands of wings. Then begins the whirling, swooping, dipping, rising dance as more and more birds arrive, each little body becoming part of what looks like a single organism that writhes across the sky until, as if an order has been given, they rise for a final time before plunging down into the reeds to roost. Breathtaking.
AS YOU read this, I will be preparing for the Burns Supper we are having for a few friends. There is, however, absolutely no chance of any post-prandial, high-level high jinks on this occasion. Any spinning done will be as part of an eightsome reel, should we decide that the floor (and we) can cope with it. If not, we’ll content ourselves with some poetry, and singing: that is, I’ll recite the poetry and the others can sing. (It would take more whisky than we can afford to enable our guests to enjoy my singing.)
A Burns poem has already flitted through my mind. Having watched the starlings come to roost one evening, we decided that, as the following day was a day off, we would return and watch them take to the skies at dawn.
It’s not an exercise that I feel inclined to repeat: the wind could have sliced granite, and the frost was severe. We heard the chattering of the birds increase until it sounded like a fast stream bubbling over rocks; we heard the sudden eruption of sound as they took flight . . . but we saw almost nothing as they flew away, low and fast, dark shapes against a still-dark landscape. As we trudged back to the car to thaw out, these words of Burns came to me:
Cauld blaws the wind frae east to west,
The drift is driving sairly;
Sae loud and shrill’s I hear the blast,
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.
Up in the morning’s no for me,
Up in the morning early;
When a’ the hills are cover’d wi’ snaw,
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.
That sinking feeling
I RECENTLY took part in some aerial activity myself. I am happiest with both feet planted firmly on Mother Earth, but, after some persuasion, I accompanied my husband on the Lancaster Wheel. As the name suggests, this was one of the sightseeing wheels that pop up from time to time. The Lancaster version was a temporary attraction, set up for the amusement of the Christmas and New Year crowds.
All went well, initially; there was much cheerful banter in the queue, which moved along quite quickly; the loading process was as easy as it could be when clambering into a small carriage suspended from a wheel; the assistant made sure that we were securely locked into our cage; and then came the lurch as the ride began. That’s when the “There-is-no-escape-now” feeling hit me. It grew worse as we started the ascent, and became full-blown “Oh-no-what-have-I-done?” as we cleared the shelter of the buildings, and the wind started shaking and rocking our cage. The carriages were not fully enclosed; so my anxiety about being airborne in a metal cage was exacerbated by a feeling of exposure as the cold air rushed around me. My husband, meanwhile, was busy taking photos, exclaiming about the view, and adding to the rocking by shifting his weight as he tried to take in the entire panorama. Suffice to say, it took me a full turn of the wheel to be able to open my eyes without feeling sick.
Wheel of fortune
LATER, as I recovered with a strong coffee and a restorative chocolate brownie (all right, two), an incident that happened while we were at Westcott House came to mind. We had some friends round for supper, and someone — probably my daredevil husband — suggested that we finish the evening with a visit to the funfair that was camped on Jesus Green. Being pregnant with Number One son, I was excused from the rides, but, to my enduring shame, I “encouraged” one of our friends to go on a high-level ride (think Mrs Doyle from Father Ted, “Ah, go on, go on, go on!”). Well, he did go on. . . and we had to go back to the flat immediately afterwards as he felt so ill. What goes around, comes around; my penance, perhaps, is now complete.
Elizabeth Figg is an ex-QARANC officer, nurse, midwife, and laughter facilitator, now working as a freelance writer. Her husband is a vicar in the diocese of Blackburn.