COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
NEVER go back, they say, but sometimes it is just too tempting. It was the birthday of an old friend from north Norfolk, where I'd spent some of the happiest times of my life. I'd met Mike and his wife Pooh this winter after a gap of a dozen years, but it was just as if we were all still running wild on the marshes as we had at the end of the Sixties. A party in Blakeney in the spring felt like a chance to cock a snook at time.

It was, in the end, something special. Two birthdays, as it turned out, and Mike's 1994 vintage to celebrate as well. Somehow, in salt winds that blow straight from the Urals, he grows grapes; and a local GP, an alchemist, I suspect, turns them into wine. It was an extraordinary potion, a true vin de pays, dry as sand, with a nose uncannily like flotsam the day after a high tide. Most of the food had come from the shore. Mackerel, crabs - and sea spinach. I hadn't tasted this for decades, and its ozone and iron tang would have made Proust faint. For me it brought back half a lifetime: the lilting calls of curlew, hot black mud on the legs, nights out at sea. The place drove the talk, which rapidly turned into yarning: tales of floods, fishing, trundling pianos down to the quay. We pledged resistance to the barbarian developers with their eyes on the local school's playing field, Mike took to reading a friend's poetry, and, with quite affecting courtesy, a prosaic eulogy I'd penned years ago to the culinary delight of the puffball. He made it sound like something from the Song of Solomon. Then the guitars came out, and I feared we were on the brink of maudlin nostalgia. But in a moment of pre-dawn clarity, I realised that this wasn't looking back; it was all still here, and they had kept faith with it.

Next morning the wind had switched to the south and the sky was so clear we could see Blakeney Point, four miles away. We walked down to the marshes, through bluebells and coconut-scented gorse, and I picked sea spinach again for myself. There were swallows flitting along the muddy creeks, and I felt so attuned that I bet my host the swifts would be back from Africa at 6.30pm the next day, 1 May.

That day, home in the Chilterns in the early evening, I peered up at the sky with my binoculars. At 6.40 I made out the flickering crossbow shapes criss-crossing above the parish church. I rushed out to cheer them in, and within the hour there were a dozen strafing the supermarket car- park. It was the first time I had seen swifts arrive on May Day since I was a schoolboy, when I used to walk about clutching my blazer collar, aching for them to materialise. I thought about their life since they had left in August, the half-million miles spent entirely on the wing - migrating, feeding, even sleeping. No wonder Ted Hughes wrote those exultant lines: "They've made it again/ Which means the globe's still working... our summer's still all to come." And for me, this spring, there was a new sympathy with this triumphant annual return to their motherlode. 8

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