COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
OUR local Second World War aerodrome at Bovingdon has always been a mysteriously romantic place. Seen from the Iron Age trackway that skirts the south of the parish, it hunches on the next ridge like a hill fort. When I was a boy I used to haunt t he woods on its fringes, searching for birds and bits of aircraft debris among the primroses. It seemed appropriate that, when it was decommissioned, part became a prison; and that, much later, a stretch of old runway was given over once a week to a mark et asbig as a souk. Now some local councillors are demanding that the market be closed: too much litter and traffic, the land better used for a housing estate, etc - familiar and rather joyless arguments.

I've just been to the market for the first time, prompted by a visit by my niece from East Anglia (where most derelict airfields have gone straight back to arable prairies). It proved to be a congenial place, with clothes and cassettes at prices so low they twinged your conscience. Hannah bought a coat somehow stitched together out of carpet and suede, and big enough to live in. I had a treat, too. In the ploughlands around the market was a huge gathering of lapwings, and, among them, bands of a much more special bird: migrant golden plovers, heads down in a business-like search for worms. I have always had a soft spot for these sinewy birds, which come to us from Scandinavia for the winter. When I had a place in East Anglia myself I used to si t at the feet of the great birder Richard Richardson, who could hear their poignant, soughing flight-call half a mile away, and turn them towards him by whistling it back. I have never seen them on our high Chiltern lands before, and I couldn't resist a return visit to the airfield a few days later.

Alas, they had moved on, and with the market site empty (and scrupulously litter-free) the place had the melancholy feel of a seaside prom off-season. I trudged up the long runway where the Dakotas and Flying Fortresses used to rumble off, with the threadbare remains of a medieval fieldscape stretching out beyond, feeling rather eerie, and missing the good-humoured, multi-species bustle of the weekend.

Then birds began to appear: bands of redwings; wintering thrushes (also from Scandinavia); and a male stonechat in brilliant black and chestnut plumage. Then I heard the skylarks, the first of the year. A flock of more than 40 - an "exultation", as they are collectively, if preciously, called - were muttering snatches of their soaring songs as they moved between patches of stubble. By coincidence, I'd been reading an anthology of skylark poems that morning, and seen Thomas Hardy's extraordinary poem, written near Livorno in 1887, about the fate of the lark that was Shelley's "blythe spirit" - now, Hardy wrote, "a pinch of unseen, unguarded dust". Was it in the soil, or a myrtle tree, or a bunch of Tuscan grapes? I fancy a speck or two was in that cosmo politan bazaar at Bovingdon, and I hope the councillors don't get their way. !

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