I was 13 and staying with family friends in a damp, dilapidated but beautiful manor house called The Old Hall just outside the village of Reedham in Norfolk. Family friends John and Joyce Jacobs were running it as a combination guest house and small livestock farm, motivated more, I realise now, by a romantic notion of rural idyll than the desire to make fat profits.
And in those days ‘romantic notion’ could get you quite far before the bank foreclosed or you flitted away in the night with your belongings in a couple of suitcases. And at that time ‘rural idyll’ still had a little currency. There remained the residue of a working countryside; independent farms with relatively little acreage could just about make a living and the pace of life was still largely dictated by the seasonal tides. So the raffish, slightly bohemian Jacobs family sat around the Raeburn cooker in the unreconstructed authenticity of a manor house kitchen of a morning planning the day’s events
For me the glory of it all was the freedom. I was left entirely up to my own devices and I roamed for entire days across the endless flat fields, following the lines of the dykes – the deep, carefully maintained drainage streams, that bisected them. For the first time in my life I was entirely on my own. I could clamber up onto the railway embankment & trudge along the shingle in between the sleepers for miles in a dead straight line. I could select a windmill, seen as tiny scribbled letter ‘X’ against the horizon, and make my way towards it across a multitude of five-bar gates and styles to stand beneath its clinker-built bulk, mighty sails locked into position, or, rarely, turning majestically in the breeze that always shifted across the constant plateau. Or I could simply lie on my back in the dust and chaff of a recently harvested field, staring up at the bubbling summer clouds, watching & listening to the skylarks that wheeled and climbed in such abundance at that time. And, of that genuinely idyllic six weeks, I remember with most clarity the prickle of the stubble, the throaty dryness of the dust and those soaring skylarks, alone amongst the clouds.
A few years ago, in mid-July, I revisited Reedham. I stood at the edge of the first field, the one that bordered the rambling gardens of the Old Hall and across which I used to stride at the beginning of my explorations. Initially it looked much the same, but a cursory inspection swiftly revealed the changes: the windbreak hedgerows had gone; the crop had been harvested already; not a single skylark spiralled high into the clear air.
I learned recently that since 1970 the skylark population has declined by 52%. Major changes in cultivation and harvesting procedures are thought to be responsible for this, notably the switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals, the disappearance of the hedgerows and the vulnerability of birds to the massively increased use of insecticides and weedkillers.
It would seem, then, that the skylark – a bird whose rural associations transcend entirely the phoney bucolic Merrie England clichés – is another casualty of the late-20th century. Apparently not. Although a 52% decline in a little over 30 years is dramatic and alarming, a government-funded study has demonstrated that merely the provision of two small patches left untouched within a hectare of cultivated land can reverse local decline. Experiments done over a two-year period resulted in an increase of nearly 50% in skylark breeding. So to encourage the process, farmers are being offered £30.00 per hectare to join a scheme involving small, undrilled patches across their field systems.
A small resistance to an advancing tide. ‘So shines a bright deed in a naughty world’. If the farmers of East Norfolk are an enlightened crew, maybe I’ll be able to lie on my back in the great fields by The Old Hall, Reedham again in a year or two, watching & hearing the larks ascending.
The Lark in the Clear Air
Dear thoughts are in my mind
And my soul soars enchanted,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.
For a tender beaming smile
To my hope has been granted,
And tomorrow she shall hear
All my fond heart would say.
I shall tell her all my love,
All my soul’s adoration,
And I think she will hear
And will not say me nay.
It is this that gives my soul
All its joyous elation,
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.
(From ‘The Lark in the Clear Air by Samuel Ferguson)
The lark in the morning she arises from her nest
And she ascends all in the air with the dew upon her breast
And with the pretty ploughboy she’ll whistle and she’ll sing
And at night she’ll return to her own nest again
When his day’s work is over, oh what then will he do
Perhaps then into some country wake he’ll go
And with his pretty sweetheart, he’ll dance and he’ll sing
And at night he’ll return with his love back again
And as they returned from the wake unto the town
The meadows they are mowed and the grass it is cut down
The nightingale she whistles upon the hawthorn spray
And the moon it is a shining upon the new mown hay
Good luck unto the ploughboys wherever they may be
They will take a winsome lass for to sit upon their knee
And with a jug of beer boys, they’ll whistle and they’ll sing
And the ploughboy is as happy as a prince or a king
(‘The Lark in the Morning’ – traditional English song)
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
From ‘The Lark Ascending’ by George Meredith
The Lark in the Morning’ – a version by Maddy Prior.