Bat Out Of Hell

Image: Jo Sinclair
A bat in the blazing light of day, flickering back and forth. It eventually squeezed back inside the house through a gap in the bricks. I think the heat might have disturbed it; the temperature hit 32 today, and I'm considering the best place for a swim. I might head for Watersmeet, where the Granta becomes the Cam at Great Shelford. A shady spot at the bottom of the village rec, teenagers dive off the riverbank here and gliding swans beg for food among lillies and flowing emerald weed. 

A little closer is the gravel pit I sometimes go to check out the wildlife. It's an agricultural reservoir within an active quarry. I imagine having the place to myself once the bulldozers have parked up for the day. Damselflies, dragonflies, swifts, swallows and hobbies might skim overhead, but it could be searing and bleak and a bit weird, like a scene from one of my swimming dreams.

There's an 'official' bathing spot I know of. Milton Country Park (which was working gravel pits until 1960) has lifeguards twice a week for open water swims. I was there at the weekend with a friend, trying out paddle-boarding. For designated swimming sessions you must pay a fee and wear a 'brightly-coloured swimming cap'.

To the south-eastern edge of Cambridge there's a series of lakes and the habitat known as Romsey beach. Three enormous flooded chalk pits are claimed every summer by local youths. They slake hot bodies in the deep, chilly water and quench throats parched from hollering with alcopops and hardcore cider. My friend doesn't fancy fighting for territory there, and it's probably the same at the Chivers Lake on the other side of town (recently fenced off as a private fishing lake but no doubt defiant holes have been ripped in the chainlink).

I wonder who's been wild swimming by the light of July's full-moon? At bedtime I think I'll abandon Graham Greene's Honorary Consul (finding it as unappealing as a dreg of wine in a glass the morning after the night before) and go to bed with Roger Deakin's Waterlog or Henry Williamson's Tarka The Otter instead.

One month ago was summer solstice, and the weather was a dripping blanket of depression from the Atlantic. I started but didn't finish a blog post. I've been absent a long while, but this is what I wrote:

I dry raindrops, not tears, from my face, though I walk accompanied only by sadness, not my dog. After fourteen years of companionship she'll never be at my side again. When the sky lours at 9 p.m and another downpour takes me to the door for a sniff of glorious *petrichor I emerge from my slump to walk until darkness falls.

Without my old collie I can go where I want: over barbed wire, through brambles, across rickety bridges, or lope for miles in the heat of the day. A sense of curiosity reminds me of being a child again.

One night I head for a spot I've never explored before. A farm track leads straight from the mile-long road out of the village towards mystery water and the A11. If the village has to bulge at the edges to take the burgeoning Cambridge population I wonder if this route might be commissioned to spew commuter cars, but there's no mention of this in the public consultation. I had imagined that the shine glimpsed from the dual carriageway was a balancing pond next to road and river, swilling with flood water and geese in winter. I had imagined it was a private fishing lake always surrounded by men with paraphernalia, patient as herons, so I had never snuck in.

I climb the gate. In the middle of intensive agriculture beribboned by fast roads I see woodland billowing along the route of the river. I paddle in a shallow concrete tractor ford, find gamebird cages and a water pump half-heartedly fenced off by orange plastic barrier fencing mesh. There are weirs, and lethal bridges above deep dark water. I test them with one foot and back off. I admire the old willows on narrow meanders set way back from the nearest houses and footpaths.

A ball bobs in a weir, river water neatly sluicing it in its infinite orbit, like a kinetic sculpture in a gallery, or a garden centre 'water feature'. I stare at it, transfixed by this colourful trash like an idle 80s executive with his chrome desk toy.

I arrive at a lake that is tightly wrapped as if straight out of a factory. Pond liner spreads up the banks and immerses bushes on a tiny island. There are flotillas of ducks, and a dot. The dot is a dabchick. The birds don't look like part of a landscape, they look like toys. The only vegetation appears to be algal blooms that puts me off the mad idea of a future swim. The lake is strictly fenced off.

There are two hares, a small one and a larger one. Mother and child perhaps. Mother finds a hole in the fence and cycles away, legs as outlandish as a penny farthing bicycle. Child steps eagerly along the wire strands, sniffing for the way out. It can't seem to find the spot. I watch it stand on its hind legs, whiskers twitching. Exploring  the impenetrable chicken-wire, it looked like a domestic bunny in a cage. Slowly it passes up and down, incompetent at the art of escape. Strangely there don't seem to be any holes and scrapes along here, as if nothing has tempted beasts into this territory. Vegetation is scant and they have no need for water because of the river and our summer's permanent puddles.

While I make my own circuit I see the small hare racing laps of the lake's perimeter.

I climb the fence as soon as I can, using a log as a stepping stone and a willow branch to drop me gently without pricking rubber soles on barbed wire. A mallard flaps frantically with trailing wing; she must be leading me away from her nest. Lapwings do the same, and for this they earned the collective noun 'deceit'.

Now I arrive at a designated wildlife pond, a pond designed for life; this tiny hole is lush with reeds and flowers, and hides a coot's nest. Drakes in eclipse flatten themselves discreetly out of sight. In the middle of their moult they can't fly strongly but at my disturbance they eventually erupt.

Telegraph poles march me back home across rain-sodden barley flattened in whorls by wind and rain. In the foggy green ink of this damp dying day I note a single corn bunting silhouette on the wire, and a little owl swoops away from its perch on a speed limit sign.



* I learned the meaning of petrichor from the columnist with a flower in her surname.



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