Memories of Martins

Sometimes there is a place which we pass by frequently and we take no notice, we see it so often that it just becomes, quite literally, part of the scenery. We walk right by and notice nothing except maybe the changing of the seasons, the golden tone of the oak, the splash of purple honesty flowers beside the gate, perhaps sometimes it would be good to stop a while and look, maybe wonder what things have happened here, what things will happen here today, tomorrow? With the coming of the railways and the need for bricks to build bridges and tunnels across and through the South Downs towards the sea, small local brick works appeared along the route, a succession of small shallow pits were dug to obtain the necessary sand that lay at the foot of the chalk hills. One such pit lay close to the old Dairy, just across the yard from where there once was a farm pond, long since overgrown and dry. This pit, like many others, has over the decades become the corner, which seems familiar to every farm, the ‘retirement home’ for old tyres, broken mangers and troughs, all those pieces of out-of-date, no longer required but might be ‘useful one day’ items. A sad place you may think, as you pass on by, but it is not so, with its dappled shade and un-managed environment it has become a haven for all the cheeky ‘weeds’ expelled from the neat fields, proud purple honesty, forget-me-nots, parsley and wild daffs, a place where wrens play hide-n-seek and robins build their nests, where a passing fox lay secluded but ever watchful during daylight hours and maybe a family of weasels make an assault course amongst the tyres. A peaceful, quiet place watched over by the yellow eyes of the little owl in the lone stunted pine tree. Yesterday on my return journey back towards this place I happened across a local Gent, he touched his cap, we exchanged ‘good mornings’, he gazed across at yonder wood and imparted the news that he had heard his first cuckoo of the year that morning and raised a smile. As we stepped out in opposite directions we both paused and looked up, the twitter of swallows caught our attention, then a small gathering appeared, landing on the overhead wire, we looked, we squinted, then we concurred – sand martins, small and brown with their chin-straps and creamy white bellies – amongst the long streamer tailed swallows. The smile broadened and he grinned and began to tell of how he had not seen them here for years, how when he was a lad, when the farm pond was full and the ‘pit’ clear and empty of all but weeds and saplings beneath the steep side of the sand bank, how sand martins came each year to raise their young in holes in that bank and swoop low over the water of the pond and nearby streams, I think it made his day, it certainly made me think. Now I guess they travel to the the steep sides of the industrial sand quarries further the other side of town. I had not noticed the small brown well traveled birds stopping off on the wire before or indeed since, perhaps I have just not been there at the right time, those precious few minutes when they stop to rest, perhaps they still do stop, to assess their surroundings, to adjust their ‘sat-nav’ each year, are they ancestors of those long past martins who once returned here each May 50, 60 years ago, do they know? We will never know, but I do know that now I stop each time I pass, I stop and stare into the dappled shade with its secret memories whispered on the breeze through the leaves of saplings that are now well grown trees and echoed in the songs of the wren and robin amongst the tyres and forget-me-nots.

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