Lifting the spirits

Despite still recovering from COVID and glandular fever, I’ve started to get itchy feet and have a growing urge to get out into the countryside around our new home in Northamptonshire. We woke this morning to a sunny spring day and headed out to a newly-found favourite spot nearby.

Hanging Houghton is only a ten minute drive away; it is a small, picturesque village sitting at the top of the wide shallow valley, the other side of which our village sits, albeit a couple of miles to the south. At the bottom of the hill on which the village ‘hangs’ is a small car park from which walks can be had along the Brampton Valley Way or along tracks across the open countryside. Today we walked out into the fields, only a short distance in total as tiredness soon prevailed over itchy feet. However, the walk lifted spirits more than I thought it would.

As soon as we left the car behind the songs of skylarks filled the air above the sprouting crops. A bringer of spring, the song is like no other, called from often unseen heights against the blue sky, a rapid succession of undulating notes, more complicated than the human ear can perceive. There must have been skylarks in double figures along the track, each marking out its territory and spreading the message of the new season and warmth to come.

They were, however, only one of the birds along the track. A pair of buzzards cried out as they circled above the narrow strip of woodland and red kites floated on still wings as they passed over head. A kestrel completed the raptors, hovering over the longer ditch-side grass, hunting for a vole or two from a hover or a nearby stubby hawthorn tree.

Out in the fields, the skylarks were joined by meadow pipits, also starting to display, calling as they parachuted to the ground with outstretched wings and upwardly pointed tails. A solitary reed bunting chirped from a stand of teasel and yellowhammers flitted from tree to tree.

As we returned to the car, far sooner than usual, there was a pied wagtail picking about the gravel and a stock dove cooing from within the farm buildings. Despite looking again, there was still no sign of the barn owl, though, the old brick barn in the middle of the fields still not providing a view despite the numerous visits.

A new start in Northamptonshire

Finally, after five and a half months since putting an offer on a house, we moved home in early February. We have combined my house in Cheshire and my girlfriend’s flat in Kew into one by moving to rural Northamptonshire. Once offices fully reopen, I will be working in Birmingham (instead of Manchester) and Sarah will continue working in central London. Whilst this will entail quite a lot of travelling, although for fewer days per week than before the pandemic, we both wanted a move into the countryside and we’re already seeing the value in that decision – albeit without any of the long commutes yet.

This post has taken quite a while to write, on and off over the last few weeks. Moving house, obviously, has taken precedence over blogging, and almost everything else, but we’ve also been hit by a double illness of COVID-19 and glandular fever. One is bad enough, but two has really taken the wind out of us. Fortunately, Sarah has had less severe symptoms but for me it’s been the worse illness I’ve ever had. The COVID symptoms themselves were not particularly bad, like a strong flu, but the combination with glandular fever has left me in almost continuous pain and discomfort and I don’t know how long I will be laid low for. With lockdown still in place, our travel restricted, we haven’t been able to explore widely around our new home area anyway but I’m hoping I get over this in time to take advantage of the relaxations of restrictions as they come over the course of the spring.

Anyway, that’s enough writing of illness, that’s not the purpose of this post. The move to the countryside and to an entirely new and unknown area of England has been a huge change for both of us, particularly Sarah who has lived in London for the past 14 years. Whilst I have spent so much of my time over many years in the countryside, living on the edge of rural Cheshire, it is very different to live in a village some distance from the nearest major town. 

Neither of us knew anything about Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. In fact we really stumbled across the area after failing to find anything we liked in neighbouring Warwickshire. To me, the county has just been somewhere to pass through on the M1 or A14 but on our first visit to view a property we found a hidden gem of a county. We have moved to a small village north of Northampton itself in an area of countryside that is not unlike the Cotswolds. The land is rolling, steeply in places, dotted with old ironstone villages and farms, with hedges and drystone walls enclosing a mixture of large arable fields and small pastures. There is not a great deal of woodland, a bit like my former Cheshire home, but as spring brings the trees into life, I’m sure the area will be swathed in green cover of trees. We’re also close to a number of reservoirs which contrast to the rolling agricultural land and provide different environments for the wildlife we search for.

Our house is down a quiet dead-end village lane with very little traffic save for the occasional tractor and passing ponies. We are sheltered by a hill from any noise from the relatively lightly-trafficked main road that passes the village and the area is so quiet that at night we can hear a single car as it drives between our village and the neighbouring one a couple of miles away. In fact, standing in the back garden at any time of day, the dominant sound is of birds, not traffic – a very different situation to the flat in Kew with the constant passing of vehicles on the road and planes overhead on way into Heathrow.

So far, the birdlife has been great at the cottage and in the surrounding countryside. Our newly erected birdfeeders have a constant passing trade of sparrows, tits and finches, with collared doves and wood pigeons clearing up beneath. We also have regular visits from rooks which seem to have taken a liking to the seed feeders but haven’t quite worked out how to get at them. The most entertaining birds so far have been the starlings which appear to be nesting in our eaves, in at least three spots. Their calls are so varied and often mimic those of others including blackbirds and buzzards, but their songs also frequently seem to end in a fight amongst themselves across our rooftop.

Sitting at my desk I can hear green woodpeckers in the neighbouring gardens and fields as well as the great spotted variety drumming on nearby trees. At night, lying in bed, we’ve also frequently heard tawny owls and the occasional barn owl. The latter we have also seen in broad daylight perched on a fence post as we drove down a country lane. We have had raptors in and over the garden including kestrel and sparrowhawk passing through and buzzards and red kites soaring overhead on nice days.

We haven’t had many walks in the area yet, and I’ve only been for a couple of cycles, due to unpacking and setting up home, illness and the very wintry weather when we first moved in. However, we have found some nice spots already and the birdlife has been great. There are plenty of footpaths in the area as well as a dismantled railway and a number of cross-country tracks. Walking along these has revealed a quiet and unspoilt corner of rural England with birdlife I rarely saw in my former home. The real stars to date have been skylarks and yellowhammers, in a level of abundance I don’t think I have seen anywhere before and so early in the spring that I would not have expected to have heard them sing. 

So far, we have only had very limited insights into the nature of Northamptonshire but over the coming weeks and months, I can’t wait to get out there and visit new places to the experience wildlife around our new home.