Phantoms of Pegwell
Final Part: The Owl Unmasked
The next day was Friday- the last one in April. It was getting late for the owl to be around this part of the coast. The wind had changed direction during the night and ocean-scented southerlies were now pushing north, up from the continent. It was time for her to be heading off. Back up to Yorkshire, or Scotland, or much more likely- Scandinavia. The latter seems a fitting destination, given the history of Pegwell. After all, this is where Hengist and Horsa landed 1500 years ago.
Today, a replica longship stands guard a few hundred yards from where I first saw the owl.
This was to be my last evening with her, although I didn’t know that when I got to the bay in the mid-afternoon. But as the spring blue skies grew fainter- and the owl was later than usual in rising- I began to think she’d gone with the wind.
The last of the kite and wind surfers left the bay at just gone six ‘o’ clock, leaving me alone with that desolate feeling I’d experienced when the whale washed up. The wardens must have known how I felt. For some time, they’ve allowed a solitary television set to remain where it was dumped by some fly-tippers. All else was cleared away but the telly remains and has become a kind of surreal landmark. Wry joke as it may be, to me it only accentuates the abandonment of this far corner of England.
I passed it at just gone half past six and walked until I reached the northern corner of the bay, where I was parallel to a creek and and a huge jungle of scrubland. There are no televisions here; instead there are other, more chilling landmarks. In the distance, beyond the creek, I could make out a series of bollards and low standing concrete blocks. I’ll return another time to get some better photographs but you can just about see some of these structures in the picture below; they’re just beyond the head of the creek.
These old stones litter the place; they’re the fortifications that were installed to repel ‘Operation Sea Lion’- the Nazis’ planned invasion of southern England.
The land here doesn’t easily forget the past. The sands are home to scores of sunken fighter planes, both German and British.
I once met a man who was stationed here in the war; he gave a talk at a school where I taught. One night in the summer of 1940, the threat-alert was raised to its highest level- ‘Invasion Imminent’. Of course, it was a false alarm; but the soldiers didn’t know this and for a while, they sat around Pegwell Bay bracing for war.
These days, the only invaders have feathers. But it remains an eerie place. The birds know this and usually stick together, in flocks or pairs. The sky was now a faint blue and the dusk flights were beginning. I was still down near the old war defences when a pair of shelducks flew in like a pair of Lancaster Bombers.
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Shelducks mate for life. A wise move, given the kind of barren places where they thrive. These two seemed made for each other; as you can see from the photos, they mirrored one another’s every move. I watched until I felt a little warmer then tracked back down toward the abandoned port. It was almost twilight when I saw the owl, rising from the rushes opposite what used to be ‘The Sportsman’ public house.
The next hour was to be one of the most fascinating of all the hours I’ve spent in the English countryside. To begin with, the owl followed its nightly routine of flying west up the bay and disappearing. But this time, she only stayed gone for a few minutes before quartering back out onto the saltmarshes in front of the old service station. I’d ‘dug in’ here, so to speak. Dressed in a camouflage coat and with my flat cap pulled down, I’d crouched next to the footpath and had my camera pointing directly out across a series of wooden stakes. Having swung low and taken a vole, she ate it in a bush near to the stakes. This took her at least several minutes; I was beginning to imagine she’d left via a secret underground tunnel, when she levitated out from the scrub and landed straight onto one of the poles. I suppose she must have been about 50 yards away from me. Still crouching, I took a series of shots, pausing at one stage when I felt that she was ‘on to me’.
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Once she’d relaxed back into some preening, I continued to shoot until she leapt off and started hunting the rushes again. What came next was surprising. Having failed to capture a second vole, she landed again on the posts- but this time only about 25 yards away from me. I filled my boots, taking shot after shot, until I noticed that she was looking straight down the lens.
I took a few more shots and then stopped to lower my face, so as to take the anomalous bit of ‘pink’ out of the owl’s line of view. In most cases, this doesn’t work. I waited thirty seconds before I dared a peek; when I did so, the owl had flown from its pole. I’m so used to this that I wasn’t particularly disappointed; to be honest, I was over the moon with the shots that I’d already got.
But as I lowered my gaze, I saw that the owl had merely switched poles. She was now twenty yards closer and was perching on the stake closest to the walking path- about five yards from my postion.
I was frozen at first but after twenty seconds or so I raised my camera up and took a photo. The owl was looking back and forth, acting as though I wasn’t there. But a short-eared owl has total awareness of its environment… I was merely being tolerated.
But only for so long. After a while, the owl seemed to challenge me. It looked directly at me and once again I lowered the camera. Only this time, I didn’t lower my face. Instead, I stood slowly up and held the bird’s gaze. It showed not an ounce of fear but instead curiously returned my look. After thirty seconds, the situation felt calm enough for me to chance some more photos. I must have taken another fifty before the owl casually departed. And even then, she only flew a few yards away, down onto a nearby bit of scrub to toy with some branches.
I walked back to my car and drove home. When I got in, I didn’t upload the photos right away. Instead I sat in the darkness and thought about the owl’s eyes and wondered, just as I had with the whale, what she must have seen out there, in the wider world beyond Pegwell.
I know that owls (and all birds) often mistake humans for cattle. Especially birders and anglers, when we’re camouflaged up and only moving at a shuffling pace. But I wondered that night whether this owl knew exactly what I was- and was just as curious about me as I was about her. Eventually I went to bed, telling myself that a warm armchair indulges all kinds of silly thoughts.
But later that night, I found myself back in Pegwell. Only this time again in my dreams. I was ten years old and we’d not long moved to Downs Road, near the top of the hill that leads up from old Chilton Farmhouse. My mind took me back to a February night in 1989. The whole family was sat watching television when I noticed a fox at the rear window. Its nose was touching the pane and it was staring directly at my mother, who was sitting one yard away, on the other side of the glass. My mother turned and met its gaze for a full ten seconds or so before it walked off into the snow. It was visible for only five yards or so before it entered total darkness and disappeared. But its gaze never left us.
I returned to the bay for the next three dusks but the owl never returned. She must have left not long after seeing me on the Friday, hitching a ride on those southerlies, flying way back up north.
I’m writing this entry a full two months later. It’s two days until the coarse angling season opens and I’ve already been out several times to investigate some fresh tench marks. I’m hoping to get out on this Sunday, the sixteenth of June; the first day of the new fishing year.
Seasons change. But the hunter remains.