The Hawk’s Way: April 2020
I haven’t walked today, which is a small miracle. It’s the first day this year that I haven’t walked for at least an hour. Instead I’ve spent most of the day sitting on the back-steps of my yard, praying for the sun to come out. I’ve got lucky this past hour or so. I think the birds feel the same way; I can hear the goldfinches singing in Spencer Square. There are tennis courts there and some gardens. On a sunny afternoon like this, it’s usually the gentle song of the racket that I can hear, along with all the lovely sounds that attend such leisure. But I can’t hear that. Today I can only hear the birds.
Tomorrow I’ll walk.
I live in a very old road in the middle of a youngish town. The road, Addington Street, sprung up about an old hamlet of the same name. To its east, little Addington stood over the port of Ramsgate, whilst to its west lay the county. Boundless, bare… And latterly bypassed here and there. But to a raven, it’s still mainly green- with just the odd touch of grey to avoid during touchdown. It’s almost the same for me. If I walk west from the end of Addington, I can cut through the Pegwell Nature Reserve and only have a little bit of concrete to navigate before I reach the Minster Marshes. I call this western route the King’s Way, on account of the kingfishers that play on the streams which drift down from Monkton and beyond.
But tomorrow I’ll walk east, along what I’ve named the Hawk’s Way.
I’ve been heading east more and more. I can be on the harbour down at Ramsgate within three minutes and if I follow the coast, I’ll reach Broadstairs within a slow hour. Until a few weeks ago I was doing this walk at night, after a day’s teaching, and my chief fascination was the stars. On a moonlit night, the whole of the English Channel is lit up and you get a better view of Orion’s Belt than anywhere else in the south-east. Weaving along the cliff’s edge, night after night, I began to crave the moon in the same way that the old smugglers did. Not so long ago this coastline was ruthlessly controlled by the Callis Court Gang. The way here was remote and hostile to outsiders; a stranger walking the cliffs might end up having their throat cut. It’s past mid-spring now and I still walk this way most days but I no longer go into town. Things have changed. Once again, people are suspicious of strangers. For the first time in over a century, the High Street in Broadstairs feels out of bounds.
Instead I’ve chosen to shorten the eastern walk. I now finish at the clifftop woods of King George VI Park, where Moses Montefiore’s old estate used to be. The great house is gone but much of the grounds are preserved within what is now parkland. Old Moses must have employed a wise gardener; the estate was well-planted with several families of trees that are now older than most local woodland.
The combination of old trees and ruined buildings is perfect for walking and thinking and I was doing just that last week when I heard a woodpecker tapping away at a hollow tree. I followed the echoes into the woods in the north of the park, beyond Moses’ old stable-yard. Eventually, I was pretty sure I had the right spot- an old oak. I began to angle around to get a closer look when I bristled slightly. Someone was coming up the track. I turned and saw my old mate Stuart the landlord (so-called because he runs my favourite local- ‘Churchill’s Tavern’- up on the west cliff). These strange times have wedged an artificial gulf between friends. So, as though from across a chasm, we began calling out to each other. The usual laddy stuff; Stuart’s a walking encyclopaedia on boxing, which I love. Having decided Ali-Tyson for the umpteenth time (I always favour Ali), we both let the woodpecker win. It may have been a male tapping away to attract a female. In fact, I think it probably was; the tempo was practically Latino. And it is springtime, after all. Which is all the more reason why we should have left the poor little bugger alone but we didn’t. Instead, we decided to try and flush him so we could have a better look. It’s indefensible really. But at least I’m owning up.
Stuart hadn’t seen a woodpecker for years and all this recent time off work has seen him go bonkers for nature. So he played spotter; he kept back, shielded his crown from the sun and kept a fixed glare toward the summit of the oak. Meanwhile, I crawled under an old log and attempted to get to the other side of the pecking tree. As I was half way under the log, Stuart called out that the woodpecker had flushed. No doubt horrified by the two large humans (we’re both heavy-weights) disturbing its mating ritual, the bird leapt to the alder tree next door. I took a couple of photos- albeit of its backside- before it flew away to another part of the park. Suitably chastened, Stuart and I began to leave the woods. When the pubs reopen, we’ll tell this story to our mates Ray the Hat and Pete the Poet. We’ll have to make some extra stuff up. Add a woman to the story. And make the woodpecker an eagle. Or else they’ll nod and tell us both to get stuffed. Which they’ll probably do anyway.
But our adventure hadn’t ended. As we made our way out of the woods, we witnessed an almighty disturbance in a glade near to the stables. Something was hunting. A dark shape flashed across our vision; I traced its tail and found a male sparrowhawk, hiding in the green-lit trees to the rear of the glade. I put my lens on him and he crawled about the bark until all I could see were his head and his tail. When I took the shot, he was looking right at me. Then, in a second, he was gone- but not out of sight. Instead he buzzed us, flying four feet over our heads and straight back into the little thicket where we’d flushed the woody, causing an explosion of pigeons, tits- and one unlucky woodpecker.
Once out of the woods, Stuart and I went our separate ways but I’m sure the hawk will stay with both of us for some time. As I walked away from the park, back westwards along the cliffs to home, I looked out towards the ocean; the sea was just turning and the shoreline was fully exposed. I don’t know whether it was the hawk or the changing tide that uncovered it but a story came back to me that I was told almost twenty years ago. I was not long out of University and I spent a month bartending whilst applying for jobs. At the pub where I worked, I became friendly with one of the regulars- a man named Alfie. I think his last name was Germaine. He’d been a famous weight-lifter in his youth and had competed in Britain’s Strongest Man. He was 70 years old when I knew him and stood just 5ft 4″ tall. But he remains one of the most physically impressive men I’ve ever met; despite his age, he still used to bench-press 300 pounds at the local gym and had a bit of a fan-club. This extended to women several decades his junior. He was a fantastic old character, full of stories about his life and previous feats; when you sat with him, it felt like you were supping with a Viking elder. He even had a piece of ear missing, which he lost in a fight some years earlier. I’m told that this was the result of a cowardly assault and that the attacker had waited for Alfie to get drunk before launching at him.
One thing that Alfie had not lost, though, was his memory. One night when my shift had ended, we had a beer or two and I listened to him talk. On this occasion, he told me about being a teenager in the second world war. He hadn’t been quite old enough to fight but had war-stories nonetheless. One of the most interesting was about a German warplane that was shot down over the eastern cliffs. Alfie had been larking about with friends within the grounds of the old Moses Montefiore estate. As Aflie remembered it, a terrific dog-fight occurred over their heads. The planes flew so low, they could see the individual pilots’ faces, he said. The result was that a Spitfire downed a German plane just over what is now King George VI park. The plane went down and crashed into the coastline below the park. The tide was out, just like it was on my walk. Alfie and his friends sprinted down to the beach and grabbed what souvenirs they could from the plane. I don’t remember what happened to the pilot. That close to the ground, it would have been difficult to parachute out so there’s a strong possibility that he died. Which may make old Alfie guilty of grave robbing. Not that he’d care much now. He died years ago. In the summers, he’d swim from Ramsgate beach to Sandwich Bay (a distance of at least a few miles) and then sunbathe all day. He never once wore sun cream and I’m told that this caught up with him. God rest him. As for the poor German pilot?
Well, here’s hoping he survived and enjoyed a good life. Who knows? Perhaps he bailed out into the woods. If it were springtime, the bluebells would have broken his fall.
The woodpeckers would have ignored him and continued mating.
But the hawks would have welcomed him as one of their own.