Sunday 11 October 2009

The call of nature

This is the view from the loo of Hill View, the farmhouse where I boarded when I spent my first winter in England working as a groom. It was a pretty, interesting and ever-changing outlook, and when the sun shone in there in the mornings, the loo was a tempting place to linger - particularly as a refuge from the unpredictable moods of Doris, my very weird landlady. One of the many strange things about her was that she looked as though she'd been drawn with a ruler: tall and thin, with shoulder-length straight hair, and eyes and mouth that vanished into slits when she smiled her creepy and untrustworthy smile. Urghhhh!

My next two loos were unremarkable, if you don't count the purple carpet in the Churchdown one or the fact that the Longhope one was visible from the front entrance - a perpetual problem for an open-door policy person like me.

This is the view from the loo of my favourite house in the world, The Croft, a 300 year-old stone cottage on a Herefordshire hill. It was better than the one at Hill View because even when there wasn't a lorry with one wheel caught in the broken concrete lid of the underground rainwater tank, it had a focal point in the village church, St Mary's (where Michael Palin's great-grandfather Edward was once the vicar. I snatch at celebrity connections wherever I can).

The morning sun shone in here, too, there was a big radiator on the wall as well as a fan heater on a timer, the room was spacious, and it was also a place to linger in comfort; although the large mirror above the vanity unit directly opposite did not always reflect an edifying sight.

My current bathroom has none of these features. I do, though, spend more time than perhaps I should standing at the window gazing out at this much less extensive view, which despite the blot of the trusty Hills Hoist at least has some bush, including a kauri tree, and many birds, some resident, others transient.

The hens are my main interest, but there's also a flock of gentle spotted doves who wait for me to give them wheat every morning, as well as fantails, silvereyes, blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows, starlings, mynahs, tui, wood pigeons, invisible grey warblers and even a pair of African peach-faced lovebirds escaped from someone's aviary.

And, yesterday, there was a harrier hawk causing panic in the ranks. They're not unusual here: while hanging out the washing, I've several times heard the chickens give their alarm call as they rush for cover, and looked up to see a hawk high above. The hens are eagle-eyed and sharp, by the way: they can distinguish between a hawk and a seagull, even way up in the sky (although the new entrants, ex-barn, had to learn the difference). Yesterday, though, the hawk was hovering below the tops of the trees, clearly deciding whether it was worth a go; and I was thankful that Titch, my only bantam, was nowhere to be seen.

When I lived in England, sometimes down at the washing line I would hear faint cries, the essence of wildness, high, high above, and see a pair of buzzards circling; and once I rushed out of the house when there was a commotion in the paddock, expecting to see a fox and finding instead a rather confused young buzzard struggling to get airborne again after a misguided attempt to nail one of my hens.

But there's one raptor that's enraptured me. The Andean condor I saw at Colca in Peru, lazily spiralling higher and higher out of the canyon as the morning warmed and the thermals got going: wings spread astonishingly wide, primary feathers splayed like fingers, circling up and up until it disappeared into the blue.

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