They came to the power lines in their hundreds this morning, milling around and wheeling in the morning air before settling.
They had been doing dry runs for weeks, ever since mid August in fact, but as soon as we saw them we knew that this time was for real. Half an hour of frenzied feeding on the sky’s early Autumn insect bounty, and they would be gone. Gone across the English Channel, down past France and Spain to Morocco and the Sahara Desert beyond until they reach their breeding grounds in West or South Africa. Gone low, direct and fast, feeding on the wing and covering around 200 miles a day and then resting up at night.
We watched them out of the kitchen window, rising up and down from the power lines in little curtains of activity, living with them in the moment. After the long hot summer of 2018, we had never seen so many in one place before, but then we had still been finding white swallows’ eggs on the ground until early September, evidence of third, maybe fourth broods. It has been a wonderful year for them.
And then they were gone. On some unseen signal, they just rose up into the air en masse, and headed southwards to Chichester and beyond. It is the embodiment of the human tripwire for entering a period nostalgia and regret, but we just gripped our hands round mugs of tea, and wished them all luck. With a lifespan of four years, there was every chance a large proportion of them would be back in the Spring. We wouldn’t see or hear their coming, but one day they would just be there, like those elderly couples who winter in Spain or Florida and suddenly reappear outside Boots in Midhurst.
There’s a similarity between swallows and cricket in England. Both arrive in March or April and both head south six months later. So, whilst the Spring is an especially cheerful time for cricketers, the down they experience in the Autumn is often deeper than it should be. Up into the loft goes the kit bag with its cargo of dreams, mostly unfulfilled dreams at that, and its damp sweater that never got dried out after that last wet match. All of a sudden, they are free for trips to the DIY superstores and garden centres, and they can be relied upon to attend distant weddings and christenings for the foreseeable future. Great.
But nostalgia for the departing swallows and for the closing season is just a human way of regretting getting older. One more summer gone and, in the peerless words of Pink Floyd, another year closer to death. There are more reasons for why this is ridiculous than you can possibly imagine. Here are five of them:
- There’s about 250 species of bird that stick around, from the manky old wood pigeon that craps on our garden table to the huge raven that nests in the oak tree in the park, over the wall. Use winter to learn about them.
- Try living in the tropics, where there are no discernible seasons, and where each day is as long and as warm as the one that preceded it. We never know what we are going to get round here, which is what makes it interesting. (Scaring us about it also keeps the Daily Express in business, which may or may not be a good thing.)
- If you keep bees, as I do, then the departure of the swallow is a red letter day. It was not for nothing that 400 of them were hanging around over my hives this morning, like students round a kebab truck, only cheaper.
- Cold weather brings fires, fireworks, mulled wine, snow and days under the duvet with man flu. Unlike summer, guilt never forces you outside in winter.
- Finally, we all get older. And us getting older makes more room on the bus for everyone else. The best thing about life is that it is finite, and you have to get stuff done. If it went on forever, it would be too awful to contemplate.
And because life is finite, I’m heading south with the swallows this weekend to the Lot Valley, to play cricket with and against some old friends, and give myself one more chance to get that cover drive in before they come to take me away.