Two weeks ago, I’m standing, out of breath, on muddy stubble on an old WWII airfield. My neck’s cricked because I’ve been watching Tony’s peregrine falcon circling hundreds of feet up in a grey east anglian sky. The partridges flush, she turns, and falls at 150mph+ in a long, hissing, near-vertical stoop. Overhauls a fleeing partridge and just gets a toe to its tail feathers before the partridge makes it to safety in a belt of trees. She circles once over the spot, then sails down to the lure.
We're in my all-time favourite hawking ground: Mendlesham. I first hawked with Tony here ten years ago, flying a merlin. I remember wide expanses of stubble, a hazy autumn sun and flocks of turtledoves. And of course, the 1000 foot tv mast.When it was built in 1959 it was the tallest in the country. It dominates pretty much everything around. At night, you can see its winking red lights from the A14. But Mendlesham is famous for more than its mast (and its beautiful church). In WWII this was the haunt of B17s. The 34th Bomb Group were stationed here. There's a memorial to them, just off the A140. It's a place of pilgrimage: I've been told that USAF veterans come here to chip off bits of the runway.
In summer Mendlesham is beautiful. But even on the most unprepossessing, miserable, winter day, it's oddly magnetic, rather like Avebury or bits of The Plain, or the strange hybrid landscapes of Minsmere or Bempton, wildlife reserves filled with the ghosts of wartime architecture.Tony and I drive along a stretch of the once-runway, now piled with beet-clamps and muckheaps, water puddling on its concrete slabs. This whole landscape is running with birds: even on the concrete, small flocks of pied wagtails zoom about on the slabs picking insects from the cracks. Above us looms the mast. An industrial estate has grown up on the former airfield's technical area. The whole place is a friendly wilderness of shipping containers, old nissan huts, flocks of starlings, ghostly traces of wartime roads, woodlarks, pheasants, and acres and acres of stubble, beet and plough.
It's a magnet for raptors. A fortnight ago we watched a hunting sparrowhawk turn itself practically inside out in pursuit of a small bird. Stoop after shallow stoop, turn after sharp turn, right over the vehicle. Just as a capture looked inevitable, fffffffft! A space in the air where the bird had been—and one very confused sparrowhawk. For a moment, we were confused too, until we looked out of the far window and saw a female merlin carrying a small bird. She'd come out of nowhere and hiked it out from under the spar's nose. Spar sulked off into some trees, and the merlin pitched in the stubble to eat her sneaky prize. Beautiful little falcon. Amazing silver wash on her plumage as she sat there, eating her prey in the pallid afternoon light.
More on this place soon. Going hawking again there this weekend, I think. Will try and get photos...