Entre Chien et Loup
THERE IS NO wilderness left in England, none of the vast uninhabited expanses of Alaska or Siberia. Everything - even the bleak and rainswept Pennine range that forms the backbone of the nation - has been touched and altered by man.
The heather-covered moors of North Yorkshire are only there because the forests were cut down for fuel and timber, just as they were in Iceland. And in Kent, the ancient King’s forests have long been managed by woodsmen.
But if there is no wilderness in England, there are wild places still.
It was in one of these that I last experienced (perhaps felt is more accurate) that time of night the French call entre chien et loup - between dog and wolf. It is a time when the familiar grows steadily unfamiliar, when the ordinary slips into the extraordinary.
And I was there to hear the call of a creature long associated with the supernatural: the goatsucker, fern owl, wheeler, nighthawk or - more commonly - the nightjar.
Nightjars are strange. Migrants from Africa, they make a noise like a sewing machine and can throw their voices like ventriloquists. With the pointed wings and long tail of a cuckoo or kestrel, they are acrobatic in flight - but they are rarely seen, since they fly at night, like bats, devouring moths.
Camouflaged to resemble bark, they lay low in the heathland during the day. At night, males in search of a mate make their sewing machine whirring noises while clapping their wings with an audible crack, like the clapperboards once used on film sets to synch the sound.
Their country name - goatsucker - stems from a persistent superstition that they sucked the milk from goats at night, rendering them blind. It was not true, of course, but humans have an atavistic fear of nightfall and creatures of the night.
Two and a half decades ago, my daughter and I had joined a group of enthusiastic birders in a search for nightjars on heathland near West Malling in Kent. We found them, and the birders encouraged the birds to circle and whirr over our heads by waving white handkerchiefs, which the nightjars took for moths, and dancing around the heath like mummers in a mediaeval mystery play.
Even at the time, I felt that it was disruptive. It was the nightjar mating season, and the birders were dancing on their breeding grounds.
I had never tried to see or hear nightjars again, until now when - entirely alone - I walked out into a vast nature reserve made up of deciduous forest and wild Surrey heathland.
It was still light and cool, and the sounds of corvids - carrion crows and jackdaws mostly - preparing for the evening roost carried on the still air from the fringe of woodland alongside the tangled heath.
Once, when I was sitting there by a dew pond, I heard the sound of large animals moving through the scrub. I wondered whether it was one of the herds of deer that are allowed to roam in this part of the world. And then the shrubs parted and a small herd of chocolate brown Exmoor ponies made their way down to the water to drink, their long fringes flopping over their eyes. They ignored me. It was like being on safari.
This time, I found the same bench by the chalk-white footpath and sat facing the pond and the scrub. Behind me, in a tall stand of larches, crows croaked to each other and somewhere in the distance a pheasant gave out a klaxon call. The day was dying slowly.
We Brits call this time twilight or dusk, and the words have interesting backgrounds. Twilight, from the early 15th century, means half-light and not, as some logically assume, ‘twice’ light. Dusk is from the Old English dox, meaning ‘dark from the absence of light’.
A modern meaning of ‘dox’ is to find private information about individuals and to publish it on the internet, a practice known as doxing. The modern derivation of dox is from the shorthand for document; but it too is a practice dark and absent of light.
The birdsong - mostly blackbirds, blue tits and a thrush - was fading. In the half light, a tiny rabbit appeared from the heather a couple of metres away and hopped along the path, its snowy tail flashing. The silence was broken only by the drone of jets flying into Gatwick.
I had been there an hour and it was almost dark when I realised I didn’t have a torch. Stupid of me. It had been a spur of the moment idea to drive out here. My camera and binoculars were in my bag, but I’d forgotten my torch, and I was a mile or so from where I’d left my car. I wondered whether my phone’s battery would last long enough for me to see my way out of this place.
There was nothing to fear on the dark walk back to the car - there are adders here, I’ve seen them, but they don’t travel at night, and it was the wrong time of year for rutting stags. Even so, I was glad to see the roof of my old Land Rover parked up by a five-bar gate.
I’ll be back, though. Dusk is my favourite time of day.