For those few people that follow me on Twitter, I left you last evening pondering over a photograph of a stunning Kestrel and why he had been following me around all day. All will soon be revealed but first let me fill you in on something that happened many years ago.
It was about this time of year, August, the school summer holiday season. The excitement, the anticipation of countryside adventure, even now, the thought of it still conjures up that summer time magic when we were all so young and just about anything was possible.
There was a new girl in the neighbouring village, her father had just started work on the neighbouring estate, and to us, 11, 12 thirteen year olds, she was lovely, and it wasn’t long before she joined us in our games of tag, blindman’s bluff, Cray fishing and French cricket. The list was endless and for the games which required partners for example, Cray fishing teams and any other two bod teams, she was the one all us boys wanted to have as our partner and this in itself created competition, which created even more games. “Phoebe will be on my side,” one of us would say,
“No, on my side,” someone else would say.
“It will be settled by seeing which one of us can skim a stone and get the most bumps over the river.” I said.
“No, because you always win that, “
“Drat,” I thought to myself, they were not quite as green as they were cabbage looking. I then suggested knocking a baked bean can off a post from twenty five yards. Again they were nonplussed with this idea. As we all stood there getting cheesed off, arguing amongst ourselves, I noticed Phoebe’s eyes were on a bird which was perched on a gate on the opposite side of the river. “Aha”, I thought. It was a boiling hot day and the sounds of the grasshoppers were as loud to your ears as the butterflies were plentiful to your eyes. “A competition” I said, “where nobody will have the advantage. We must see how many grasshoppers we can catch before 5’0clock.” When I said this, it was about 12’0clock, dinner time. “We will all go and have lunch and we will meet up at 5’0clock down at The Mill and see how many grasshoppers we have got and we will get Mr Stevens,” who lived in The Mill, “to count them and be referee.”
“Brilliant” they all shouted.
“And the winner will have Phoebe on their side as their partner for the rest of the holidays if she so wishes.” The other three girls in the group did not look upon Phoebe with any jealousy or malice as she was the newcomer and we were all making her feel special and at home. The girls went off for their lunch and us boys also went home for something to eat.
I arrived home and Mum had prepared beans on toast. I asked Mum if she had a jam jar, she said “Yes, there is one in the bin.” I finished my lunch at break neck speed, up from the table and out to the dustbin and there it was. A few wasps buzzing round it, I grabbed it from the bin, took it back inside and washed it under the tap.
“What do you want that for?” Mum asked.
“To catch grasshoppers,” I replied.
“Oh, you will have to be quick to catch those.” With my nice clean jam jar I headed off back down to the river. The weather was melting, not a cloud in the sky. A perfect school summer holiday day. I walked along the river bank slowly. Phoebe had seen the bird from the left of The Mill and this was going to give me my edge, because to Phoebe it was a bird, but to me it was the grasshopper catching master. I had watched him times when I was down here fishing towards the end of July, beginning of August when the weather was really hot. He would dive down from his post or tree just onto the field and it took me sometime as a kid to work out exactly what he was after. Expecting him to fly up with a vole or a shrew, he never seemed to catch anything until one day, when he appeared to be on the grass for what seemed to be an eternity, I walked over towards him. Up out of the grass he went skywards, just like a plastic bag that had a burst of air put into it but far more graceful. Up into a tree he flew and from there he watched me, and then the noise of the grasshoppers were all around me. I couldn’t see them but this was what he was after so whenever I saw a Kestrel in a grass river meadow at the end of July, beginning of August, diving repeatedly into the grass, it was a grasshopper diet he was on.
Loaded with this information, I walked along the river bank and as I walked the Kestrel that Phoebe had seen flew up around thirty five yards in front of me and I ran with my jar to the area the Kestrel had just left. On my hands and knees I started to catch them. One by one I put them into the jar. I’d caught fifty in about an hour and a half. Time goes so quickly when you are having fun. From there I went paddling in the river and caught four Cray fish for Mr Stevens. He and Mrs Stevens loved them and it didn’t do any harm to keep on the best side of the grasshopper counting referee. I legged it along to The Mill to be greeted by the sight of a group of marauding kids pushing their jars to as near to the faces of the Stevens’ as they possibly could. Everyone jostling for position, each and all wanting to have in their jar the insect or fish that the Stevens’ would find most interesting and in turn lavish the most praise. “You’re late,” they all shouted.
“You’re early,” I replied. I gave Mr and Mrs Stevens their four Cray fish in an old stocking net.
“Oh, thank you Allan,” they said gratefully, “You’ve caught a good few grasshoppers there, the other boys and girls seemed to have had a totally uneventful afternoon.” Most of the jars were full of nothingness except for the odd insect, butterfly or two and the odd stickleback so grasshoppers must have been pretty thin on the ground where they had been. Phoebe was up alongside me pawing at my jar which was full of grasshoppers. We asked Mr Stevens if he was ready for the count, he assured us that he was and Mr and Mrs Stevens knelt on the lawn by the river as we started to empty the jar. For those of you who have ever emptied up a jar of grasshoppers will know that once the jar has been turned upside down, approximately three inches from the ground the grasshoppers go everywhere, making counting extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, but Mr and Mrs Stevens assured us they had counted each and every one. That summer afternoon’s grasshopper challenge set a record round this neck of the woods that has never been beaten and Phoebe and the rest of us continued our summer holidays in the same fun, carefree vein that it started, it was absolutely heavenly bliss.
Coming back to yesterday, my tidying up of the river bank was disturbing a large number of sun hungry grasshoppers. I could hear them, the Kestrel could see them, but I would be very hard pushed to catch fifty in an hour and a half today.