There is something magical about any stretch of water. It ‘s never still, always changing. It throws you off balance. On a summer day you can stand on the edge and look down at the sky. It looks as though the world is a narrow crust dividing a blue universe. In the winter it ices over; you can always tell when it’s going to happen. There is a sharpness to the air and the ripples are just a little sluggish as the water thickens. The following morning the lake is flat and grey, the surface ridged with ripples, caught at the moment of freezing over.
This is my lake. It’s not big – almost exactly half a mile round- and it’s set in the middle of a residential area to the north of the city. It isn’t an old lake- in fact it’s entirely artificial. Seventy odd years ago an RAF airfield was built nearby, and they dug the hard-core and rubble for the runways out of the ground just here. You wouldn’t think it now. It’s surrounded by mature trees- sycamore and ash mainly, and lot of blackthorn, may and hawthorn. There’s a path all the way round it, and one stretch has been fenced off as a kind of nature reserve.
I look on it as my lake because it lies exactly 47 seconds from my front door.
It attracts all kinds of wildlife, including human beings – but I’ll leave them for the moment and tell you about the birds. We have as fine a selection of water fowl as you can get anywhere in Britain. Coots and moorhens stay all the year round. They look virtually identical, except that the coot has a white splash down its beak and the moorhen a red one. They are quite amazingly violent. Any visitor who gets too close is chased off with violent squeaking and splashing and wing beating.
We have ducks. Boy- do we have ducks. Mainly mallards, but ducks have interbred so much that I often find it hard to distinguish which particular species they are. If coots and moorhens are violent, ducks are obsessed with sex. From April onwards they start mating flights- a female leads two hopeful males on a test flight to see which one can keep up with her. They’re like jet fighters, swooping and turning until one peels away and the happy couple land somewhere, anywhere, often my front lawn, to consummate their relationship with quacks of ecstasy. It’s all very 18 certificate.
Then there are the regular citizens of the lake- the geese.
This is a greylag. This is the ancestor of the farmyard goose. They are intelligent, devoted parents and usually they mate for life. There are about thirty residents on our lake. Well- they’re not there all the time. They breed on the river in town, but they come up to the lake every day to chill out, have a preen, shoot the breeze.
But in early August, something amazing happens. Flocks of greylags descend on the lake in droves, greylag clans whiffle over your head, and then land, webs flat like water-skis, and slide to a halt in a creamy wake. I counted 221 this year. They don’t stay long. The call comes in the middle of September. You can tell what’s going to happen because they make the most ear-splitting racket, egging each other on, louder and louder until one hurls up into the air, and everyone else follows, family by family, clan by clan, until the air is full of joyous shouting, which grows fainter and fainter as they head north.
I don’t know where they go to. I only know that their departure is the end of summer.