The better to get into the spirit of the thing, we took ourselves by train from London to Brighton.
It was a marvelous thing, Brighton; a sort of proto-Coney-Island, only you can see France. That is, I saw a blur that logically had to be France, off on the horizon.
We rented a couple of miserable rusty bikes from a man on the boardwalk. The Inimitable Todd had an idea that we were going to get to Beachey Head and re-enact the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, so off we went.
At first it was lovely. The sun was shining, little birds popped up here and there and whizzed off across the road before I could spot them. We gained some elevation, and were soon biking on a convenient trail along the edge of a cliff – the perfect spot to spot a Kestrel. And so I did.
Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, like the American pocket version Falco sparverius, have a neat trick of hovering while searching for prey. Sometimes, indeed they are referred to as Windhovers. This should have been a clue. But we blithely went on, picking up my life Jackdaws (elegant in their black and grey) soon after.
We zipped along the coast, and through a small city, and over some sheep-strewn hills, and through another city, and across a small wildlife reserve rich with rabbits and Moorhens, and some more stuff that might have been a small city, and some more hills, and a sign warning us of badgers…
…. and eventually we realized that the if we went much further our chances of getting the bike back to the rental place before it closed would be in doubt. Stopping at a little bike shop to get some tire air and a map, we discovered that our quest… would fail. We were still an hour away from Beachey Head by the most optimistic estimate. So we turned around.
Then we learned what Windhover already knew: the wind was up. We’d noticed it in a general sort of way when it was a tail wind, but now we were traveling into its teeth. Highly unpleasant.
Thus, tragically, we were forced to stop at the wildlife reserve. It was quieter now; there was absolutely nothing birdwise behind the cunningly-designed bird blind that looked over the small tract of marsh, and the Moorhens had disappeared. I did spot what I was pretty sure was a Greenfinch, but pretty sure isn’t good enough to add a bird to the old life list when you’re unfamiliar with the avifauna of the entire country.
Shortly thereafter, I veered off the road and crashed into a fence.
Happily, the fence was not electrified and had no pointy bits. It was just a bit of wire strung through some weeds and fixed to posts. I didn’t sustain any serious injuries, nor did the bike. It did put a damper on my mood for the rest of the trip back, though.
We got our bikes returned just in time to find the bike shack still open, and just in time to restore ourselves to a civilized state through the judicious application of tea and little sandwiches. Also just in time to miss the last bus that would have taken us directly to our destination had we but known of its existence in the morning, instead of deducing it from passing it a dozen times on the road. Ah well.
There was still another bus that went within a few miles of the Head. It dropped us at the end of a bucolic road, with a sidewalk that quickly tapered out and left us walking through along the sides of vast fields full of shaggy, odd-eyed sheep, or rich stands of what looked like excellent hay. There were few cars, and where the road plunged briefly into the woods we passed a complex of slate-roofed buildings and a pair of large, rather dangerous-looking pigs. A vast crowd of assorted black birds circled overhead, accumulating for their evening roost. For the first time, I really felt England – farmland is flesh, and I finally had some under my shoes.
The great chalk cliffs rose ahead of us. A cheery little pub sat at the bottom, and a lighthouse at the top. Of course, the cliff in question still wasn’t actual goddamn Beachey Head, but the sun was going down, and what the hey? We climbed.
At the top, we got blown by the wind and we watched the sun set.
On the way back to the bus stop, a Wood Pigeon called….