I start my walk in a sleepy cul-de-sac on a cold, grey day.
Televisions blink in windows, muffled sounds and bright colours flicker in my periphery. Plastic mushrooms, plastic animals and plastic gnomes litter manicured, neat gardens. Starlings bustle above me, congregating on overhead cables, chatting noisily.
I am watched closely by gulls, many of them. Imperious and menacing, they dominate the rooftops, swaggering in their arrogance and bullish charm as they oversee their little patches of suburbia.
I turn a corner, then another, and leaving the cul-de-sac behind, walk out onto a beating, busy road. Terraced housing runs its length on both sides. The brisk, bitter wind has more freedom here and channels into my face as I go.
Subtle changes. The well-kept gardens become fewer and further between. Gnomes stand sentry more bravely now, their green kingdoms becoming secondary and subordinate to the concrete and brick that begin to dominate.
Cars hum by, a constant migration to someplace, somewhere.
Increasingly, litter lies carelessly cast away; cans, crisp packets, chocolate wrappers. I notice the remains of fireworks lying spent and forgotten. One front garden catches my eye, sticking out like a sore thumb. Overgrown and verdant, it rises around its neighbours gloriously, in reprisal; a counterstroke of sympathy and symphony. Then more concrete jungle. Driveways, patios, pathways. Asphalt, block paving, gravel. An urban blandscape.
I come to a crossroads. I wait, patiently, switching sides when the green man flashes to life. Instead of following the road deeper into the heart of town, I take a sharp left.
Coatham Marsh is a place of contrast. Sandwiched tightly between urban sprawl and the heavy industry that surrounds the south of Tees estuary, this patchwork of ancient marshland counteracts its surroundings. Enduring, and withstanding the changes to the landscape that encompass it.
I pass a series of ponds, differing in size. In one of them, a mute swan fishes for food behind a ‘No Fishing’ sign. The irony makes me smile. Hats of to the hooligan.
A black-headed gull skilfully rides the wind above. It rushes past me at speed like a plastic carrier bag let loose. Making abrupt, calculated movements it rises into the air, picks its spot and then comes down to land.
In another pond, a little grebe pops up silently. It drifts for a short while, shifting to watch me pass, and then quickly retreats into the water.
I follow my nose. I can smell the leaves and the damp ground. A series of paths take me deeper into the heart of the reserve. I push down the cuffs of my coat in an attempt to warm my frozen fingers. The wind is roaring now, drowning out the traffic on the nearby road. A role reversal, nature stamping out the sounds of urban life.
Over a bank, I see the heads of lampposts poking above the skyline, hinting at beyond. They remind me of tall necked sentinels popping their heads over the marsh, scanning, patrolling.
In every direction is the domineering presence of industry, looming. Powerful.
Towers, turrets, pylons, pillars, chimneys, chutes. Wires, cables, pipework; coiling their complex tendrils. Warehouses with angular roofs. Flare stacks, and tall stacks of smoke. A railway line cuts through the reserve, wind turbines cut through the air.
But, despite all of this, the reserve is a haven, an inner sanctum for wildlife.
I pass a section of shrub trailing alongside the path and notice a kestrel sat sedentary within it. It refuses to fly following my appearance. As I get closer, I can see it seemingly focussed intently on something out of sight. It eventually has enough (of me), and plunges into the air.
Masterful in its flight, it sails on the wind, climbing up and away and then stopping, suddenly. It stays exactly in the position it stopped. Hovering over the ground, suspended, it adjusts its wings incrementally as the wind soars through its sails.
‘In all things of nature there is something of the marvellous.’
I start to look more intently myself. Autumn fruit, ripe and plentiful, adds colour to the otherwise drab tones of the day. Rowan berries. Crab apples. Dog rose hips.
‘The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.’
Other jewels. A little snail shell. A shaggy inkcap. The intricacies of a seed head. Tiny holes are scattered throughout the grass verges, miniature highways.
‘The moment one give close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.’
– Henry Miller
Eventually, I turn around and head in the direction I came. I follow the same paths. I pass the same ponds. I briefly make reacquaintance with the flashing green man. I follow the same road, pass the same gardens, turn into the same sleepy cul-de-sac from where I started.
The starlings are still there, now gathered in small clusters. Some still sit on the overhead cables. Others, in small groups, scour the neat, manicured gardens. As I approach, they lift into the air as one and fly off into the cold, grey sky.