I swung over the hills and down into the deep valley, seeing the tiercel diving down the fanned sun’s rays towards the distant marshes. I swooped through leicestershires of swift green light. A dazzling wetness of green fields irrigated the windswept eye. The humming wheels plunged away below me; I was dragged down in a rush of wind. This was hunting speed, pounding after the winged hawk quick to the quarry. I remembered galloping over spring green turf, as a child; over the neglected, fallen farmland of pre-war years; through the wild hedges and the glorious wastes of flowering weeds flaming with hawks and finches.
‘’Are you lost?’’
I’m not. It’s nice to be asked though, even if I am fairly familiar with Maldon. Needing to know where I can catch a bus back to Danbury, I’ve approached four people without success. I’ve walked to Maldon, and fallen over three times on the muddy towpath of the Chelmer navigation, I have mud up to the knees of my jeans, mud on my backside and mud on my hands. I have sustained a painful bruise to my thumb. Being covered in mud on a towpath is one thing, on Maldon High Street, another. I suspect I might be exuding an air of misanthropy. All respect therefore, to the woman who approaches me and gives me full direction and detail with regard to bus stops, bus times and route numbers that will transport me back to my car parked at Danbury. My misanthropy evaporates like dew before the morning sun.
I don’t often do long walks on my own. I more usually like the combination of solitariness and sociability that you get from walking in a small group. You spend long periods walking maybe twenty or thirty yards apart, perhaps even further. You catch up or drop behind to share a thought or observation or to chat, then you’re on your own again for a spell. Today, I’ve elected to do it differently. I’m following the tracks of J.A. Baker, the ground he covered in The Peregrine, and he travels alone, his mission being to stalk the peregrine falcon, threatened with extinction at the time he wrote the book, and his pursuit of the bird is a solitary one.
19th century America saw the spread of an optimistic and influential philosophy which became known as ‘Transcendentalism’, its principal exponent being Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the closest that I can get to describing J.A. Baker’s outlook is as a kind of photo-negative of that credo. Emerson, writing in the early mid-century, brimmed with post-revolutionary optimism, with which he elided a sense of humanity’s oneness with nature. Baker, born in 1926, would have been about 13 when the second war broke out, he would have witnessed aerial battles in the Essex skies, and been around 19 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. None of this is mentioned in the text, but his prose is underpinned by a wintery, post-holocaust pessimism full of shadow. He walks through trees which ‘’layer the memory like shadows’’; the river throws shadows on the reflection of a hawk’s ‘’spare, haunted face’’. Waders in the heat haze are ‘’watery reflections moored to still, black shadows.’’ a flock of dunlin pour ‘a waterfall of shadow’ on the indifferent face of a hiker. And who would want to be immortalised with such withering severity as this hiker? One of the very few people to make an appearance in the book, he
… walked along the sea wall, flapping with maps. Five thousand Dunlin flew low inland, twenty feet above his head. He did not see them.
There is a faint nostalgia for ‘neglected, fallen farmland’ and ‘glorious wastes of flowering weeds’ which I don’t think implies that farming was particularly casual in the interwar years, rather that, at the time from which it was written – the mid 60s- there was a growing sense that the link between humanity and nature had possibly been irreparably severed; when nature was in full retreat from the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals and it is this sense of powerlessness in the face of technology which is at the heart of the pain which powers The Peregrine.
The main part of the book is structured in the form of a diary(in which ten years of exploration are distilled into six months). Daily entries frequently evoke a calm before the storm, a lull before battle. Scenery is described in vivid detail. The minor protagonists, the lesser birds -‘toy soldiers’ – hundreds of waders, crows, gulls,are described and then the entry of the peregrine heralds the power within the skyscape, there might be a ‘dogfight’ to harry the peregrine away,but often, the entry will end with the peregrine as victorious hunter. Every bird-slaying carefully choreographed within the whole, the relationship between the hunter and the hunted built up painstakingly to its conclusion. A bleak transcendence achieved it seems, through power of the imagination.
For years, nothing was known about Baker. I was introduced to the book by Secret Informant who wondered if we had identified the locales featured during our walks around the Essex coast. The landscapes are carefully anonymised and abstracted and almost no specific orientation is given away in the text. One of the catalysts that has brought me here today is James Canton’s account of his journey of discovery and non-discovery on the trail of Baker in this area. This detective story opens his book Out of Essex. Also I’ve been sitting on a bunch of jottings I’ve made on The Peregrine for some 9 months now. Partly shy of Baker’s own intensity and partly because he is much written about recently, and that by people far more capable than I. I’ve moved the notes around a few times, but never felt they were in a shape worth posting. and I decided that the way to get them into shape was to walk the Baker heartland. The final nudge I needed was waking up to perfect Baker weather; bright sunshine, a light covering of snow on the ground, plus, a postponed appointment leaves me with a free day so I decide to do the deed.
In Out of Essex. Canton’s maps are almost always accompanied by a flap of one sort or another in an affectionate tribute to Baker’s hiker and to the dependency of us lesser mortals on cartography . Rifling through my own collection of Essex maps, I realise that I do not have a map that covers the Chelmer valley. The austere ghost of J.A. Baker sits next to me in the passenger seat of the car as I drive to buy one. The ghost gives a sigh of despair as it accompanies me into the cavernous lifestyle emporium that is ‘Go Outdoors’ on the north side of Colchester. I emerge, alone, with OS Explorer sheet 183.
Sitting in the car park, I plot my route. Standing on the shoulders of Canton’s detective work, I quickly find the church at Little Baddow on the map, next to the orchard, nestling close to the 25 metre contour line. I decide to park at Danbury, walk to the church then down to the river and along the towpath to Maldon, getting the bus back to the car.
I’m skirting the village of Danbury, and once past the villas that line its east side, the lane that I’m walking along becomes very beautiful indeed. To the right there is leafless woodland, and I am already clothing the landscape in images and fragments from The Peregrine, of the intimidating, if not obsessive injunction to; ‘…learn the shapes of all the valley trees, till anything added becomes, at once, a bird.’
On the left by way of light relief, there is a sward of parkland, appropriated tastefully and in the traditional way, and exuding a sense of propriety of which Jane Austen would have been proud (Jane Austen meets John Alec Baker – there’s a thought). I take a footpath through trees emerging unexpectedly on to a neatly manicured driveway running past what might well be a Tudor farmhouse. A sleek car passes discreetly over the gravel and I experience a moment of fugitive solidarity with Baker’s misanthropy.
I started a recent post with a sense of optimism that spring was imminent. This has proved to be severely misplaced for, although the day is brightly sunny, it is very cold and the ground, where its not frozen, is sloshing wet underfoot. The roads are fine though, and there are plenty of birds about – flocks of swans, wrens, magpies: a large number of bullfinches near the orchard by Little Baddow church.No peregrine.Past the church,undergoing renovation, clad in scaffolding and protective sheeting, and down to the towpath. The flood plain is flooded and the towpath is muddy, the going slow, and, in places undignified – hence the condition in which I later arrive on Maldon high street.
There is tea shop on the towpath at Paper Mill lock, which to my amazement is open. I had been beginning to regret having eaten only two slices of toast that morning; it is now 1.15. so I order, and sit down to skip between the two books. Twenty five minutes later I realise my toasted sandwich has probably been forgotten, which, given I am the only person in the place, tokens a subversive disregard for customer service which The Essex Coast can only applaud, I enquire of the woman at the counter (‘’I did put it in, but forgot to tell the cook’’). The sandwich arrives shortly, is very superior and I am offered a free slice of cake. This tea shop hereby gets three Silvermud stars – rarely awarded and highly coveted – best hospitality on the River Chelmer.
The towpath is almost deserted until, nearing Maldon, anglers begin to appear, singly and in threes and fours. The confluence of the Chelmer and the Blackwater is surprisingly dramatic. Unfortunately, by now the battery of my camera has expired, so no photos. Maldon appears, surprisingly close as the river rounds a wood. Still no sign of a peregrine.The path abruptly tips me into the car park of Maldon Tesco and a gloucestershire of SUVs.
Late news, May 2016: The Essex Coast is excited to discover a new website devoted to the life and work of John Alec Baker, author of The Peregrine. Try it here.