Sue Limb: Gilbert White famously thought that swallows hibernated under ponds
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Musings of the naughtily nice kind
There are so many awful things about summer, she sighed, channelling Eeyore. The wasp-infested picnics, the blistering heatwaves, the traffic jams. The packed beaches, the mosquitos, and worst of all, that seasonal purgatory, the school holidays. But there is one thing which makes the summer, for me, the most blessed of seasons.
Arriving home one April afternoon many years ago, my bloke greeted me with an alarming salutation. ‘We’ve got visitors.’ My heart sank, knowing I had left yesterday’s undies on the bathroom floor and hadn’t hoovered for weeks. But these visitors weren’t bothered.
I live on a farm, with its piles of stinking manure, its mud, its flies, its cracked and neglected masonry. ‘Oooh, look!’ twitters Mrs Swallow to Mr Swallow, zooming overhead. ‘Manure! Mud! Cracked masonry! And – excuse me for a moment – mmmm! Delicious bluebottles!’ They inspect the various cracks in the masonry and argue in a delicious warbling twittery way about which site to choose. Or perhaps they renovate an old nest.
There have been swallows here for centuries, perhaps even for millennia, because behind the house is a cliff, also offering pleasing nest sites with a southerly aspect and great views. ‘That kitchen will have to come out!’ Mrs Swallow might have exclaimed, whizzing off to the muddy puddle for a beak full of building material.
Since the swallows first arrived, I have been in raptures of delight, observing their busy lives: nesting, the female sitting on the nest, the first tiny sound of something live hatching, the feeding, the young ones leaving the nest and perched on adjacent beams, learning to fly, and then the whole mesmerising story unfolding again with another brood, sometimes three. Last year martins arrived to join in the fun, a whole gang of them, and built nests on the other side of the house. This year they have returned. So my cup runneth over. My customary glowering gloom has given way to foolish grinning.
If you haven’t got interested in birds yet, what the hell’s wrong with you? If you have, I recommend once more the superb book Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. This treasure trove, as massive as a family Bible, is full of quirky and extraordinary details about our summer visitors, and includes an anecdote about a couple, Geoffrey and Judy Grimes of Kent, who encouraged a pair of swallows to nest in their bedroom, in an adapted shoebox, and kept a record of it, from the first bringing in of mud to the young learning to fly. ’10 July: the excitement of freedom causes premature emptying of the bowels’ (the swallows, not Geoffrey and Judy). ‘We decided to cover the whole room with a large polythene sheet.’
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Swallows have often been regarded with an almost spiritual awe, and their nests protected. People leave outhouse doors and windows open for them. It’s as if their arrival confers a kind of blessing on the place. Their tolerance of mankind is also remarkable (of course they don’t know how vile we really are.) Their nest is right by our back door – many a time I’ve felt my hair being parted as one whizzes past overhead.
Gilbert White, the 18th-century naturalist, recorded that some swallows once made a nest on the body of a dead owl, hanging from a beam. I’m sure, if I was that dead owl, I’d have felt honoured. White famously thought that swallows hibernated under ponds, puzzled by their sudden appearance in April and disappearance in September. But I don’t want to think about September. I’m just glorying in them now.
Follow Sue on Twitter: @sue_limb