Essex rediscovered: ghosts and falcons on a rural ride

A cycle through countryside, on the trail of a great nature writer and the elusive peregrine falcon, offers fresh insights into Essex’s ‘dark mystery’ • Plus: 5 UK birdwatching safaris

I have never been any good at spotting peregrines. I don’t have the knack. I consistently fail to see them amid flocks of panicking waders on the estuary, so I don’t fancy my chances as I pedal downhill from Danbury village on the outskirts of Chelmsford. The plan is to follow the same route that JA Baker took when he tracked the birds across the Essex countryside for his classic work of nature writing, The Peregrine (published in 1967 but on a current shortlist, along with The Wind in the Willows and Tarka the Otter, for the UK’s best-loved nature book).

essex map

My journey had begun with a map, printed on the end pages of My House of Sky, the first biography of Baker by Hetty Saunders, published by Little Toller last year. The map, which stretched from Chelmsford eastwards across the Dengie peninsula to the North Sea coast and had belonged to Baker, was littered with crosses showing peregrine sightings. It was an invitation to discover a part of my native county, which Baker had written about in a way that instilled a place, so often dismissed, with dark mystery.

It is a bright winter’s day when I cycle north from Danbury Hill. There is old snow by the side of the road, more in the air. I climb a stile overlooking the sheep-dotted parkland at Riffhams Manor and scan the sky in arcs, trying to think like a peregrine as Baker instructed. Nothing of course, I haven’t yet earned this bird. Baker cycled out from Chelmsford in all weathers. In my job as an ecologist, I too am out in the countryside in all weathers but rarely watching nature for the sake of it. I am always doing, surveying trees, inspecting farmland; the wildlife has become a backdrop.

Birdlife in the area has improved since DDT pesticides were banned in 1986.
Good signs … the author’s cycle revealed that birdlife in the area has recovered somewhat since DDT pesticides were banned in 1986. Photograph: Carol J Donaldson

Birdwatching was Baker’s hobby, not his job. He stood for hours whereas I rush on. If I am to see a peregrine I need to quieten my mind, learn patience. I need to stop and really begin to look.

On my Ordnance Survey map I have plotted a route between Baker’s haunts, but I soon realise that combining cycling and peregrine watching is tricky. My binoculars knock against my knees as I pedal and I have to screech to a halt to scan every shape that crosses the sky. It will not be possible to cover the area I had planned out along the Chelmer canal to Ulting and back past the flooded quarries north of Woodham Walter in the short hours of a winter’s day.

The Blackwater estuary was a regular haunt of JA Baker and is a hunting ground for peregrines.
The Blackwater estuary was a regular haunt of JA Baker and is a hunting ground for peregrines. Photograph: Alamy

I need to reevaluate why I am here. Am I searching for Baker or Peregrines? I sense Baker’s presence on the bridleway at Grace’s Walk, standing under the avenue of trees, glaring at me, wishing me gone. I glare back. If there is anything I understand about this man then it is his feral tendency. He doesn’t need to tell me anything about this. I understand the furtive nature of becoming beast, of being an oddity among your own species, of wanting solitude, earth and foxhole existence. Baker is here, in the lanes and woods and copses, but we aren’t going to speak.

I stop for lunch in a field of winter wheat and watch flocks of pigeons leaving the woods. I wait, gulping down soup and bread. I wait for a peregrine while berating the egocentricity that leads me to believe they will appear for me because I am here to see them. What I see instead is a dog fox, bright in winter coat. He trots, flat-eared along the woodland edge and heads up the lane towards me. He is hunting, black socks and ears all a perk, for a mouse. He doesn’t know I am here and for a moment I am elated but then his acorn eyes lock into my binoculars and he pauses, as foxes fatally do, before turning tail and trotting back into cover.

Excellent birdwatching terrain near Danbury.
Excellent birdwatching terrain near Danbury. Photograph: Alamy

I reach the end of Grace’s Walk, which is now all sadness; trees wrecked and split by the hedge-flailing machine, soil whipped across industrial-scale fields. Hedge banks burnt by the “filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals,” as Baker described them. No longer DDT, that thinned the eggshells and addled the brains of Baker’s peregrines, but still a cocktail of death that has devastated insect numbers and runs off the land to pollute rivers.

Fieldfares clack along Hurrells Lane. The ford where Baker’s peregrine bathed so readily 60 years ago is flooded. A buzzard flies low along the edge of a field, a bird that has returned to the Essex countryside after an absence of 50 years. It is a success story, along with the peregrines, which now nest on the reactors being decommissioned at Bradwell Power station, 20 miles away. It is a sign that nature can recover, some of it anyway.

Fieldfare eats ashberries at rowan-tree in winterFieldfare (Turdus pilaris) at rowan-tree in winter
Fieldfares are often seen in the countryside in winter, having migrated from Scandinavia and Russia. Photograph: VictorTyakht/Getty Images

I cross the ford on an embankment and pull away up the lane lit golden with low winter sunlight. The road runs with ice water and snow clings in the shaded places. Down through the woods I ride in the failing light, blackbirds chucking in the thorn thickets. I’ve half-forgotten my mission in the splash of wheels through puddles. Yet still, every bird buzz across open ground sets me wondering: “Where are they now?” On the Blackwater estuary perhaps with the teal and dunlin flocks. Tomorrow I will go there and hunt anew.

The sky is roseate with the fading sun, mellow and soft now not sharp-eyed as it was in the morning. I stop by a gate to search the fields one last time. A man in a car pulls up.

“Are you lost?” he shouts from the window. “Only I saw you earlier.”

JA Baker’s book is on a shortlist to become Britain’s favourite nature book.
JA Baker’s book is on a shortlist to become Britain’s favourite nature book. Photograph: Carol J Donaldson

I assure him I am fine. He looks reluctant to leave me, not quite believing perhaps that a women on a bike scanning a field with binoculars could possibly be OK.

“Do you want to know anything about the area?” he tries again.

I think, “I want to know where the peregrines are,” but his beaming face doesn’t look as if it can answer that and, it is in this moment of distraction I see, in the corner of my eye, the falcon pass across the meadow and when I turn to watch it, it is gone.

For information on birdwatching, visit or the Essex Birdwatching Society

The winner of the UK’s best-loved nature book will be announced on BBC2’s Winter Watch, which starts on 29 January. The 50th-anniversary edition of The Peregrine is published by William Collins at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04, with free UK p&p, go to

UK birdwatching safaris

Songs of nightingales, Sussex
Knepp, a 3,500-acre rewilding project near Horsham in West Sussex, has one of the biggest nightingale populations in the UK. The spring nightingale safaris include dinner with wine, a talk about the birds and a late-night sortie in a 4WD to listen to their beautiful song.
5, 12 and 19 May, 9-12pm, £70,

Eagles and osprey, Scotland

An osprey plucks a fish from a lake in the Cairngorms.
An osprey plucks a fish from a lake in the Cairngorms. Photograph: FLPA/Alamy

Guests can expect to see golden eagles and osprey on this safari from Aviemore to remote parts of the Highlands, along with crested tits, crossbills, dippers and divers. Most of the journey is by jeep, but there is some hillwalking, too.
Year-round, £12 an hour for adults and £6 for children (minimum of four hours),

Winter wildfowl, Northumberland
Explore the Northumberland coast and island of Lindisfarne on this winter safari, which starts in Alnwick, spotting pale-bellied brent geese, bar-tailed godwits, sandpipers and other birds that like mudflats, marshes and coastal rocks.
22 February, 15 & 29 March, £60,

Birding discovery days, Yorkshire

The UK’s short-eared owl population increases in winter as migrants arrive from northern Europe.
The UK’s short-eared owl population increases in winter as migrants arrive from northern Europe. Photograph: Major Wildlife/Alamy

The coast, moors, wolds and forests in North and East Yorkshire provide habitats for short-eared owls (winter), honey buzzards (summer) and northern goshawks (all year round). This full-day safari starts in Seamer, near Scarborough.
Next tours 25 February and 8 April, £55,

Hunt for raptors, Snowdonia
Stops on this one-day raptor safari in Snowdonia include a pine forest, to search for goshawks, sparrowhawks and buzzards; a valley, to look for peregrines and red kites; a moor, with hen harriers, merlin and red grouse; and a lake where osprey raise their chicks.
Year-round, £120 for two, including lunch,

Carol Donaldson

The GuardianTramp

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