When I was little, my parents took me and my sister for a day out to a place called Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve. It was quite a long drive from our South East London home, and I didn’t know what to expect. My initial reaction was terror, because the visitor centre wasn’t open but Mum and Dad insisted we could walk around anyway. I was convinced we were trespassing, and I’ve never been the biggest risk taker. (Cue laughter from all who know me at what a massive understatement that is).
Once I’d come to terms with my new status as a master criminal, I started to pay attention to my surroundings. We walked along wide tracks surrounded by trees, smelling earth and greenery, the traffic sounds replaced by birdsong. We ended up at the edge of a large lake, in a wooden hide overlooking a secluded part of the water, overhanging trees bowing close to the surface. Dad told me that his favourite bird was a kingfisher. He told me about its beautiful blue and orange feathers, and that it was small and fast, and not always easy to spot. The stillness was infectious. We sat quietly, not wanting to break the spell, listening to the birds chirruping in the trees, the occasional honk of a coot, the slight rustle of reeds as the wind whispered through them.
We sat there for what seemed like ages. It was ages. Days, possibly. Dad seemed resigned to not seeing the kingfisher. And then I spotted it – a flash of colourful feathers, so bright it seemed artificial, a toy rather than a bird – the dart as it caught a fish and returned to a shaded branch to eat it. Apparently I said; ‘What’s that, there?’ in an ignorant sort of way, and pointed to the bird Dad had been searching for. We watched it as it went back and forth from water to tree branch, and it was beautiful – a jewel in the landscape. It is known as “the kingfisher moment” in our family, and it was, I think, the first time I really paid attention to wildlife.
Since that day I have been a nature lover and a (very amateur) birdwatcher, and visit nature reserves often. There’s so much to see, the magical moments when you’ve been sitting quietly and then you spot something – a bird of prey, a bittern, a huge dragonfly or an otter. And, I have discovered, it is impossible to feel stressed out walking through a nature reserve. They’re places of total calm, of cool, leaf-covered walkways and glittering water. One time, I approached a hide to discover there was a wasps’ nest in the roof – they had put signs up to warn people, in case you missed the striped beasts swarming all around it – and I just turned and walked away. I walked away. Anywhere else I would have run, screaming, because even at the age of 36, I am terrified of wasps.
I have been on dawn walks and dusk walks, seen deer and bats and thousands of rooks all going into roost together as one, mesmerising mass. I have watched – and squealed about – an otter splashing in the shallows, almost trodden on an adder, held out some food for a robin and held my breath as it landed on my hand. I have lost all sense of feeling in my toes and I have been soaked to the skin. I have asked people what they’re looking at and nodded authoritatively when they’ve told me it’s a bar-tailed godwit or a snow bunting, even though up until that moment I’d never heard of those birds. I have eaten lots of cakes in RSPB cafés.
Nature reserves offer calm, exercise, excitement, beauty, wonder and, often, much needed refreshment at the end of a long walk. They show off our country’s natural habitats, are looked after by dedicated people who want to preserve the marshland or meadows, the lakes and lagoons, and protect and encourage the native wildlife. They are special places and also, I have long thought, the perfect setting for a book.
The House of Birds and Butterflies is a love story, because that is the kind of book I enjoy writing. It is a love story between two people, but it is also about my love of nature reserves, those havens of calm where you can lose all sense of time, forget about the everyday niggles and just walk or sit, listen to the bird song, look out for a tree creeper or a bullfinch or a peacock butterfly (or a wasp to run away from).
I hope that, if you read The House of Birds and Butterflies, you get a sense of why I’m such a fan of nature reserves. Maybe you will go and read it at a nature reserve, sitting on a bench or in a hide, surrounded by the trill of blackbirds and chaffinches. Is method reading a thing? I don’t know. Anyway, whether you’re sitting in the sunshine, on a train, lying in bed or curled up in your perfect, dedicated reading nook, (which, by the way, I’m very jealous of) I hope you love reading it as much as I loved writing it.
(All the pics are mine, taken at various different nature reserves over the years.)