It is March, and a Hampshire sun meanders quietly over the crest of Butser Hill in Chalton. Dawn brings a murky light not yet unburdened from the mists of winter, but the South Downs are swept by the splendour of spring as morning arrives and the song thrush begins his opera. Nestled in downland and protected from Solent winds, an ancient farm lies across the landscape, a cluster of roundhouses and prehistoric dwellings all that remain of Britain’s past. These little houses form witch-hat silhouettes against the sun and soak up the warmth like baking bread; it will probably rain in an hour.
In the half-light a shadow stirs on the hillside. New lambs seem to spring from the earth overnight like woolly mushrooms. They are spindly, feeble things protected by haughty mothers overindulgent with warm milk; these are the latest descendants of an ancient breed called Manx Loaghtan, bringing meat and wool to mankind since the Iron Age. Both rams and ewes grow up to six coiled horns on their heads, left to wander the thistled fields and face salted gales from the sea. Today this lamb huddles close to its flock; three nights ago a more fragile newborn was taken to the woodlands nearby, natural sustenance for a vixen and her bundle of cubs.
The morning sun wakes two cockerels from their roost in the Neolithic longhouse roof. These pompous fowl are the closest of chaps, two free range bachelors roaming the kingdom in search of life’s greatest gifts: ladies and luncheon. They totter from paddock to paddock, startled frequently by Fagan the farm dog and eternally outraged by the pheasants invading their realm, that strange symbol of the British countryside who wander lost about the land, constantly searching for their Asian motherland. The pheasants hide jade eggs in the dew-drizzled hedgerow, mottled females cloaked perfectly in the hues of surrounding foliage, the males consistently poor in disguise or dignity.
By noon the goats are clambering on the logs in their paddock, each trying to stand a fraction taller than the others to prove their caprine prowess. They share the nettles with spring’s first solitary butterflies; common blues, meadow browns and gatekeepers all rest quietly in the long grass. A small tortoiseshell flitters through a forest of rosebay willowherb, whose lofty foliage cones are not yet warm enough for mauve frothy blossoms. On the gatepost waits a mottled comma like an autumn leaf, frozen in time. The farm’s avian population are in full chatter as the March sun begins to descend into the undulating hillscape, snapping up invertebrates and shouting raunchily at potential lovers. Goldfinches fill the trees that line the cobbled track, as near as they can be to the wild teasels that grow along the bank, and by the old feed shed stands a towering conifer, its branches home to three tiny goldcrests hopping along like a toy train.
Somewhere in a dusky hedgerow the yellowhammer calls goodnight to his companions with a little bit of bread and no chee-eese. They sit like browning lemons in the hazelnut trees, too fleeting to watch but easy to hear. Overhead the kites soar, kestrels hover and buzzards mew, one last crepuscular hunt before sleep takes hold. In the Saxon hall, built of solid chestnut timbers and woven wattle panels, a barn owl has taken to devouring its prey, sheltered from wind by the dry thatched roof. It swoops and twists in the air like a ghost of ancient England, trapping voles and bulging rats between its talons. Tomorrow morning a pellet will be found on the chalk floor, with little skulls and mouse tails tangled in a clump.
The song thrush has finished his opera now, later than he did yesterday and just a little earlier than he will tomorrow; the roundhouse fires have simmered away and the lambs are squashed between guarded ewes. A waxing moon beams down upon the Roman walnut tree, oak leaves and sprouting primrose. The farm will sleep through another spring night beneath a blanket of stars, a wild, snoozing capsule hidden from modernity.