A bitter wind blows up the 2km of icy brown water, shaping a dense row of tapered icicles along an overhanging fence and freezing water around the shore pebbles. Swans, geese and hundreds of ducks have been pushed up into the most north-western point of Eyebrook reservoir. Widgeon – sporting coiffured ginger mohicans – drift in little flotillas, energetically feeding in the shallow water. A quivering black rapier pointing to the grey sky flags a dabbling pintail; over its head a smaller duck darts, flashing a broad greenish blue panel in each wing – the original teal. It is a rare, lustrous and metallic display that must have been otherworldly to early humans.
Sometime later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a strand of my ancestors were farmers in Stoke Dry, just up the hill from what was then (before the reservoir was constructed in the 1930s to supply Corby steelworks) just the Eye Brook. Their name, Peach, peeps through patchworks of lichen crusts on the gravestones around the village church.
Across the valley, Great Merrible Wood is an ancient copse and now a Wildlife Trust nature reserve. The clay slopes are bisected by steep-sided gorges, along which small streams gurgle and splash, crafting strange contorted ice sculptures where roots and twigs overhang rivulets tumbling over earthy cascades.
The broad rides through the oak, ash and hazel are white with snow that frames hardly any footprints other than those of the deer and pheasant. Hazel catkins hang like yellow lambs’ tails, brightening the scene. Invertebrate life is hiding away.
I recall as a small child at school getting into serious trouble for systematically stripping all the thick slabs of bark from the standing trunk of a dead poplar, while marvelling at the huge caterpillars and array of other life revealed. It is not a preoccupation that I would recommend now, because good deadwood is at a premium in the countryside, and bark is an important part of the cornucopia of treats that are on offer to xylovores. Nevertheless, I treat myself to a few peeks and spy a hibernating wasp and pretty little patterned lace-weaver spiders.
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