Country diary: following the wiming paths of greenfinches

Caught between the requirement to stay close to home and an irresistible urge to move, we are pacing out our local patch with renewed interest. This brought us on a sunny Sunday morning to the foot of Wimble Holme Hill. The name is a delight: the root of Wimble has been offered as “wime”, a dialect word meaning to take a circuitous route. Streams wime. Bees wime. And when confronted with the alarmingly steep slope of Wimble Holme Hill, so do humans, who most usually take the narrow road that loops to the north at a more reasonable angle.

We, on the other hand, were up for a challenge and took the hill direct, which brought us immediately to a tangle of gorse. Here I stopped, not to catch my breath – we’d hardly started – but to listen to the rasping call of a greenfinch.

For years, from one summer to the next, I would lie half-awake in the morning listening to this sound, like an elongated wheeze, emerging from a conifer outside my bedroom window: a lazy, delicious sound that encouraged me to stay just where I was. Then, around the middle of the past decade, my garden greenfinches, my confreres in idleness, disappeared, presumably victims of the trichomonosis outbreak that caused such a precipitous decline in their numbers. And despite the recent recovery, they’ve not returned to my garden yet. Summer hasn’t been the same since.

I could see why the greenfinches were thriving on Wimble Holme Hill. Plenty of cover, but also some benefactor had hung a couple of feeders from the bushes, crammed with sunflower seeds. Half-hidden behind the gorse was a circular wall of black bricks, the stub of what might have been a massive chimney but is, in fact, the opening of an airshaft to the railway tunnel that runs under Totley Moor.

Built in the early 1890s, this huge project had its own story of sudden loss: the graveyard in nearby Dore has headstones to the victims of a smallpox outbreak that occurred among the navvies and their families during construction, unnamed victims of the march of progress. A railway tunnel might never wime, but the path of humans – and greenfinches – does little else.

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