Country diary: a natural amphitheatre allows birds to perform


After the long snow-lined and sunless days, the world seemed suddenly released. The airwaves were full of reports of record temperatures, friends’ first sightings of butterflies and pictures of daffodils. Here, however, over the hill from Flash – England’s highest village (461m) – there may have been sunshine but the landscape felt locked in winter.

The bowl in which Knotbury hamlet lies is a place comprised of three sepia tones. There is the plush suede of old molinia and mat grass, into which are stretched swatches of soft rush and wider patches of brown-black heather. The walled pasture in the bowl bottom adds a single note of primary colour, but even then it’s still the wan green of dried herbs.

Knotbury looking towards Wolf Edge.

The slopes around me act as the perfect resonating chamber for natural sound, and in spring there are few Peak District places that are richer in breeding waders. Lapwings, curlews, snipes and golden plovers all sing and dance and fill the air with upland music. But today the silence was palpable. The only sweetness in two hours at this spot was a snatch of robin song. It was so faint that it presented to my ears the way winter gnats dance at last light.

The far curve of the natural amphitheatre is formed by a dark hill with the wonderfully resonant name Wolf Edge. You could imagine that this was once home to its eponymous beast, but now we must make do with the one that the Inuit call the “wolf bird”. Although my seat was a mile from the tops, the ravens that sailed there could be heard through the cold air in all their nuances. Had they been human voices, I would have caught every word.

At last light I left to mount the path back to Axe Edge, and it occurred to me that while it wasn’t spring, nor was it quite winter. In my going I saw red grouse males on several slopes where they delivered their “bekking” display calls. Their raised silhouettes resembled bottles the colour of congealed blood, until they hared after the females, who fled squawking downslope, their fleshy eye wattles showing scarlet as they scrambled between the heather.


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