Inside the Bypass

I got an email invitation to a walk a while back that pointed out the surprisingly rural nature of some land within two miles of Newbury, ‘inside the bypass’. It is indeed one of the most pleasant surprises about the immediate environs of our town, that between the busy A34 and the built-up area a slice of relatively ‘rough’ countryside persists undeveloped. It has issues, like anywhere – some of the sheep grazing is a little heavy for my liking, and a large block of mostly alder and willow was felled last summer in the name of combatting ash dieback, opening unwelcome new sight and sound lines to the speeding traffic. But overall, it is wonderful to have an accessible slice of countryside right on the doorstep of town, with a well-marked circular walk that is studded with display boards offering information on local history. It’s perfect for a muddy tramp with friends in the winter or for seeking out interesting insects that nectar on hogweed among the swampy blocks of woodland in the summer.

The Newbury bypass route was, of course, the scene of famous environmental protests in the 1990s, which I remember watching on TV as a child, along with those at Twyford down near Winchester, not all that far from our home village. I often wonder what it would have been like to live in West Newbury without the bypass, whether we’d notice the reduced road noise, if the predicted traffic apocalypse in central Newbury would ever really have happened, or if the bypass might in a strange way actually have saved this part of town from further development by reducing the value of the land. In a neat twist of history, much of the hardcore for the bypass was recycled from the Greenham Common runway, thereby weaving our town’s two famous protests into one story.

Most of us live inside the bypass – or motorway or ring road – in the UK. Perhaps we don’t think deeply enough about how all-pervasive the impacts of roads are. Our lifestyle and infrastructure planning (or lack thereof) make us dependent on cars, much to the detriment of the climate, air quality, wildlife and beauty of the countryside. I am grateful that we live in lovely West Newbury – life can be very good here – but it seems not before time to radically reconsider our relationship with the car, starting with not approving any more unnecessary bypasses or expressways to nowhere. Yes, I own a car and sometimes drive it along that infamous stretch of tarmac. Personal vehicles are going to be an essential for the field ecologist for some time to come, and for plenty of other professions too, certainly for anybody who lives outside of major towns and cities (rural bus services remain pitiful to non-existent). Fundamentally, it comes down to convenience and money, however green we may think ourselves*. We need the right nudges from government and preferably some radical action; unfortunately, our current political leaders are either too preoccupied with other matters or literally driving in the wrong direction.

*I recently researched a trip to York in mid-March for which our options are return train tickets for at least £175 or driving for £70 petrol (plus an appropriate portion of our car’s running costs). If you are starting from a position of owning a car, those economics rarely work out in favour of long-distance rail travel, though for comfort it would be my preference over driving.

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January 17th

Finally, the so-so mild weather broke. Quite dramatically so, in an intense flurry of wet snow that exactly coincided with my morning cycle commute. The air filled with fat flakes that looked stereotypically fluffy but stung when they caught me in the eye; still, I was glad to see some real winter weather and enjoyed struggling against adversity. Twenty minutes later I arrived at my destination, soggy but not anything like as soaked as I had been by rain from a similarly well-timed active cold front earlier in the winter. Fortunately, while like most people I see a little rain as an inconvenience, the meteorologist in me loves being out in extreme weather. If it’s going to rain, it may as well be spectacular!

Within what felt like just a few minutes the clouds melted and we were left with one of those perfect bright winter days. After a morning teaching I made it out into the real world of the Whiteknights ‘wilderness’, enjoying sharp air interrupted only by the funk of fox or a whiff of weed smoke, this after all being a university campus. On a brightly lit patch of laurel several blowflies loitered, occasionally taking off to reshuffle leaves before resuming their solar charging.

These are the moments on the very frontier of spring, when the air is still cold and any warmth in the low sun is still barely discernible, but birds know the days are getting longer and seem to ramp up their activity to match. The bright clear calls of long-tailed tits and blue tits in roving flocks matched the freshness of air and sky. Subtly moving among the tit flocks, goldcrests hovered and darted. Sticking to the cover of ivy or evergreen, they are all movement, though perhaps not as restless and lightning-quick as firecrests. When I’ve had a longer run of watching both species together I can almost pick them apart by behaviour alone, but I’m rusty. No reports of firecrest from Whiteknights since November, but the memory of past sightings haunts my watching of many quiet corners of campus and I feel sure I will catch up with one soon.

January

In the nine days of 2019 so far, I haven’t exchanged New Year greetings with many people who don’t feel the need to qualify ‘Happy New Year’ by using a sarcastic tone of voice or adding a wry ‘ha’. At the dawn of a 12-month period likely to be plagued by yet more endless doom-laden news cycles concerning the forbidden topics of the era (the T word, the B word, looming climate catastrophe), nobody seems to be that optimistic. That’s coupled with an unconnected promise of change in the lives of several friends in the year ahead. For me too, this year guarantees some kind of upheaval. This will be the year my current Teaching Associate post at Reading ends, after six years, to be replaced either by a new position in my current department (under a different line manager, and probably with tweaked but not completely different responsibilities) or a totally new adventure elsewhere. The latter would likely mean a move away from Berkshire, though I feel in no particularly hurry to leave Newbury, where we have slowly been building connections to the community.

Despite January being a demonstrably terrible time for resolutions, among all the uncertainty I’m trying to stay grounded by focussing on the few things that do make me feel optimistic and purposeful. These can be summarised as reading and writing, watching and recording nature, and playing and writing music. These are the things I love to do, yet inexplicably spend too small a proportion of my time on. Aside from the fun of the Goodreads reading challenge, I haven’t set grand year-end targets (though I might have a few in mind – once a lister, always a lister!) but instead will try to mindfully devote time each day to each of these activities. Learning to weave hobbies and habits into the fabric of everyday life. Remembering and relearning, over and over, how to notice nature at every opportunity, considering and reconsidering birds until I work out at last why these other species, these wholly other lives, are so important to mine.