J. A. Baker, an arthritic and short-sighted birdwatcher from Chelmsford, compared the British wilderness to ‘the goaded bull at bay, pierced by the lance of the picador’. Baker found solace in the unblemished solitude of the Dengie Hundred, where he wrote one of the strangest and most influential nature books ever written, The Peregrine, which tracks the daily lives of a pair of peregrine falcons. He died in the 1980s but the wilderness of the Dengie Peninsula, 50 miles east of London, where Essex marshland meets the Northern main, is still largely as it was.
Here, wildfowl still come and go in their thousands. Waders take refuge in the glasswort and sea aster, and starlings flit through the sky like airborne sardines. Ploughs still chime against cockleshells and Roman flint beneath the heavy blue silt. But there are a few changes from Baker’s day, some almost sacrilegious. Here stand 26 wind turbines, icons of rural vandalism overshadowing one of England’s oldest churches, the Saxon St Peter-on-the-Wall. Behind them disused pylons walk west from a decommissioned power station — barbs on the skyline.
Many condemn the saltings as bleak or empty, but the coastline has an eerie charm. Here, in big sky country, your eyes lose perspective. Apart from the poplar tops, elm stumps and swaths of blackthorn, the land is flat and unbroken. ‘Sea and sky lose themselves together’ (wrote Baker) and ‘the grey and white horizons are moored on rafts’.
One afternoon in April, I followed in the footsteps of my namesake, along the seawall between St Peter’s Chapel and Burnham-on-Crouch. Like him, I was in pursuit of the peregrine. I saw dunlin, redshank, little ringed plover, teal, wigeon, brent geese and shelduck in abundance. I was about to give up on the peregrine, when, from a thousand yards, I could see the silhouette of a raptor standing on a solitary Dutch barn. Before I could centre my binoculars it had gone.
At the base of this black barn I found pieces of a pigeon. The breasts had been stripped from the sternum; not a morsel of meat was left. Nothing but wings and shoulders remained, and though twisted they were intact. It was, unequivocally, a peregrine’s lunch. Happy with the day’s hunting, I set off into the wilderness again, indulging in the silence and seclusion, before turning home to reflect on a day well spent.