Spring treasure 6: The Return of the Swallows

30/4/2018 I love swallows. I could tell you what I love about them: their chattering, aerial acrobatics, colours and streamers. I cannot think of their migration to and from Africa every year without a sense of awe – almost disbelief. I look forward to their arrival in spring, feeling that they carry the new season on their wings, regardless of the weather – and we are shivering in yet another cold and rainy spell.

But none of this really explains my feeling for them: they are far more than the sum total of their characteristics. They carry a whole world of delight and symbolism within their weightless bodies; they are the stuff of poetry and folklore. One day – if I can work out how to do it, and make my peace with libraries – I would like to create an anthology of swallow literature.

My dad always said that the swallows arrived on 15th May every year, and I clearly remember them sitting on the wires running between the house and the barn. But for many years, swallows haven’t graced the garden with their presence, only the sky above it. I’m not sure why. I don’t have to go far to find them though: only across to the Hobbets, or down to Hitcham church, where they nest in the porch. The neighbouring village, Kettlebaston, has hundreds of them, perhaps because there is more livestock there, and consequently more insects to eat. A few years ago, however, a pair of swallows hung around the courtyard for a few days, sitting on the wire above it, and descending occasionally to pull moss out of an old bird’s nest outside the goat shed. I held my breath, hoping above hope that they would nest here, for the first time in my memory. But they eventually left, and my only remaining hope was that they would return another year and come to a different decision.

I see swallows much earlier than 15th May now. I usually see my first in the last week or ten days of April. Last year was exceptional, though: I saw them on 7th April at Hitcham churchyard. This year I had no expectations of such an early sighting as spring was so delayed; if they had any sense they’d stay in in the Mediterranean until it warmed up a bit, I thought.

Last Sunday on a warm and sunny afternoon I decided to visit Badley church, at which I was due to give a concert. The cycle ride and the footpaths to the church from a remote lane beyond Battisford looked so appealing, and I wouldn’t be able to explore them with a cello on my back. Besides, who could say what the weather would be like in a week’s time… So I set off for my first proper bike ride of the year.

Somewhere between Hitcham and Battisford, I heard a twittering and looked up, knowing what I’d see. They didn’t catch me by surprise in the way they did last year, but hearing them before seeing them is always part of the magic. I haven’t seen any swallows since that afternoon, but it is enough to know they are here. It is almost as if they perform the duties of a priest, blessing the soil beneath them as they circle in the skies. I suppose that is the real indication of their power over me.

‘One swallow does not make a summer’, the old saying goes. I understand the sense of the proverb, but one thing is for sure: one swallow certainly makes my spring.