Last Wednesday, early evening, the Kent-Sussex border north of Rye. I was driving home under an immoderate sky, the hawthorn around me frothy with blossom, when I saw them. Coming up the slope of the hill in front, they flashed past like thoughts and were gone, but I knew that the year wouldn’t be the same again. As usual, Ted Hughes put it best. “What is loveliest about swallows,” he wrote, “Is the moment they come / The moment they dip in, and are suddenly there.”
Now swallows have arrived and it is as if the year has thrown off its cloak. Roger Deakin, writing of the coming of swallows to his Suffolk home, said that they “seem to bless the house with the spirit of the south; the promise of summer”. Early April is swallow time, the birds’ arrival an annual cause for celebration.
Most of our swallows winter in South Africa and Namibia, making the long journey north to their breeding grounds in Europe in late February and early March. The 6,000 mile journey takes them anywhere from five weeks to three months to complete, with the birds flying an average of 200 miles each day. The swallows’ route takes them up over the dense jungles of central Africa, across the Sahara, through Morocco and then over the Mediterranean.
Experienced birds – those that have made the trip several times – tend to fly faster and earlier, with younger swallows arriving up to four months later.
Naturalist Gilbert White didn’t believe in migration. He thought swallows hibernated underwater during the winter
In his beautiful book A Single Swallow, Horatio Clare tried to follow the birds on their perilous and haphazard migration north, finally recognising that the nearly 200m swallows that make their way up through Africa each spring follow no clear route, but that the journey is, rather, “a giant chessboard, crowded with mortal dangers”.
Several studies, by the British Trust for Ornithology and the UK, Environmental Change Network, have shown the clear correlation between swallow arrival and rising temperatures. In the time of the great 18th-century swallow-lover Gilbert White, who noted the advent of the birds in his diary with an excited rendition of their Linnaean name “Hirundo domestica!!!”, the swallows appeared in late June and early July.
Now there are regular sightings, verified by each county’s nominated bird recorder, of the birds as early as February, with some even over-wintering in the UK. It’s as if, in the mess we have made of our environment, we have answered the prayers of John Clare, who longed for swallows to brighten his winters:
I wish ye well to find a dwelling here,
For in the unsocial weather ye would fling
Gleanings of comfort through the winter wide,
Twittering as wont above the old fireside,
And cheat the surly winter into spring.
White didn’t believe in migration. He, and most other naturalists of his time, thought swallows hibernated underwater during the winter, clinging together claw to beak in the mud at the bottom of lakes and rivers. When presented with the idea that the birds might fly south in the autumn, he dismissed it. “It is worth remarking that these birds are seen first about lakes and millponds,” he wrote.
Others thought that swallows were reanimated each year, phoenix-like. Thomas Carew reckoned that the summer sun “gives a sacred birth / To the dead swallow”. Yet knowing what we do of the birds’ journey, the distance and the danger of it, their arrival here seems no less miraculous.
I first came to love swallows when staying with my aunt, an eccentric and beautiful woman who lives alone in a farmhouse in the Charente. I say alone, but it’s a house ruled by its animals – a dozen dogs, scores of cats, horses that often wander into the kitchen and begin eating your breakfast over your shoulder. Best of all, though, are the swallows, for whom my aunt leaves her windows open from March to October.
The birds nest in her bedroom, dozens of them, building their little cups of spittle and earth above the cornicework, decorating the floor and my aunt’s sheets with their chalky droppings. By mid-April, the air is thick with them, flitting through the house with their iodine tail-streamers flickering behind them. The house isn’t the same when they depart.
My aunt’s swallows were one of the inspirations behind my book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, which traces the literary history of birdwatching, the way that over the centuries poets and prose writers have sought to capture the endless grace and variety of birds.
While writing the book, I moved out of London to the Kent countryside, just in time for Brexit. It brought something home to me, to be writing down here in one of the Leave heartlands, where every lamp post hung with its “we want our country back” necklace. Horatio Clare’s book is an exception when it comes to nature writing.
A Single Swallow is illuminated by the idea that “people, regardless of creeds and colours, are equal”, while Clare, throwing himself madly over the miles of the swallows’ migration, recognises that he must “rely on the best of the oldest of humankind’s traditions: kindness to strangers”.
Nature writing, it seems to me, is often one of the places that insular jingoism comes to hide. Not that all nature writers are as nationalistic as Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, who dressed up and stomped around with Oswald Mosley, but it’s difficult to celebrate the country without the subtext that it’s this country, rather than any other, that you’re celebrating.
Even at its best, I often felt, as I wended together quotes from nature writers past and present with my own observations of birds, that the natural world can turn you away from the human one, blind you with its beauty.
As we greet the swallows, arriving after their astonishing journey to a particularly mellow and welcoming spring, let us think also of other migrants making that hazardous trip over the waters of the Mediterranean, of the welcome they will receive when they arrive on our shores.
As Kingfishers Catch Fire is published by Little, Brown in July