The two Swallows that nested in our potting shed last summer are back. They arrived at day break on 21st April. They spent the morning resting on the uppermost branches of the middle Sycamore. If they had wintered in southern Africa it could mean a return journey of 7,000 miles. I was filming just north of Timbuctu in 1988, on the edge of the Sahel, and I remember seeing them, wings flickering over the sand dunes, on their way north to Europe. What indefatigable travellers they are!
It was about 2.30 in the afternoon when my wife shouted: “Swallows in the shed!” By the time I got there they’d left and were whizzing round the garden, gyrating in a constantly changing pattern. Eventually I saw them swoop into the potting shed. I crept up very quietly and listened. They were talking to each other. It was a very pleasing, bubbling chortling twitter.
Last year, the Swallows arrived on 7th May. I was in the kitchen talking to a friend of mine, David Gittens, when suddenly a Swallow flew into the kitchen. David was astonished, he couldn’t believe what he’d just seen. I explained to him that our house, which was built in the early eighteenth century, had originally been a row of mill workers cottages for the paper mill a hundred yards up the river Wensum. The mill had been burnt down, accidentally on purpose I heard. The mill workers were laid off and gradually the cottages fell into disrepair. There were various attempts to keep them going, some were occupied, but by the mid 1950s they were condemned. Luckily for us ‘Max’ Maxwell rescued the cottages, did them up before moving to a house he built next door.
I think, during this period, when they were uninhabitable, Swallows must have regularly nested in what is now our kitchen. Quite regularly, year by year, some ancestral memory must have drawn them back to where they had once nested.
Last year, they raised two broods. The first nest they built was mostly attached to a beam in the potting shed. However, the Swallows had cleverly fashioned the right hand, upper side of the nest, made out of blobs of mud and grasses, around a defunct water sprinkler draped over the beam. The first brood of five chicks were still being fed when a second nest was built on the reverse side of the beam. They raised five chicks from there too.
By the 1st July the first brood of Swallows had flown. Their flights were short only as far as the roof. There, the parent birds would take it in turn to feed them – first from the left hand side and then from the right. In that way they all got an equal share of the food being offered. Gradually, day by day, their flying skills improved and they no longer had to chase their parents around the sky begging for food. On 27th August the second brood of Swallows left the nest.
On 28th August a flock of Swallows, 200 plus and a few House Martins, landed in the willow tree in the garden next door. They chattered incessantly amongst themselves. A light rain was falling. Eventually, after about an hour, they took off at the start of their long journey to South Africa where they spent the winter.