Greywell Moors Wildlife Trust Reserve

Helen Macdonald, author of Vesper Flights visits Greywell Moors

I haven’t visited it for a couple of years, and that makes me sad. Sad, but not mournful—because it’s still there. It hasn’t been lost, like so many other places of natural abundance I’ve known and loved in my life that have been obliterated by development or slow ecological impoverishment. If I were to set foot there, on this dry, warm, September afternoon, I know exactly what the place would smell like, what I would see there, and how it would feel to walk along paths I know so intimately from long acquaintance they feel part of who I am.

Greywell is a pretty Hampshire village only ten miles from where my mother used to live. It has half-timbered buildings of oak and herringbone brick, Georgian houses, cottages hung with terracotta tiles, wisterias and tangled summer roses; a pub, a spreading cedar tree. It’s an impossibly picturesque, picture-postcard place. But I love it most for another reason.

On one side, running along the course of the Whitewater river, is the Wildlife Trust’s Greywell Moors reserve, an area of wet fen so lush and vivid and full of life in summer it can feel almost psychedelic. I’ve stood there and marvelled at marsh helleborines, their stems topped with crowds of fleshy deep red, white-edged blooms that seem somehow half ballerina and half-dinosaur, while dragonflies clatter past in the loud air, and a tiny grass snake slips past my feet like an enamelled, animate bootlace. Then I’ll head out from the Wildlife Trust reserve out behind the village, climbing the grassy hill to Butter Wood and amble down paths that in winter, in good vole years, rustle with the sound of rodents running on dry dead leaves. Like all good wild places, part of its magic is that it is always full of surprises. One April morning I spent ten minutes trying to spot the common buzzard I could hear calling in a high oak, before I realised that the noise was coming from the open beak of a jay that had learned a perfect imitation.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

The Whitewater is incredibly precious; chalk streams are a globally rare habitat. Only two hundred exist in the world, eighty five percent of them in the south and east of England. Many are threatened by overextraction of water and nutrient enrichment from agricultural runoff. The Whitewater’s clear, shallow waters, jewelled pebbled beds and tresses of water crowfoots provide in the onlooker a contemplative calm that can quickly right a day of jangled nerves and anxiety. And for all its beauty and biodiversity, this is not a place untouched by human work, or by human infrastructure. There’s a long history of mills on this river, and the sound of the nearby M3 motorway is always in the background when I’ve walked there. But there’s a lesson in this place about how nature can find space amongst us. Deep in the woods is the entrance to the collapsed, unnavigable Greywell Tunnel of the Basingstoke Canal, which has become a hugely important site for bats. More roost here in one place than any other place in Britain: Daubenton’s bats, Natterer’s bats, Brandt’s bats, whiskered, and brown long-eared bats, and more than once I’ve stood by the slack waters of the old canal at dusk and seen them emerge, flickering silhouettes hardly visible against the gloom, making their way into the air to hawk insects over the woods and fields, waters and fenland grasses.

There’s something so joyful about the sight of these small creatures’ ghostly rising from the ruins of a structure made for us. It’s so easy to believe, in these dark days, that nature is always disappearing, ecological plenitude always lessening, everything in the natural world always under threat. We are indeed living in terrible times for the natural world, but the way the richness of Greywell Moors is maintained through careful guardianship reminds us that with love and care and expert protection, nature can thrive—and in the case of the bats in the tunnel, we are reminded that it can do so in even the most unlikely places.

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald is out now.