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The railway warbler

Locustella naevia


The grasshopper warbler stopped us in our tracks

as we walked out early one fine May morning

before breakfast when there was no-one about.

Our path took us along an old railway track;

quiet now with no trains. And then with no warning

from a rank field suffering from long drought

an old style football rattle burst out churring

loudly insistent demanding attention

not from ourselves, itinerant passers-by,

who did pass on by in spite of the stirring

ringing thrilling trilling drilling machine-gun

fire aimed not at us but new Locustellae.

A song that’s ultrasonic to some senses

my father’s old Witherby vol 2 tells me

sustaining for up to three minutes (at most);

rarer now than ever in my experience…

A fifties evening walk to a rail busy

with thundering steam along the North Wales coast

when from the marsh alongside came the rattling

churr heedless of a fiery railway monster.

One tiny feather ball from dark Africa.

One iron brute belching steam from some dark siding

charged on. Both from an instant in my era.

And the warbler still sustains his aria.


With North Devon’s clay industry now derailed,

obese articulated lorries came reared

to force and cleave our little country byways.

Ambling trains bothered no-one back in those days.

From 1880 they took not just ‘ball clay’

but people too from along the little way-

side halts where their ghostly footfalls still echo

and mingle on brief platforms where weeds now grow.

Clay workers going to ‘proper jobs’ for sure.

Now with lifetimes satiated with leisure,

would not trippers and holiday-makers be

eager to spend and ride this Tarka country?

Alongside the trains the warbler still would sing

and to those with sound ears would such wonder bring.

Whether they noticed the rattling anglers’ reel

or just the clatter on rail of carriage wheel.

Never mind, the warbler with no interest

in commonplace casual holiday quest

will come churr and rattle his reeling treasure

in this wayside of Devon’s lost culm measure

as though he lives on a different planet.

Truly he does another world inhabit.

The strange frequencies of his yearning lament

must attract the rare female for which he’s meant.

© RM Meyer

On a train from Warwickshire to Devon, June 2019