Another unknown place we've visited with a familiar name. First was the Rainham Marshes out near the M25. Now Rye House, our prologue to the Rye Meads. Outside the air is humming with the angry buzz of motorbikes.
This is the second place we’ve been with a name from Kent, Andy says.
I think Rye is in Sussex? I say, but I’m never sure. I’m looking at a shiny piece of promotional literature from a squeaky spinner. Where to watch wildlife in the Lee Valley. There’s a glossy lapwing on the cover.
We’re in the Rye House Gatehouse, remnant of a 15th century manor, and one of the first brick buildings in the country. The website depressingly describes it as ‘in some ways an example of medieval bling’. The gatehouse is all that’s left. A column of bent and twisted brick spins into the sky – maybe this is the bling they're talking about.
The building is, however, a welcome surprise. We had only planned on the reserve, somewhere cheap and fast to access from London with the promise of warblers and kingfishers on a Sunday. It proves the rule we've always known; get out into the world and step off of your workday routes, and you will find something. The unexpected is everywhere. Strange things can happen; or at least different ones.
Inside a desk is manned by two old white men. You know what they look like – misshapen faded jumpers, beards in need of a trim, forgotten guardians of forgotten places. We wander into a side room with information boards, only to discover this was the site of an assassination attempt on Charles II. Good on them, I think. The conspirators, 'their designs damnable', met 'ends miserable, deaths exemplary'. I had never heard of this assassination plot, know nothing of republicanism after the monarchy was restored. We stumble over our own history all the time.
We climb to the top of the gatehouse up a spiral staircase, photograph the pillars of twisted brick and look out over this part of England. There’s the source of the buzzing motor roar – across the road, next to the caravan park (is it a traveller site?) is a motorpark, if that's what you call such places. Young men on revving bikes go round and round in circles. I assume they’re racing but it looks oddly futile.
We leave the gatehouse and head toward what we came for, RSPB Rye Meads. It’s that time of year, the warblers are back and we’re determined to see some. I’ve even been memorising their song (it counts if you hear them – the chance of seeing the little brown things down in the reeds is low and requires perhaps more patience than we possess). A friendly white-haired woman gives us a map and asks if we have binoculars. Yes, we say.
It’s strange out on the reserve. Not many people are about, almost empty – perfect for us – but the air is filled with the humming of motorbikes out of sight. Combined with the sibilance of the reeds and the sighing of the wind it’s aggravating, discordant. Hard to believe you're in some ideal idea of nature when the air vibrates with engine noise.
But the birds are here. We manage to locate and identify a chiffchaff that breaks cover at just the right moment and alights in a tree just above us. We hear Cetti’s warbler, sedge warbler, possible blackcaps – but I'll admit we have to check some of the songs using our iPhones, something that was never possible when I first started doing this. Of course it's useful, but I wonder if the knowledge is too easily gained. Either way I'm happy; warblers are probably the worst example of bird to give as an example to the non-birder. They're tiny, impossible to spot, and the many species you might encounter all look almost identical, a greeny brown colour perfectly matching their habitat. I get off on the skill involved in picking them apart. Others, I know, just don't see the point.
Even in these bastardised landscapes, you can feel the world coming back to life. Things are getting greener. Life is flitting all around. Pochard, tufted duck and gadwall are out in numbers on the water and gulls of various breeds are everywhere, screaming and shrieking. A robin follows us hopefully for a while, looking for food.
In the Kingfisher Hide, we see no kingfishers, only men with expensive looking gear, a persistent stare and sandwiches laid out in front of them for sustenance. The kingfishers are nesting apparently, over there in those holes, and unlikely to show themselves. We watch a kestrel returns to its nesting box stuck onto a humming pylon.
We reach a point of no return; a bizarre one-way turnstile topped with barb wire allowing no re-entry. From here we have to push the full way back to the beginning. We pass a pile of dry grass, bracken and wood underneath a pylon, looking for all the world like the preparation for an imminent sacrifice or rite. Dead ivy clings to a metal leg. I picture cowled worshippers in motorbike helmets, a woman flinging a flaming torch into the pile.
Through the turnstile, a warning to potential hare coursers and poachers. Perhaps the caravan park is a traveller site. They do that, don’t they, or am I just rehashing an inherent prejudice? The sign is there regardless.
Red kites float like, well, kites in the air not far above us. They seem massive this close. A pair of buzzards loop in wide lazy circles higher up and I’m still amazed I can now see these kinds of birds so close to home. These are the composite landscapes that really fascinate, with wild things in a totally human space, a patchwork of history, nature, suburban blight and the roar of modernity.
The buzzing of the bikes recedes a little. We head back towards Rye House station, and more importantly the pub, through a sewage treatment works. Two young children cycle past on BMXs. We walk, choking slightly on the smell of rot and shit.