Great day out at Battlefield 1403 near Shrewsbury, thoroughly recommended.
On arrival at the falconry centre, we were bundled into a minivan and driven out into the countryside, Mark giving an informative commentary about the estate, local history and farming practices. Then into the woods, where three dogs and a hawk emerged from the back of the van: a lithe white pointer that bounded all day with a lolling tongue, like a slightly demented gazelle; an elderly and stocky brown spaniel that barrelled along, and a tiny Pomeranian ball of fluff determined not to be left out. We were introduced to the hawk, which was smaller than I expected, and less ferocious-looking.
Each of us received a leather gauntlet for the left hand, and was shown how to hold the jesses (thin leather straps attached to the legs), and how, with a simple tilt of the wrist, to set the bird flying again. And then, for the next two hours, we walked through the countryside, chatting about this and that, learning more about the habits of the birds, and periodically, without altering our pace, being given a morsel of food* to hold in an outstretched arm. It all happened so quickly: the hawk would approach from a distance, dropping to literally inches above the ground for the last few yards, then suddenly, there it was on your finger, where it would stay until the tip of the wrist. What was astonishing was that the bird had a bell attached to one leg, and yet the approach was silent.
At one point the hawk, having been perched on the branch of a tree, suddenly dived down and Mark quickly retrieved the pheasant it had caught. I was fascinated to learn that the way hawks kill their prey (birds and mammals often larger than themselves) is by crushing the skull of their victim with the incredible pressure their talons exert. Mark whipped out a small black cloth which apparently rendered the pheasant invisible to its captor, though he had it caught in his grip. Out of sight, out of mind, and the hawk let go. Mark explained that with hawks it is all about sight, and that if a hawk could read, it could read a book from the distance of a football pitch. Not sure I believe this.
Returning to the centre, we were told about all the other birds there and allowed to handle an owl. Mark, on learning that my son was a keen bookbinder, gifted him some pieces of leather. Mark makes the jesses of kangaroo, which is stronger than calf leather (and has to be: hawks can tear them), and had some that was no use to him on account of its bright colour.
Our cooked breakfast at the hotel had kept us going, but it was now mid-afternoon and we were ready for some tea. The cakes, made on the premises, were exceptionally good. Had we been heading home I’d have been tempted to buy provisions from the farm shop, from which people (clearly locals) were emerging in a steady stream with bulging shopping bags and baskets.
Having heard some of the history of the battle fought there in 1403 and the rumour (since disproved) that the church built to commemorate the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil was erected on the mass burial site, we requested the key from the farm shop and set off down the lane to investigate. I’m no expert but to me the church was unremarkable, though I was delighted by the carvings of hearts on the little wooden porch over the entrance to the churchyard.
And then on to Wales and Gladstone’s Library.
* The food comprised day old male chicks, which the farm disposes of and would presumably have no other use for. It was a little disarming to see that what one was holding between finger and thumb was quite visibly a chick’s foot, for example. At the end of the walk, the hawk was given a whole chick, which it devoured in short order in its entirety. We were told that the pheasant it had caught would be given to it another day; the birds’ food is very closely monitored to keep them at peak weight.