The Sounds of an English Spring

a eurasian robin

version of this post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

The English robin and the North American robin share a name, but ours is a large, sturdy bird, while the British one is a sweet, fat little bird with a little less red and a pretty dab of gray. In The Secret Garden, the bird that shows Mary Lennox the way into the garden is a robin, and I have always wanted one as a friend myself.

The last time I was in Britain, I saw robins often, perched on a fencepost or singing from the top of a bush. I almost always caught myself singing the song “Ah Robin,” which we sang in the 2007 Christmas Revels. I suspect this song is about a man named Robert, not a bird, but it came to mind anyway.

Swallows streaked by at fence-level, wings swept back like tiny fighter jets. “Bring back the roses to the dells/The swallow from her distant clime/The honeybee from drowsy cells,” I sang to myself.

The ecosystem I know best is that of the Washington area; I know what our swallows and robins are like. But a lot of the songs we sing in Revels were originally about spring and landscapes that have been farmed intensively for centuries, in a country on the other side of the sea. For the first time, I was seeing all of these birds in the ecological context where the songs were born, where my distant British ancestors might have seen them.

By the way: England’s blackbird is a thrush, a different family from our creaking New World blackbirds. They sing from the bushes, too, and can only bring to mind one song.

Photo: By David Croad (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Buy your Christmas Revels tickets now.

Up Flies the Lark

rolling fields of green grain

A version of this post appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

I walked along the edge of a cliff. To my right, a hundred-foot drop to the waters of the English Channel. A strong wind blew off the water and over the cliff. To my left were spring-green fields. High above the waves of grain hung a skylark, twittering relentlessly.

On the ground, a skylark isn’t a very memorable bird. It’s brown, with a little crest of feathers on top of its head. A skylark in the sky, though, is quite impressive. It flaps madly, a fluttering speck against the cloudy white sky. As they hover and swoop, they emit a constant stream of notes. The song goes on and on and on.

The skylark made me think of a lyric from a song we often sing in the May Revels: “Up flies the kite; down falls the lark-o.” It’s part of the Padstow May Song, a tradition from the village of Padstow, 70 miles due west of the cliff where I heard the larks.

One of my walking companions was another Reveler, Liza Lester, and together we started the song: “Unite and unite, now let us unite, for summer is a-coming today!” Arms outstretched, we sang through the verses as well as we could remember them, dancing along the grassy clifftop path.

As we continued our walk toward Sidmouth, we passed from one skylark’s flapping-ground to the next, on and on above the cliffs. They sang and sang and sang.

Now isn’t the season for skylarks, though; it’s the season for staying inside and thinking about walks and birds, and looking forward to the dawning of the new year.

Photo: Helen Fields

Hear the skylark’s charming song.

Buy your Christmas Revels tickets now.