On the journey to Sussex I worried. Was I up to singing a folk song in public? Was I still up to carrying a heavy rucksack? Would we hear a turtle dove? Would there be any turtle doves left in few years? That night was spent in the company of wheezing airliners, as they climbed the flyway out of Gatwick; the next morning, after the scheduled bus had failed to arrive, walking the four-and-a-bit miles, trying to thumb a lift. Sleek, London-travel-to-work area cars accelerated past a lone, early-morning hitch-hiker until, about half-way there, a builder stopped, on his way to work. I threw my rucksack in the back of his pick-up and explained: I was heading to Rusper, where Vaughan Williams had collected the folk song Turtle Dove, and where I was to meet my fellow pilgrims. From there we were going to carry the song twenty miles through Sussex, to Knepp, one of the few places left in the county where the bird’s soft, sustained purring can still be heard. He must have liked the story, he made a detour and dropped me in the centre of the village.
I was early. I drank some coffee, watching the traffic on the school-run and the airliners leaving Gatwick; the sound of moaning turbofans is ever-present in this village, on the borderlands of Sussex and Surrey. I sat in the sunshine outside St Mary Magdalene’s church, making a last stab at memorising the song’s words, listening to jets. Over the road is the Plough and Attic Rooms, once simply the Plough, where we were to meet, and where, in 1907, Williams had made his recording of landlord John Penfold singing Turtle Dove onto a crackling wax cylinder. Penfold is buried in the churchyard, so is Lucy Broadwood, like Williams a formidable folk song collector. The Smiths, Queen, Peter Gabriel, Ozzy Osbourne, the Gallagher brothers, while recording at a nearby studio, have all been among the pub’s temporary regulars. The musical pedigree led to half-remembered snatches of Bohemian Rhapsody being carried on the pilgrimage too, the lyrics occasionally sounding out across a startled Sussex countryside. We sang Turtle Dove for the first time in the low-ceilinged bar where Penfold had sung, my contribution hesitant, like one of those slightly stuttered hymns sung at a wedding or a funeral. The small audience listened, their smart-phones pointing Argus-like towards us. We sang the song again in the church, and again at Penfold’s grave.
As the pilgrimage began, and we started to leave behind Gatwick’s noise-print, I thought of one of Turtle Dove’s four verses:
The sea shall never run dry my dear,
Nor the rocks melt with the sun.
And I will never prove false to the bonny lass I love,
Till all these things are done my dear,
Till all these things be done.
Till all these things be done. The five warmest years on the global record have all come in the 2010s; the twenty warmest since 1995. How long before the rocks do melt? The turtle dove is staring at catastrophe too. My father’s 1952 field guide reads: ‘Summer visitor, breeding commonly in south and east England and Midlands, locally in Wales and north and south-west England; in Scotland and Ireland only scarce passage migrant.’ No more. The UK’s breeding population has fallen by about 95% since 1970. Globally, the little turtle dove, whose deep, vibrating turrrr, turrrr… has inspired poets for centuries, faces extinction. The turtle dove is the sound of spring in the Song of Solomon: ‘For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’ Virgil wrote about them moaning in elm tree tops in his first Eclogue. Pliny too knew the turtle’s song. Chaucer thought of it as a loving bird, a symbol of utmost fidelity, although the turtle dove’s own habits do not necessarily correspond. Shakespeare was another who heard in the bird’s song the sweetest and strongest of emotions. Turtle is the archaic form, from the Old English turtle or turtla. Dove appears to have been added around 1300, although turtle remained the popular name throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the dove suffix only entirely accepted during the second half of the 18th Century.
We headed south to the source of the river Mole, which flows into the Thames. We each took a drink of water from the river’s earthy, otherworldly beginnings, made a wish, and, as we went on our way, left the customary gift of silver. We would do the same later at the source of the bolder river Arun, which empties directly into the English Channel. We followed public rights of way, at times barely marked, freighted with the civilised hostility of landowners, skirting prairie-like arable fields that look deceptively green from a distance. In my pocket was a small, up-to-date bird guide, which describes the turtle dove as an uncommon summer visitor to Britain, with agricultural change the most likely cause of its decline. It is also heavily persecuted on its migratory flyways across southern Europe. We crossed main roads – few cars slow down, you take your life in your hands on the really busy ones – past farms, where, mostly, not much in the way of farming seemed to be going on, through villages. We crossed the A264 at the run and began the uphill climb into St Leonard’s Forest, stopping briefly at a wildlife sanctuary where baby hedgehogs were being looked after – a species also suffering calamitous decline, most sharply in the farmed countryside. The statistics of loss become depressing. We were in deep Sussex by the time we reached the village of Monk’s Gate and stopped at the cottage where Williams collected another folk song Our Captain Cried All Hands, which found fame across the world as the tune of To Be a Pilgrim. The hymn was sung, somehow appropriate for 14 turtle dove pilgrims on a journey organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust and the Nest Collective. It was getting late by the time we ended the first day, at Mindhurst, and, after a brief pub-stop, our tents went up in the dark.
We made an unplanned stop at Copsale on day two, where Sussex Day was being celebrated, and the advertised cream tea too good to miss. We sang Turtle Dove inside Copsale Hall, a corrugated iron-beauty surrounded by trees, erected the same year Williams collected the song, with a folk trio improvising background music, with quickly-appearing, all-seeing smart-phones once again pointed our way. The flag of Sussex was flying outside, six golden martlets on a blue background. Martlet is another archaic bird-word, possibly from Norman French; in heraldry it denotes a swallow-like bird, in ornithology it is not used. We sang the aching lament of love and loss again outside – my own contribution now less hesitant than at the beginning – the heraldic, swallow-like birds fluttering above us in the breeze, then, after crowding together for a big group photo with the cake-makers, tea sellers, bric-a-brac and vegetable stall holders, clog dancers, fiddle players, and visitors, we set off. Two or three miles later we saw real swallows, skimming low over fields of long grass in the afternoon heat. Were they the first we had seen? If not, any swallows accompanying us as we walked had been too few to notice. There was another first at West Grinstead – the 11th Century church already locked for the night – where we heard a skylark. Seventeen miles walking through southern England’s countryside at midsummer and hardly a swallow or a skylark to be seen or heard. Folk singer Sam Lee, accompanying us on the pilgrimage, sang the Scottish song The Ploughboy as the skylark soared above us, the words clear-cut, a lament for the lost wildlife. We crossed the A24 in the early evening, the South Downs and the ramparts of Chanctonbury Ring looming in the middle distance, and the song reached Knepp.
The next morning, after a 3.30am start, as the first hints of light started to appear on the eastern horizon, we walked in silence, and in light drizzle, to a likely spot to hear turtle doves. Knepp’s 3,500 acres have been turned from intensive farmland into a place that teems with wildlife; fifteen to twenty pairs of turtle doves were thought to be breeding there last summer. They like overgrown thickets, hedgerows, and bushy bits of scrub, with plenty of seeds from arable plants and weeds to feed on. We stopped at a likely place beside a lake, then another, and another. After about an hour quietly circuiting the lake we heard it, an unmistakable turrrr, turrrr… one bird, probably, and after a few moments it was over. What did we expect? Turtle doves are declining as rapidly as any other British bird and a few moments listening to just one was probably as good as it was going to get. We gathered together and sang the song we had carried across Sussex for a final time, to the bird, wherever it was hiding, with, for once, no smart-phones pointed towards us.
Oh yonder does sit that little turtle dove,
He does sit in yonder high tree.
A making a moan for the loss of his love,
As I will do for thee my dear,
As I will do for thee.
The bird did not sing back. The pilgrimage was done. We walked back to where we had camped, chatting about this and that, the miles we had walked, the wildlife that was missing, the little turtle dove we had so briefly heard moaning in the rewilded lake-side thicket, just as Virgil had described it among the classical elms. I thought about that fourth and final verse. Will we be making a moan if, as looks uncomfortably likely, we lose the turtle dove? Can a song of a young man’s yearning be converted now into an elegy for a natural world in full retreat? Will the turtle dove get its Vaughan Williams’ moment, when one small act helps save the bird, as Williams himself did when he made his recording and helped save the song?
My ecological anxiety waned as more of those deceptively green fields passed the carriage window on the train home. I could still carry a heavy rucksack. We had heard a turtle dove. Maybe carrying the song across Sussex had been one of those many small acts, being done by many people, that will help save the bird, and help revive the fortunes of the rest of our beleaguered natural world? And I had enjoyed singing Turtle Dove in public. Strange to think I had been worried about that beforehand, strange too to think the joy of that small act was the emotion that seemed to surface the strongest afterwards. One that made me feel there was reason for hope.
CHRIS BAKER is a journalist and writer, based in Devon. As well as writing he works in wildlife and countryside conservation, and is a trustee of the Devon Rural Skills Trust.
PHOTOGRAPHY by William Parsons of The British Pilgrimage Trust/Nest Collective.