Nighttime on Still Waters

February Dawning

February 05, 2023 Richard Goode Episode 113
Nighttime on Still Waters
February Dawning
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

All along the canal side, the wintery tees and hedgerows are filling with spring song and life. Subtle shifts and changes, the play of light through the trees, the shimmering reflection of an old oak, auger new seasons awaiting us. It might still be winter and cold weather is on the way, but why not join me tonight in a ‘secret’ spot, canal-side, where we can listen together to February dawning? 

Journal entry:

 1st February, Wednesday.

"The conclave of oaks at the top of the hill
 Bask in this golden morning.
 Their tiny buds touching the sunlight
 Alive with the chilling south-westerly wind.

The hill rolls down towards
 The owl-chapeled oak
 Who stretches tall shadow shapes
 On a velvet gown of grass."

Episode Information:

In this episode I read Philip Larkin’s ‘Coming’ from his collection The Less Deceived (1955).

The recording used for ‘February Dawning’ was taken in the early morning near ‘Mile 19’ on the Stratford upon Avon Canal on 4th February 2023 using an Edirol R-09HR sound recorder.  

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General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

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 1st February, Wednesday

"The conclave of oaks at the top of the hill
 Bask in this golden morning.
 Their tiny buds touching the sunlight
 Alive with the chilling south-westerly wind.

The hill rolls down towards
 The owl-chapeled oak
 Who stretches tall shadow shapes
 On a velvet gown of grass."



This is the Narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into an overcast February night to you wherever you are. The moon and the stars are hiding tonight. It's a night in which it feels as if the darkness is reaching down almost to the ground and you have to bend your head to stop it scraping the sky. This is the type of night for badgers and foxes and night owls like us. I'm so pleased you could make it. Come inside, warm yourself by the fire, hot drinks are ready, welcome aboard. 



As we turned into February, the weather also changed a little. Softer, milder air is flowing from the southwest, bringing with it, some boisterous winds and changeable skies. By the end of the week, it was almost too warm for the stove – almost, at least! 

With warnings of a colder spell on its way which could bring back nights of frost, on Friday, we took the opportunity of the milder temperatures to give the stove and chimney a thorough clean. It’s been continuously on since November, albeit, from time to time, just ticking over. Stoves no matter how cleanly you try to burn, get a build-up of soot and creosote tar residue which clogs up the flu and chimney. This, in turn, means that fumes – and more seriously carbon-monoxide – vent into the cabin rather than being expelled via the chimney. The solid fuel that we have been using at the moment is really good. In previous years, we would have had to have cleaned it by now – having been alerted by a sulphurous tang that cuts into the back of your nose when the stove door is opened and indicates the airflow is obstructed. On Friday, whilst it did need cleaning, we had nothing like the build-up we have encountered in previous years, and it would have probably lasted another month at least. However, we have learnt not to put jobs off. Water has a nasty habit of running out when you are nowhere near a water point, the next Elsan point but one at which you plan to empty the toilets is out of use, the stove begins belching noxious fumes into the cabin when it is -6 outside and the cabin roof is slick with ice. There is really only one rule for living aboard – as much as you can, ‘plan ahead.’ Oh, and perhaps there one other rule – 'always be nice to the ducks, you never know when you may need their help.'  Anyway, the stove was duly stripped down and brushed clean – Donna did her best Dick van Dyke impression on the roof with the chimney brush and we’re now all set for the weather, be it fair or foul.  

Standing with the oaks on the hill, there has been a definite feeling of a year on the move. Maybe it was the softness in the air, or the sudden warmth in the sun as the skies momentarily clear to cobalt blue and the angel-hair clouds that warn of incoming weather fronts. Maybe it’s the way that the trees and hedgerows, still hag-locked and winter-bare, are filled with movement and life. How blackbird, thrush, and redwing chirrup, has joined the Robin’s winter solo concerto.   

That’s not to say that, at times, it hasn’t been cold. Times when it has been good, to climb down into the snug warmth the Erica. But beneath the four oaks, looking down at the slow brownish curve of the canal as it contours around the hill, the climbing sun, glancing and shimmering off the water where it is open to the breeze, there is a distinct feeling of change in the air. The red kites are abroad. Using the tallest of the oaks as a staging post. As I approach, one of them opens their wings, leans into the wind and soars off to join the other – thermally in tight circles to the east. Almost immediately, the spot left by the kite is replaced by a rook, two more cut low, flying strongly passed on beating wings and then sharply climbing across the sun to the two circling dots. The kites are aware and head slowly away from the canal and fields towards the woods. The rook on the oak gives out a call and joins the other two. One intercepts one of the kites. Coming up from beneath him, rolling on to his back as the kite jinks upward. The sky becomes a tangle of wing and claw – both birds striking heraldic poses against a blue sky. It’s a game of bluff. There are rules to which both parties adhere. There is rarely any physical contact, and when there is, I can never decide whether it is deliberate or by accident. I suspect the latter. The three rooks shepherd the kites away towards the brown and green bristles of Arden Forest. The other day, I watched one lone crow, head off two kites single-handedly – whether it was this couple or another, I am not sure, there are quite a few in the area. Nevertheless, it’s quite a feat – the kites are physically larger and carry some mean weapons that they could easily use. But this is the time of the year when things become serious for the crow communities. These are not the times for sparring juveniles to polish their combat techniques and win their aerial spurs. Nesting season is approaching and kites pose a serious risk. Looking down from this point of vantage to the line of canal-side oak, ash, and elder – their branches are filled with busy black corvid bodies and black wings.

Time for change. Things are on the move.  The year is on the turn. Like the ducks, scattered along the cut below them, they too are moving from communal living to living as couples - sometimes a juvenile from last year's brood will remain, to help with domestic duties. Although crows tend to be monogamous – or at least pair for a number of years. Old nests need to be reclaimed, patched up, repaired from the deprivations of the seasons and 10 or so months of neglect. If necessary new nests need to be built. It is not surprising that they do not relish their location and efforts being noted by predatory eyes aloft on strong, soaring wings.

These are the busy days. Days of movement and noise. Of course, these oaks have seen this all before perhaps a hundred and more times. This shimmer of light on water, the dart of a black back and outstretched wings flickering through the maze of branches. The northward march of the sunrise along the eastern horizon, its incrementally heightened arc across the sky that shortens the shadows and lifts the heart. The sweep of bird song climbing the hill, the flush of buds, still tightly closed and blind. Yes, the seasons are turning. Things are moving. And although cold weather is on the way, it will not stop the sun’s northward march nor the scatter of rooks busying around the tree tops – or their constant chatter. And on the side of a hill stands a horse among the tall grass, motionless, staring down into the valley; lost in thought.       

But this is not news. The very ground on which I stand thrums with waking life. And, as if I too were waking from a deep sleep, I am becoming somehow, in a strange and unspoken way, aware of it. In a way that I cannot fully understand or explain. 

Philip Larkin – ‘Coming’ (1955)




What a change. Last week, almost to the day, everything here was grey noise and frozen. It is difficult, at first, to put your finger on the difference. Although for a very short while, the southwestern horizon blushed with peach, the sky is still blanketed in laundry-water grey. The canal is just as still, but it is unfrozen. Nothing has changed, but everything has. The water is calm and unruffled, but the reflections in it of alder and ash and oak, shimmer, alive.

Even the gothic circle of dead elms is alive with movement. A cloud of starlings, swoop like blown smoke, and perch, take off, circle, swoop, and perch. Eventually they fly off leaving one or two behind. Lone sentinels. A thrush sits atop the highest trunk.

Overhead, a cormorant, cruciform against the woolish sky, circles and then moves off towards the boats. There is a constant crisscrossing of airways of rooks, crows and jackdaws. It all seems purposive - so unlike the roistering tumult on days of turbulent wind. Business to be done that can no longer wait.

I feel a few spots of rain driven on the light breeze. It feels cold on the back of my hand. Not a chilling cold, a good cold. A cold that reminds you that you are alive and have your own place in this world. The died-back willowherb seedheads lift and flutter. I find myself running my fingers through them, the stems feel dry and brittle, but the seedheads are feather soft.

‘Hello, old friend, we have a lot in common, you and me. You, still warm and safe nestled under the frosty ground, are never really what people see and meet, are you? All they encounter are things that are not really you, not the you, getting ready to burst into life.    





This is the sound of February dawning.

The woods and hedgerows, fields and lanes, shaking themselves awake, finding their voices again. The winter is not yet over, but the songs are of spring and of life: And because of all of that, I want to bring you here to this secret place. Even the nearby cast iron marker for Mile 19 has merged and been enfolded into the landscape. A brush of deadwood and thorn protectively screen it from prying eyes. Amid summer growth it is invisible. This is a place of old trees and twisted roots; dappled greenish light. The steep banks pitted and mined with mouse, rat, vole and rabbit holes. There’s some larger ones close by, two are new, and along the towpath a little further down there are signs of badger snufflings and rootlings. Foxes trot and scythe their way on cat-like feet – nimble and assured. This is an old place that is ever new.

It’s not easy to get to, this secret place among its calming chaos of haphazard trunks and tree roots and waxy seaweed-green ivy vines. But that is as it should be. Such places should require effort. A scrabble up a steep bank, clambering over fallen and falling branches, snagged with bramble and the wolfing fangs, incisor sharp, of hawthorn branches. If it was easy to get to, I would not have come. I would not have discovered it. If it was easy, I would not find it possible to hear the earth breathe or be washed in the seasons’ shifting songs of light and colour. I would not – and this, for me, is the most important, I would not feel at ease here or welcome.

There’s minimal wind today, it is a pleasant 5 degrees (41 degrees F), the sky is a thick blanket of smudgy altostratus the colour of old snow that diffuses the sun and casts an unflinching strip-light quality to the light. Skies like these are not particularly photogenic, but when you begin to look, you notice how well they bring out colours. Grey days are the best for colour. The sun is now up, but it is hidden. On mornings like this, more often than not, you suddenly become aware that it is no longer dark, but light. It’s like a tide gradually rising on a shallow sandy beach – almost unnoticeable.  

It's a good place here to listen...

As I was getting the recording set up, a female tawny owl was calling out her kee-wick. She needs to lay low, the crows are on patrol.

There are lots of good places to sit. If the towpath is busy, you can nestle behind the two oaks and scattering of hawthorn. People passing below oblivious of your presence – although, they are the only things that are. However, at these times, I find the best place to sit is here, with your back resting on the trunk of this mature hazel, girdled with ivy. The ground here, again rises steeply making it a comfortable place to sit. It is thick with a patchwork collage of oak leaves. Each leaf seemingly unique shade of brown. Are the colours of fallen leaves, particularly oak leaves, like snowflakes or fingerprints? No two ever the same. Each leaf an infinitesimally lighter or darker shade or tone to the other? I would not be at all surprised. This stupendously beautiful leaf mosaic beneath our feet, each one different, is as amazing and breath-taking as any sky of falling snowflakes.    

Above us, is a tangled tracery net of tree limbs and branches and skeletal twigs. There is constant movement. As I record, squirrels chase and explore. Deftly racing along impossibly thin branches. Sometimes stopping, suddenly sitting up on their haunches, looking around or pausing to scratch, and then they're off again. They seem to live in a world that defies physics. Birds alight and take off. Once you see one squirrel, you then begin to see another and another and another. They effortlessly cross the canal on their arboreal bridges linking the two banks.  

 The ground is deep with acorn cups too, so that your footsteps crunch as you walk. Their colours are also wonderful; patinaed by time and the elements. Deep, rich, warm colours – like antique burnished metals. Woody bullet-ish acorns, mostly split and squirrel gnawed, lie strewn around.  The soil dry and  grainy to the touch, like brushing your hand over gravy granules. This is the mattress upon which we sit to hear February dawning......     

Below us, the canal is greenish and silent. Under the shelter of this cutting, it is totally still – opaque. The only movement is when a moorhen disturbs it swimming a foot or two from the opposite bank. Water chickens (I think it was you, Olivia, who coined that name). It’s a good name. The little head jerking, chicken-like, with every paddle, but the body glides smoothly. A little further up the canal is a group of ducks, they float centre stream – preening, washing, sometimes just floating – soft chucking quacks. A couple are on the bank. The group are their eyes and ears – anyone or thing coming, the alarm goes up and they splash back into the water. If the threat comes too near, they take off in one accord, leaving a crystal trail suspended for a millisecond in the air.

 Two ducks slowly make their way passed. The drake is swimming a little behind the female, as generally is their custom. He keeps making little darting detours towards the bankside, before quickly paddle to catch her up.

Overhead a swan flies westward until almost overhead and then turns northwards to follow the line of the canal.

February dawns.

Yes, it might still be winter and there are more cold days and nights to come and the canal will see ice again before spring. But things are moving – listen! They know. Even deep below us, within the soil among the interlinked network of roots, things are moving.


This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very restful, peaceful, and warm night. Good night.


Journal entry
Welcome to NB Erica
News from the moorings
Philip Larkin 'Coming'
Tuesday Morning, 5.30am
Cabin chat
February dawning
Signing off
Weather Log