Some twenty years ago we moved, almost by chance, into a beautiful three hundred year old house that we could barely afford in the Cotswold village of Kingham, which was a very different village to that which it has become now. Our house was located up a short secluded drive with just one other house at the end of the drive. This house, called Fowler House was much grander than ours, being the former Victorian home of William Warde Fowler, an Oxford Don and Ornithologist, who amongst many other scholarly achievements, wrote two books about Kingham, one of which concerned the local birds to be found in and around Kingham. It was called 'A Year with the Birds', published in 1886 and recounts how there were then Marsh Warblers breeding in Kingham and Corncrakes could be heard in the fields around the village! Those fields are now transformed into a herbicide/insectiside drenched agri-desert that prevails throughout this corner of the Cotswolds.
Fowler House had a large garden that ran parallel with our smaller one, the two gardens being divided by a hedge. The end of our neighbour's garden where it joined ours had as its boundary an ivy covered wall and where our two garden boundaries met there was a large lilac tree in the corner of the Fowler House garden shading the ivied wall.
All very nice but what has this got to do with the main theme of this blog you may well ask. Well, please read on.
When we first arrived in Kingham there were between four to six pairs of Spotted Flycatchers nesting at various places in the village and one pair regularly nested in and around our garden and that of Fowler House. One year we even had them attempt to nest in the rambling rose that grew on the end of our house but a cat from Fowler House dragged out the nest and that was that. The two academics,who lived in Fowler House had at least three cats but the cats were never allowed in the house and to all extents and purposes were almost feral, just being fed daily and allowed to use an outhouse. The toll on birds through the cats predatory activities was horrific.
Inexorably, as the years passed, the pairs of flycatchers diminished in Kingham, mirroring a wider drastic national decline in this species, until 'our pair' was the only pair left in Kingham. They usually managed to nest successfully somewhere close by each year and I would become aware of the fact when they would bring their young to the huge Ash tree that grew in the back garden of Gulliver House, owned by our other neighbours, feeding their fledged offspring high in the green foliage. You could hear the insistent calls of the young all day long in the tree and the parents would hunt insects from our TV aerial or the apple tree next door.
Gulliver House was then subject to successive improvements by various new owners as the years went by. The small orchard where, memorably, a migrant Reed Warbler sang for one day soon went, the apple tree next door became history and finally the house was sold to a lady doctor and her husband.We met them just after they arrived and she told us how she felt sure we would be delighted to know they were going to fell that 'awful' Ash tree that shaded our house and afterwards landscape and pave over the whole area to make a patio and formal garden. I remained resolute, smiled and diplomatically said how nice it would be for them.
Nine years ago the Spotted Flycatchers chose to nest in the ivied wall at the end of the Fowler House garden where it adjoined ours. I could watch the adult birds all day from my bedroom window bringing food to their young. I even photographed them and the results are here on this blog. They would land in the lilac tree, sit quietly for a moment to check all was well and then slip through the foliage to the well hidden nest secreted in the ivy on the wall. The young duly fledged but as there was now no Ash tree for them to go to, they moved across the road to the trees in the garden of Old Rectory Cottage opposite us, somewhat misnamed in my opinion, if a detached property sold for £1.5 million and with seven bedrooms and an acre of grounds can be called a cottage. Still this is Kingham where pretension quite often supercedes reality.
Early in the following year our neighbours in Fowler House put it up for sale and decided that they would enhance its appeal and the price by building a huge garage in the corner of their garden where it met ours. To achieve this the lilac tree had to go as did the ivy from the wall. The following Spring we never saw a sign of any Spotted Flycatchers and given the huge decline in this species fortunes never expected to see another in Kingham, ever.
I never saw sight nor sound of a Spotted Flycatcher in Kingham for another seven years but two years ago, on looking out of my bedroom window, early one morning in late May, I was amazed and delighted to see a Spotted Flycatcher collecting cobwebs from a nearby dry stone wall. I watched and followed it as it flew across the road to Old Rectory Cottage and disappeared into the huge and ancient clematis growing along the front wall of the house. It was obviously nesting there. All was well in my world. We had Spotted Flycatchers back in the village again. Such a privilege.
Unknown to me however the owners of Old Rectory Cottage had decided to take the money and run and the property had been sold the week before. A few days later the builders and architects arrived and one of their first actions was to strip the ancient clematis from the front of Old Rectory Cottage. The Spotted Flycatchers were never seen again. The building work went on for a year as the house was gutted, new windows put in, extensions added, you name it, all very tastefully and expensively done. The house is now owned by a very very rich man who uses it as a second home, visiting occasionally a few times a year. It has been beautifully renovated and the grounds landscaped so no wild corner has been left and the trees have been drastically thinned out in the acre of garden. A gardener comes once every month. It looks immaculate. Sterile.
And so it goes on as every 'nice' house that is sold in Kingham is gutted, extended and 'improved' although why is beyond me. Well I do know actually, its money and status. Its inevitable I suppose. Kingham was voted 'England's Favourite Village' by Country Life in 2004, you can get to London in ninety minutes from its railway station, it's just four miles from Chipping Norton where David Cameron shops and Jeremy Clarkson lives, some of the time. Kingham is the place to live now, a status symbol, a place to have a holiday home or country retreat but not for flycatchers.
From that day, two years ago to this, despite searching the village and the enticing looking churchyard there has been no sign of a Spotted Flycatcher but is it any wonder? There is nowhere for them to go.