I walk down to the River Wharfe with a strange, restless feeling I have had since waking up. It is a specific hunger, but for something I can’t pinpoint – like craving a food I’ve never eaten, or wanting to listen to a kind of music that doesn’t exist yet.
During these lockdown months, I have visited this nearby stretch of river for a short walk on most days. There is usually something to see: cormorants, little egrets, grey wagtails, dippers, herons, roving flocks of finches. The landscape is ultra familiar, but these variations in the natural texture make every visit, however brief, a reminder of the dynamism of the living world.
Today, though, something more is needed. This internal urge wants to be fed with newness, spontaneity, excitement; all the things that are effectively denied us right now. So on an impulse, I opt for one of the few fresh experiences available, and jump into the frigid, peaty-brown river.
My first winter swim in the Wharfe; it is exhilarating, brutally cold, and brief. And it is certainly fresh. But then, just as I’m hurriedly drying myself off, a bolt of burning blue shoots out from the willows.
The radiant blaze of cyan down the back of the kingfisher hardly seems to belong to this planet, never mind this temperate latitude. It has the resplendence of stars or lightning or the aurora; of plasma riding a tiny bird. The sight of such a far-fetched colour shooting through a British winter can be confounding, unbelievable. In the naturalist Michael McCarthy’s words, when you see it, your “sense of what the world can contain is actually enlarged”.
Over the past year, I have had two dozen glimpses of the kingfisher couple that lives along this stretch of river, but this is my first sighting for some time, and it feels much needed. The bird flies in a long, precise arc downriver, low above the water, its speed-blurred wings giving it the impression of a long, graceful glide. The winter light catches its back as it goes, lighting a crack in the curtain of our world with the colour of an alien sun streaking through.