A tourist stopped me the other day. I was hurrying along the high street, congratulating myself for being on a World Book Day trawl of the local charity and haberdashery shops a full three days before my children were expecting to pitch up at school as Pippi Longstocking and Just William (their school’s theme: books that have stood the test of time). The woman looked at me over the top of her guide book. ‘Can you help me?’ she said.
I glanced to my left and prepared myself not be the least bit patronising or sarcastic when explaining that, yes, the cathedral really is just behind Debenhams.
‘This is my third day here,’ she said, forestalling me. ‘I’ve seen the cathedral, the Bishop’s palace, the Round Table, the museums and the College. Is there anything else? My train isn’t until three.’
Out of the corner of my eye a pigeon, its wings hunched around its head, shuffled sideways along a window ledge. It had to be my imagination but it seemed to be moving away from a small pile of grey and white feathers. Perhaps they were the remnants of a nest, thought it was still early, even for pigeons, or perhaps…..
‘Peregrines,’ I said. The name came from nowhere. If I’d thought it before speaking, I wouldn’t have said it at all. ‘At the cathedral.’
But the woman with the guidebook took a step forward. ‘Really? Here?’
‘Oh yes.’ Forgetting about pipe cleaners and school caps, I said, ‘There’s a few of them about. One pair used to nest on the old police headquarters on Romsey Road, opposite the hospital but were relocated before the building was demolished. The site’s being developed for houses now, you see.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘And the peregrines? They’ve moved them to the cathedral?’
‘I’m not sure they moved them exactly but you can see them flying above it sometimes.’
She grinned, and dropped the guidebook into the canvas shopper bag over her shoulder. ‘I’ll go there now,’ she said. ‘I might be lucky.’
I nodded. ‘I hope you are.’
After she’d gone, I thought about the other creatures I could have told her about. There are the otters at the City Mill and, in particular, the one that my daughter, then aged two and somewhat zoologically challenged, misidentified as a lion. There are the water voles in that stretch of the Itchen where it flows through the water meadows that border Winchester College, the roe deer and kingfishers at Winnall Moors, and the mallard who, one spring, led her ducklings not from one river to another but to the Butter Cross, favourite meeting place of generations of teenagers. To the amusement and bemusement of shoppers, the family circled the monument just as if they might have swum around a pond. They stayed long enough to get their picture in the local paper until someone at last guided them towards the nearest water. And then there’s my current favourite: the thousands of starlings that mass at twilight in great stormy-grey clouds in the neon-lit skies above the Tesco superstore.
Back on my shopping quest, I thought how even though my city might be England’s ancient capital, famous for its Roman heritage, for its cathedral with the longest nave of any European Gothic cathedral, for Alfred and his cakes and Arthur and his knights, I know it best through its birds and its beasts. And I like that.