RICHARD WILIAMSON: Listen for Lulu and you’ll know spring will be on its way

Woodlark
Woodlark

A song second only to the nightingale’s will be heard in Sussex this week.

If you go to the right place you’ll hear Lulu for the next four months. But you might have to go there at night.

I long for the arrival of the woodlark each early spring. It is the sweetest, almost saddest song of all birds. It is the French who call it ‘Alouette lulu’.

That describes the song, a falling, lilting cadence of utter simplicity yet which captures the spirit of the wild places more effectively than the nightingale with its luscious bold drama.

Woodlarks arrive in Sussex from the downs of the far south of France and give their first songs as they travel.

You could hear these as early as mid-January as small resident flocks travel the commons and rough fields. Others arrive to spread into the county onto our heaths and commons.

I sometimes hear one on the sheep pastures of the Chilgrove valley in late February or early March.

Otherwise I go to Iping Common, my nearest woodlark station.

You will find a few at Chapel Common, which I have featured more than once within my weekly walks column on this page, and also at Lord’s Piece and Ambersham commons.

The best time to hear the song is on a warm early summer night when the air is still.

Then the marvellous song can be fully appreciated, with no competition from machines or other birds.

The other day we heard on the radio those folk songs Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) by Joseph Canteloube which gives a resonance of those French mountains and the stories told by the local people in their own special language.

One is by a shepherdess and describes her lullaby: Baïlero is perhaps the most famous of the tunes. It has an unmistakable falling cadence of six notes which surely must be the song of the woodlark.

Interestingly William Walton used this little theme in his music for the film of Henry V, to set the atmosphere for the love scene in the French court.

The French composer Messian was entranced by Lulu’s song as well, and transcribed it for the piano in Catalogue d’Oiseaux.

It sounds even more mysterious and haunting. Listening, you become part of the velvet night on the hills with the stars in brilliance around you and the lone song falling through the darkness from high above.

I am lucky enough sometimes to travel down to Portugal where, in that old district of cork oaks and heath known as the Alentejo, our son has what we used to call a ‘homestead’ or a ‘small-holding’ within the cork-oak forest.

The woodlarks sing on his sheep-grazed slopes all around and nest on the ground close to the house (long, low and white, with deep blue fringe along the bottom – true Alentejo style).

Nearly 40 pairs nest in West Sussex with another dozen in the Ashdown and St Leonard’s Forests.

The bird behaves rather like a skylark, climbing up in circling flight as it sings before spiralling back down.