In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

The Raging Hawk


I run a creative writing workshop each fortnight in a psychiatric in-patient unit in Brent and always cycle there and back. One part of the route runs alongside the Grand Union canal, another part the Thames between Hammersmith and Wandsworth.

On my way home one evening, just below Hammersmith Bridge, still in day-light, tide very low, a whole community of different birds at their evening work along the mud banks, I saw two largish birds flying fast towards me from across the river, one behind the other.

The first was a pigeon, quite clear. Then I saw the second, close behind. And heard the sound it made, a fierce, harsh shriek, repetitive. It was a large hawk, its breast flecked, a sparrow hawk perhaps.

London life carried on around me, quiet here. The odd cyclist sharing the path with me. A photographer mooning around, checking riverside compositions.

The pigeon, quite close now, wheeled sharply and flew very fast away downstream along the near bank, the hawk still after it, shrieking. I was astonished this was happening – and here. I was astonished to be here too, to witness this, and I followed on my bike.

They were further away now, about 100 yards eastward and suddenly the pigeon was down and the hawk too, both on the mud on the water’s edge. “A hawk has just killed a pigeon over there !” I exclaimed to a woman cyclist riding the other way. I pointed downriver.  “A what ?” she answered, but didn’t stop or turn to look.

Then I saw some crows hopping over for a piece of the hawk’s kill. It lunged at them to drive them off. They cringed away. Then came hopping back and it lunged again. Suddenly the pigeon was up and flying on, desperately, back across the river. Not a kill after all. Perhaps it recovered.

And now the hawk really seemed just to lose its rag. Can that happen ? Can hawks be angry ?  It didn’t follow the pigeon. It went for the crows.  Then menaced a small group of ducks. And then was up in the air again pursuing a startled sea-gull.

I was closer now. The photographer was quite close too, but looking outward, not in at the river and he was missing everything of this. “There’s a large hawk over the river .” I said to him. “It’s hunting. I think it’s a sparrow hawk”.

“Really ?” he said, but just politely, not energised. “I’ll look out for it.” But he walked off towards Hammersmith, away from the raging hawk.

I stopped at a pub a short distance downriver. The hawk was still raging, still visible, throwing itself around the sky, lunging at one creature after another. But then at last it disappeared over a roof-top.

I tried to tell my story to an attractive young woman serving behind the bar. But my words went nowhere. She smiled kindly at me. “You must have had a lovely afternoon,” she said.