Correction: A photo caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly described England's Walworth Castle as nearly a century old. The castle dates back 800 years. This version has been corrected.
The hawk flies toward the treetops, her wings black and carnelian red. She glides above a yew that took root before Henry VIII ascended the throne, soaring ever higher. For a minute, I wonder whether she’s going to disappear, return to the free, wild life of circling over the moors and catching her own dinner, instead of scarfing up the morsel of raw chicken balanced on my gauntleted hand.
I’m taking a “Hawk Walk,” a one-on-one interspecies encounter offered by the Walworth Castle Birds of Prey Center here in northeast England. A pro — in this case, Victoria “Tori” Goodall, head falconer — is taking me and one of her raptors out to the woods in back of the castle to teach me the basics. Tori has equipped me with a thick leather glove and is showing me how to hold my arm up, and how to make Frankie, the bird of the hour, comfortable on my hand.
Frankie is a 7-year-old Harris hawk, a New World species whose range extends from the southwestern United States to central Argentina. John James Audubon named the bird for his friend and benefactor, Pennsylvania ornithologist Edward Harris.
She’s one of the two dozen raptors — including peregrines; barn owls; Abyssinian eagle owls, whose feathers look like desert camo; Indian eagle owls, with eyes as orange as pumpkin flesh; and a baby Turkmenian owl named Ted — living in what was once the castle’s walled garden. You can see them on their perches, take a walk with them, or watch a flying display. If you crave a full-on “Game of Thrones” hawking experience, the falconers will take you out for a day of hunting rabbits up on the moors. Or they can stage a once-in-a-lifetime experience: A few days before my visit, Tori got one of her trained owls to fly down carrying a diamond in a fancy little bag while a guy proposed to his girlfriend beneath an oak tree.
“I was a bit nervous,” Tori says. “I had visions of the ring falling off into the lake. But it went off beautifully in the end.”
I try to keep my eyes on Frankie the hawk as she floats over the castle’s gray stone battlements, then flies back toward the trees. Walworth’s an honest-to-God castle, dating back 800 years, with a huge Norman tower. You can spend the night in that tower: Walworth is a Best Western hotel, the most atmospheric Best Western you’ve ever seen, with suits of armor and a dungeon. The rooms are, however, aggressively modern, with WiFi and flat-screen TVs.
Outside, the 21st century seems far away. With the exception of the tiny radio transmitters the birds wear on their feet, falconry maintains its ancient customs and vocabulary — some of which we still use, ignorant of its origins: “Boozer,” say, for somebody who likes his beer, started out as “bowser,” a falcon that downs a lot of water. “Hoodwinked” comes from the practice of putting a hood over peregrines’ eyes so they won’t see what’s around them.
Tori waggles a rabbit’s leg (no longer attached to the rabbit) hanging from her food pouch. Frankie swoops down, trailing her jesses, the slim strips of soft leather used to control a bird, and lands on my hand with the most delicate of touches. Though she has a wingspan of nearly three feet, she’s as light as, well, a feather.
“Bend your elbow a bit,” Tori says. “Good girl!”
I don’t know if she means me or the bird.
Frankie is eye to eye with me now, swallowing the last of her snack. Tori tells me you always weigh a hawk before you fly her: too heavy means she’s full, and not motivated to shoot back to her human for a feed. The bird needs to be a little hungry — by design.
It’s not an exact science, though: Alfie the kestrel went AWOL the other day. Tori had to track her for eight miles. On foot. Thank God for that transmitter. But Alfie probably didn’t want to disappear permanently. She is imprinted on Tori, hand-raised, taken to the supermarket and the pub to get her used to people, and accustomed to hanging out on the sofa watching television just like any other member of the family. According to Tori, “Alfie thinks I’m her husband.”
Which can be a little awkward for Tori’s actual husband, David Toms, expert falconer and co-owner of Walworth Castle Birds of Prey. Alfie has been known to attack him. “David’s a threat to her territory,” Tori says. “She wants to hunt him down and eat him.”
The special relationship between humans and birds of prey goes back at least 6,000 years, to Mongolia, where they still hunt with eagles, or perhaps to prehistoric Persia. In England, falconry has been part of the culture since there was a culture: The Saxon leader Byrhtnoth took his falcon with him as he rode to fight the Vikings in A.D. 991; during the Middle Ages, priests and nuns would sometimes go to mass with falcons on their wrists.
The special relationship between David Toms and birds of prey goes back to his childhood in the northeast of England. He began hunting with birds when he was a teenager. “Have you seen ‘Kes’?” he asks, referring to Ken Loach’s 1969 film about a boy from a poor mining village who finds beauty and meaning in the kestrel he trains. “It was a bit like that.”
Tori Goodall grew up here in County Durham, making a living training horses and working as a milk recorder, testing the product in local dairies. She met David, then a stonemason and occasional farm hand, in a milking parlor.
They both loved country sports. Tori had hunted with dogs but never with birds, so David asked her to go out with him and his goshawk. “I fell in love with the birds,” she says with a smile, “and the man.” A barn owl delivered the rings at their 2012 wedding.
When he and Tori moved into a house on her parents’ farm, outside the little town of Barnard Castle, his birds came, too. People started showing up wanting to look at them, so they casually started taking guests out with the birds. They acquired some owls, a couple of falcons. Soon the cottage was getting a little cramped.
In 2013, the owners of Walworth Castle invited them to relocate to their grounds. “We needed to make a move if we wanted to expand,” David says. So they shifted operations 20 miles up the road where they’d have more space. They built homes for the birds and a small visitor center-cum-shop with postcards, books and falcon toys. The Hawk Walks are now arranged to order, but there are two scheduled displays a day, Tori flying her Asian owls and David working with his peregrine-mix falcons. They’re the fastest animals on Earth, rocketing up into the air, then diving down toward the bait at nearly 200 mph.
“Our England is a garden,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. I used to live in the southern part of the country, in Oxford, where the trees and shrubs in the University Parks have labels, as if in a glorious outdoor laboratory. People in the gentle, domesticated regions near London love nature — as long as it behaves itself.
Much as I love Oxford, that most cultivated of cities, when I visited this May, I wanted to go somewhere wilder, somewhere with a broader range of critters than pet dogs, indulged cats and urban foxes. I’d heard that Tori Goodall (full disclosure: I’ve known her mother, a talented designer and horsewoman, for years) had opened a raptor center in County Durham, so I headed north to the beautiful country around the River Tees.
This is not the England of cozy cottages and rose beds. The skies are big, the rivers cold and fast, and the hills covered with heather. You can drive a long way on the single-lane roads without seeing another human being. Sheep, yes; deer, pheasant and, if you’re up before 4 a.m. in the right place on the moors, endangered black grouse. I was too late to see the “lek,” as the black grouse mating dance is called. But Bobbie Allen, a tour guide from Barnard Castle, told me how she got up before dawn one mid-April morning to watch these extraordinary birds leaping and strutting, “trying to get a date,” as she put it.
“It’s like a mock fight,” Bobbie said, “all this posturing and threatening.” The females are small and brown, but “the boys,” as she called them, can weigh 10 pounds and “have white tail feathers like little tutus.”
I made a mental vow to come back in early spring next time so that I could experience the lek. But, lucky for me, I came across a slew of other charismatic megafauna even before Walworth Castle and my rendezvous with Frankie the hawk.
Only seven miles from the city of Newcastle lies the village of Washington, with its 12th-century manor house, built by the de Wessyngton family. One of their more famous descendants became the first president of the United States. It’s also the location of 6,000 acres of marsh, meadow, ponds and woods full of roe deer, bee orchids, avocet, reed buntings and other threatened species.
The Washington Wetland Center is as visitor-friendly as possible. No 3 a.m. wake-up, no stout boots necessary. You don’t even have to walk around: You can sit in the Waterside Cafe with your cappuccino, watching the great spotted woodpeckers, the tufted ducks and the greenfinches on CCTV. Nevertheless, I recommend going at least as far as one of the bird hides at Wader Lake. Gray herons, oystercatchers with their orange dunce-cap-shaped beaks, and a couple of mute swans all sauntered or swam by as I stood there. Lapwings, also known as plovers or peewits (after their cartoony call), flew around as if it were a party. I saw dozens of kinds of birds without breaking a sweat. Somehow I missed the otters, though I know they’re around: A few weeks before I visited, the Newcastle Chronicle ran a picture of an otter named Musa who’d grabbed a press photographer’s camera and taken a selfie.
Making more room for animals, even long-gone animals, has never been more popular in Britain. “Feral,” a 2013 best-selling nonfiction book by environmentalist George Monbiot, advocates the “rewilding” of Britain and Europe, bringing back extinct beavers, lynxes and wolves — solving the problem of deer overpopulation and increasing tourism. It’s already happening in some parts of the country. Wild boar, the offspring of farm escapees, have established colonies. A millionaire naturalist wants to turn bears, extinct on these islands for more than 1,000 years, loose on his vast estate in Scotland.
Asked why people would want to get close to untamed beasts with sharp talons, claws, beaks or teeth, Tori Goodall says, “Because it’s magical. And they’re beautiful. I love being one with a wild animal.”
Standing eye-level with Frankie the hawk, I see what Tori means. This is not nature as imagineered by Disney: This bird is at once gorgeous and deadly. After Frankie eats her chicken snack, she pauses and gives me a hard look, as if deciding whether I’m worthy of notice. She spreads her white-tipped tail a little way, like a fan, closes it, then flies up into the trees once more. Tori tells me that was a friendly gesture. I’m glad to hear it: Frankie’s talons are stiletto-sharp, particularly that big back one, the one she drives into the brains of her prey.
Watching her fly, graceful and fierce, I get a kind of atavistic buzz. Perhaps this is how our ancestors felt, managing to befriend (if that is the word) such a regal creature. No wonder falconry was the sport of kings and emperors. No wonder the likes of Anne Boleyn, who famously loved hawking, chose the image of a crowned white falcon as her personal badge.
Thinking of Tudor ladies who hunted in brocade and furs, I feel a trifle underdressed in my hiking boots and scruffy wool jacket. It’s still a little sharp even in May, although the bluebells are beginning to cluster underfoot and wild garlic flowers scent the air. A breeze rustles the leaves, rooks hidden in the oaks caw to each other.
Through the branches, I glimpse Walworth’s great tower, silvery in the pale sunlight, almost expecting to see a ghostly queen cantering by, a merlin on her glove. But the clock hasn’t run backward: Frankie and her fellow birds of prey live not in a medieval mews but in modern aviaries. Tori and David don’t work for the lord of the manor; they’re in business for themselves — and the birds. They hope that the more people see them, the more they’ll understand the need for conservation, for coexistence with the wild creatures of the air.
The afternoon is wearing on. Frankie floats one last time on a gust of air, then lifts her wings, extends her talons and lands on my fist. I figure it’s time for a cup of tea.
Roberts teaches writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.