I was walking along Grantham Canal. It was early December and there had been a thick frost overnight.
The sky was blue and cloudless, but the sun was too low to make much impression on the cold waters of the canal. In perpetual shadow under the overhanging trees, the surface had frozen to form a glittery layer of crazy-paving.
Continuing along the tow path I soon left Grantham and the roar of the A1 behind. The countryside had that hushed feel that comes over it on a still winter’s day, when there are no crops growing, no livestock moving, and no humans around to disturb the peace.
Suddenly, I heard a strange noise. A tinkling, fizzing, crackling noise – as if someone was popping tiny bubble wrap bubbles, or walking over pieces of glass on a marble floor.
All I could see was the empty tow path, the dark water of the canal – and three swans swimming along towards me. The trio consisted of two snow-white adults and their cygnet. The young one was only slightly smaller than its parents, but with scruffy patches of baby feathers still showing.
Usually, when you see a family of swans, the adults are either leading the way, or one is leading and the other bringing up the rear. These two swans, rather strangely, were making their cygnet swim in front of them.
Then I realised what was happening. The cygnet was forcing a passage through the frozen water. The tinkling noise I was hearing was the sound of ice shattering .
It seemed hard work. The youngster swam with its neck stretched out, struggling to push its way through. I could see a bow wave of ice building up against its breast.
As I watched, the cygnet drooped its head as if exhausted and came to a halt. The middle swan – the female and its mother, I presume – gave it a sharp peck on the flank. There was no doubt about her message.
‘Get on with it.’
The little cygnet struggled onwards with ruffled feathers. Meanwhile, the adults looked serene and graceful as they made their way, effortlessly, along the path that had been cut for them.
I watched as they disappeared up the canal, leaving a path of cleared water and a trail of broken ice behind.
Walking onwards I couldn’t get the image of the struggling cygnet our of my head. I had never seen anything like that before. Later I wondered why the two adults only had one cygnet with them. Maybe they had been unlucky and lost the rest. Maybe the others had already left home. Or maybe these two swans were just incompetent parents and had only managed to raise one child between them. If so, they were treating it very badly.
A mile further along, where the canal surface was covered in weed, I could still plainly see the tracks of the swan procession.