The sound is so clear it wraps itself around us like a warm blanket. It’s 8.30pm and the liquid trills and repeated phrases serenade us as we sit in the garden on long cushions delighted by this beautiful evening concert.
The melody is endlessly varied. For about an hour the bird sings in deep, clear notes. Yasmine, 10, sits happily wrapped up in the same blanket as me, enchanted by the performance which like an opera carries us on a journey. We understand the words even though it’s in a different language.
It’s the nightingale. The beautiful, nocturnal chorister. He’s flown 3,000 miles from west Africa to reach the UK.
May is the best time to hear nightingales as the males who arrive first sing to establish territory and attract a mate.
Sussex, Suffolk and Kent are the best places in the UK to hear the nightingales song.
In 1924, a famous cellist, Beatrice Harrison was practicing in her garden in Oxted, Surrey, when she heard the nightingale respond with its own song to her beautiful tune.
Night after night she played and the bird sang with her. She wanted to share her extraordinary experience and persuaded BBC radio to record it.
Lord Reith, founder and director general of the BBC initially didn’t support the idea, complaining it was a costly and unpredictable exercise as birds could be prima donnas.
The engineers prepared the microphone, Beatrice played, the broadcast was live…but the nightingale was silent.
Then finally 15 minutes before the end of the broadcast, he sung and sung.
The public were enthralled. The performance was so popular it was repeated the next month and then every spring for 12 years.
Here is a clip of Beatrice Harrison’s cello and nightingale duet, 19 May 1924 on BBC Radio.
Did a nightingale sing in Berkeley Square? Romantics all over the world who love the British wartime song written in 1939 would like to believe they did.
Doubters say almost certainly not as nightingales prefer woodland with a dense undergrowth. But nightingales were once found in London. We know the nightingales on Hampstead Heath inspired Keats to write his Ode to a Nightingale.
One February, Margaret Thatcher is reported to have told a senior official that she heard a nightingale singing outside 10 Downing Street. The aide, a keen birdwatcher, explained that she must be mistaken as the nightingale is a woodland bird and a late spring migrant.
The Prime Minister kept insisting, but the aide was equally determined. On the third time her private secretary intervened and said discreetly, ‘If the Prime Minister says she heard a nightingale, then she heard a nightingale.’