On Walking: Tuesday 28th January

We’re walking down the Hornton Road back from the Orchard Field and the rain is drumming so hard on my hood that I can’t hear my boots on the tarmac. We’ve been looking at snowdrops, and now we’re all three soaked through. Two thick streams of strong brown-tea are pouring either side of us, and Dora is insisting on walking up the middle of the lane. I raise my hand in apology to a silver people-carrier with its wipers on full-whack. Poor Pants puts his tail between his legs – he doesn’t understand such rage-full rain, and keeps whipping round as if to catch it hitting his back.

As we come down the hill back into Horley, we can hear the drains making a frantic, gulping sound, like a child racing to drink too-thick milkshake. The Shoot are out over Bramshill; the shots muffled by the curtains of rain. A big red tractor trundles into view, towing the empty brake, and we watch it turn up to Clump Lane, rattling its way through through orange puddles. I bet some of the guns would rather be in the nice cosy tractor, listening to Radio Two. A bit of Steve Wright’s jolly silliness, in the dry.

As we near St Ethelreda’s we pause to watch the men lopping giant branches off the Horse Chestnuts along the First of the two of St Ethelreda's Horse Chestnuts to get a much-needed loppingHornton Road. They’re such beautiful trees in leaf, but this time of year they stand as gawkily awkward as an ash, their elbows crooked and arthritic. There are three men on the job – one in the tree and the other two managing the traffic and collecting the twigs and logs. Beneath the roar of the chainsaw, we can hear the rattle of the sticks, like old bones. They feed the twiggy stuff into their shredder, and Pants growls, his head to one side.

There’s quite a high stack of logs in the graveyard, and I call out to ask where the wood might be going.

‘Lord Yarp’s shed’ comes the answer, and the man in the fluorescent jacket adds, ‘Sorry about that.’

I shrug. Old Yarpie has more right to it than me.

‘That holly’s coming down,’ says the man. ‘Over there, in the corner. And that ash beside it.’Holly and Ash to be cut down, in the far corner

‘Oh,’ I say. The bees will miss the ivy.

The man’s watching me. ‘Perhaps you can ask…? I mean, he might…’ I think he feels I must be in need of logs.

I smile and shake my sodden head, and call thanks, thanks anyway, waving goodbye as I walk up Church Lane.

I don’t dare take the dogs near the Shoot, so I cut through past the Old School. We emerge onto Little Lane, walking beneath the massive Copper Beech. Even naked it’s beautiful; its budding branches etched like gentle promises against the dirty-vest sky.

I walk slowly beneath the tree, thinking of Spring. That Lord Yarp, with his shed-full of chestnut and ash and holly. I hope it keeps him warm, and puts a smile on his face. And then I hope he sips a fine malt by his fire, reaches for his telephone, and rings Quarry Nurseries on the Hornton Road. I hope he orders a new Copper Beech, for the corner of the churchyard.

If he would, then I will plant snowdrops beneath it, and watch it grow.

On Plants: Love A Bit Of Lichen. Jan 2014

I have developed an interest in lichen. They’re so neat and small, and so deliberate in their growth – delicious, ancient, self-contained little entities. They please me so much.

According to Wiki, lichen are a symbiotic relationship of algae and fungus – a mixture of both together. They grow where other plants can’t, and people once sent some lichen into space, opened up its capsule, waved it around for a while, then brought it back to Earth. The lichen hadn’t changed one bit.

Such is my interest, that today the beasties and I are walking the same route as yesterday (which normally we loathe doing), just to take a photograph of the incredible lichen we found on the stile leading to Emma’s Meadow.

Lichen in Emma's Meadow, Horley, Oxfordshire Jan 2014

It’s a raw sort of day, and I’m wearing my gloves and hat, my coat zipped up to my nose. Bits of rain keep being spat at us, as if from simmering clouds, and I’m walking quickly to keep warm. As we set out across the cricket field, a whole cloud of wood pigeon suddenly swoop down from the oaks near the road, sending Pants loopy. He so wishes he could fly.

I’m too cold to plant daffodils today, so I just launch them into the hedge, and hope for the best.

We go quick-march across Dave’s fields – all of the flood water has gone now, and the Sor is back to its amiable, quiet self. We reach the stile, and I get close up to the lichen I’ve been thinking about. I want to get a marker pen to draw its boundaries, so I can see how much it grows, but I think that might freak out other dog walkers.

We set off round the left to circle the meadow, and I’m deep in contemplation of another load of lichen – this time on a branch of something I (frustratingly) can’t identify. It has more orange and warmer yellows than the one on the stile, and I wonder if that’s a product of environment, positioning or type of lichen.

Lichen in Emma's Meadow, Oxfordshire Jan 2014

I’m just photographing a cow pat with red dots (what? What are these?!) when Pants bristles and backs into my legs. I look up to see Noel opposite, with Lily, his greyhound, and Cissy, his lurcher. Both are a beautiful soft fawn colour – like canine Palominos – and incredibly fast. Pants is terrified of Cissy.

I wave to Noel and catch Dora, so she doesn’t become a snackette, and cross the meadow to say hello. About half way across, Pants loses his nerve and legs it, Cissy and Lily in lightening pursuit. He heads for the bottom stile and hurdles it – I’m too helpless with laughter to call him back. He’s such a naughty bully to Dora (who never complains), that I can’t help but think it’s good for him to be taken down a peg or two.

Cissy and Lily come back to Noel, but Pants has decided to go home, and has made a break for it to the Lichen Stile. He’s barking now, the way he does when he wants to come in from the garden and we’ve told him to be quiet. I decide to ignore him, and regale Noel with my lichen hunt.

‘They could survive on Mars,’ I say. ‘And you can eat them – but not the more yellow ones. They’re toxic.’

He listens politely, but I don’t feel I’ve managed to ignite a shared passion.

‘Must get on,’ says Noel.

I wave and go with Dora; Pants is still caterwauling over on the stile. Cissy and Lily have gone off with Noel, and eventually, Pants crosses the stile and heads towards Dora and me. About half way, Cissy appears like a blonde bullet, and poor old Pants jumps in the air and heads for the hedge. Cissy doesn’t go near him, just executes an easy loop, looking at him with scorn. He squishes himself to the ground in supplication and Cissy goes off, laughing.

‘Come on,’I say, as he slinks towards me. ‘Heel. I’ve lichen to seek.’

Lichen by the school bus stop. I examine it every day - last year it was a lot more lacy.
Lichen by the school bus stop. I examine it every day – last year it was a lot more lacy.

On Walking: Saturday 4th January 2014

Rain is still falling and it’s growing dark as I march down the Banbury Road. Both dogs barge the back of my legs, using me as a wind-break. The tarmac is blackly slick beneath my feet; slippery and gravel-strewn. I can’t look up and around, because the wind hurls the rain in my face, so instead I watch my step, and wonder about moles. Do they drown, or do they sense the water coming, and briskly tunnel uphill?Dora in her coat - protection from Arfa, rather than to keep dry

The dogs and I turn down right by the bridge, across Dave’s fields. The Sor has risen by four feet, and has brimmed its banks. It’s hugely loud in its chatter, full of self-importance, and when I reach the deer’s cut through, I find it too flooded to cross. Dora sticks to my heels, miserable in her fluorescent yellow coat. Arfa runs his usual lassoos, but at half-speed, his skinny feet sinking deep into the orange-brown mud.

I’m forced to cross through the middle of the fields, stumping inelegantly. The rain is easing now but the cloudsSor Brook flooding Jan 2014 glower regardless. I slip and slide on greased boots, groaning when I see dog-less walkers in Emma’ Meadow ahead. They’ve spotted me too, and are practically running from the stile, shouting at their large child. Reluctantly, I  whistle Pants and hoop on his lead. Now I’m at least five times more likely to do a comedy mud dive. I’m glare at the fast-retreating couple. Their child is playing in the massive puddles in the middle of the meadow, and they’re beckoning him. Can you not see, you silly people, that I’ve put the Pants on his lead? Surely they’re not afraid of Dora? She looks like a wet gerbil.

I start an argument with the couple, telling them exactly how rude it is to point at small women with dogs and then to run away. My rant lasts all the way through the meadow (they’re hiding now, on the old railway side of the top stile – do they not know I can SEE them? They keep peeking round an ash. Are they MAD as well as RUDE?). I clang through the kissing gate onto the Wroxton Lane, and wade splashily through the pot-hole puddle. The rain has stopped and I take off my stripy hat, glaring up the hill. My thighs are wet in my jeans, which further irritates me. The dogs walk beautifully to heel, knowing better than to mess.

We storm up the middle of Horley, and my temper’s ebbing to middling grump. Those poor moles. Opposite the Red Lion, I bump into the Legs of Horley, who kisses me and wishes me Happy New Year. She asks how I am, and I stand and blurt like some dreadful child that’s forgotten its grammar. ‘I’m sorry-‘ I grind to a halt. ‘I’ve been cooped up all day, with warring children.’ Legs laughs, and we talk about Robbie Burns and the upcoming village party.

I tell Legs about the strange running-away people, and we wonder if they’re the people who were moving into Liz Gatliffe’s old house, but now aren’t. I feel guilty now, for haranguing them so viciously in my head.

As we talk, we notice the sky behind Bramshill Manor. The unremitting grey has softened to apricot, but only in a faint arc behind the hill.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look. The sun must be going down. I almost wish I could run up the hill to watch it go.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Oh,’ I say, gesturing. I mean to say I’ve been out too long; my house is a pig-sty, my dogs are shivering, my jeans are revoltingly wet. I’ve logs to get in, dinner to cook, beds to make. Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. But something stops me turning, heading for the cricket and home.

‘Sod it,’ I say, as Legs starts off towards her field. ‘You’re right. I’m going-‘

And I do, like a rocket up Little Lane. The dogs run too, catching my change of mood. I’m racing the sunset; suddenly fiercely, madly, wildly desiring to see the day before it dies. I catch sight of pink now, and orange, streaking across the apricot,  and I don’t look up, saving, saving, saving it. I swing easily over the gate, run along the top paddock to the broad new stile. Then I look, and look, and look.

Beautiful. Scarlet bonfire, thrilling my rain-soaked eyes. I sit on the stile until the ruby heart slips away, and then I clamber stiffly down, freezing cold. I whistle the dogs, turn for home. The day remembered now, as something more than ordinary.

Sunset over Bramshill Jan 2014

The Carol Service – 22nd December 2013

We spill out of our house, noisy and chattering, calling ahead and behind – have we got everybody? Are we all here? Stevie and Weaze are still in the house, ostensibly sorting the dogs. Really, topping hip flasks.

We’re going up the hill towards St Ethelreda’s, where the children are in the Nativity: El is Mary and Jess is The Star. We’ve all been drinking port and eating Warwickshire Extra Strong, and an amazing Oxford Blue with home-made quince jelly. All apart from Little Sausage, who is not yet two and prefers crumbed chicken goujons.

We’re forced single-file as we hurry up the Jackie Chan, and I feel a squinch of pleasure as we see the church on our left –  ancient windows lit gold, promising the carols of childhood. The Sausages are up ahead, crossing the Hornton road with the buggy, and Lulu and Giddyup and I hurry to catch them, our heels loud on the pavement, our breath misting in the night air.

Inside, it’s already packed, almost the whole of the right pews full of Horley children in costume – an entire population of sheep, kings and angels, faces bursting with importance and excitement. The older village children are up on the stage, in thick Christmas jumpers and bobble hats. They all look very serious as they survey the milling congregation below, and there is no fidgeting. Stalwart church types whiz to and fro, organising extra heaters, sorting out service sheets.

‘Patrick!’ stage-whispers a tall older lady in tweed. ‘Who on earth are all these people?’

‘Tourists,’ answers a younger man, steering her towards a heater. Extra benches are appearing now, from out of the Vestry; newcomers continue to pour in.

We nip quickly into the left aisle, with me on the end, so I have a good view of Mary and the Wandering Star. On the stage, above the children’s heads hangs a glitzy cardboard star turning slowly on an invisible string. It should look deeply naff, but instead it’s oddly touching, and just as it should be.

‘I must take notes,’ I mutter, thinking of a scene in my book. I pat my pockets, and realise I’ve forgotten my little notepad. Far worse though; I’ve forgotten the ‘thank you’ flowers for Tess and Brenda, both of whom spend weeks rehearsing the children and planning the Nativity. I clap my hands to my mouth in case I swear, and then see Stevie has arrived at the bottom of our row.

‘Go home!’ I mouth. ‘Forgotten, forgotten!’

Stevie rolls his eyes and grins. He mouths back ‘silly cow’, shaking his head as he edges his way out of the pew. The organist – fabulous organist – is playing In The Bleak Mid-Winter, and Lulu and Giddyup have found me a pen for my notes.

I sigh with pleasure, looking round at the glossy bunches of holly with their blood-red berries, the fat white candles flickering in the draught from the constantly-opening door. We can smell the mulled wine with its oranges and cloves, warming for after the service, and the burnt-dust smell of gas heaters. There’s a steady roar of conversation from the impious, and occasional yelps of laughter from the inebriated. Lulu and Giddyup are making up names for people to go in the blog, and keep collapsing with giggles.

‘Yarp, yarp, yarp,’ says Giddyup, as one of the more handsome stalwarts pass, flapping his arms. He pauses by our pew, one hand in his pocket, the other held crooked like a teapot. ‘Lord Yarp,’ she says, her voice low. ‘Completely perfect.’

The church is stuffed full now, and everyone is waiting. Opposite our pew is a school-buddy with her two pre-schoolers, Charlie and Holly, who are dressed as a shepherd and sheep respectively. They wriggle on their mother’s lap, anxious for the off.

‘Where’s the vicar?’ someone says, in puzzlement. One of the Stalwarts leap to the stage, and the congregation watch expectantly. He exhorts us to enjoy the Nativity, then purses his lips and asks us not to clap.

And then the whole thing is under way: one of the serious crew on stage is up and solo-ing Royal David’s City, then we’re all on our feet, feeling our way through the tune, tackling the high bits and trying not to break on the impossible ‘And’s.

It soon becomes evident that there will be no vicar, but that the service will be done entirely by the children of Horley. Somehow the readings and carols take on greater meaning, as we hear words spoken since we were children ourselves, and heard by our own parents, and grandparents, who in turn heard those words before we were even thought of. We get to that bit in The Bleak Midwinter about cherubim and seraphim and tears are falling down my cheeks, taking with them my mascara and my self-conciousness. By the final verse, the beauty of the words have affected everyone, and hands are squeezed, glances exchanged. Forgiven. Loved.

In turn, the children appear in their places: Mary is visited by a star, the Inn Keeper is duly knocked up. Every time there’s any action on the stage, Holly the Sheep makes a bid to join in, and her mother catches her by the ankle. We’re belting through O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Holly the Sheep is prone in the centre aisle, crawling commando-style towards the action. Her mother pulls her back on her belly, trying to sing at the same time. On our row we sway with laughter, and I wipe away yet more tears.

Angels arrive and the children break our hearts with ‘Away In A Manger’. Holly finally escapes and gets on stage, standing pleased as punch and baa-ing, waving and smiling to an adoring crowd. My Elle gets the giggles, and her Baby Jesus, (Thomas: a huge brute, once mine), won’t fit in the manger. She squashes him in, and he springs free, his chubby plastic arms waving.

Soon we’re onto Hark The Heralds, and I wish I was standing near Chris Howell, Tess’ husband, because I like his singing. I can hear some voices doing lovely fancy bits and I wish I could gather all the singers up so I could hear them properly together, without the awful braying coming from a few rows back.  But then our local choir-mistress, Debbie, comes forward to lead the Serious Crew in Gaudete, which is the first ever time I’ve properly listened to a madrigal. It is a moment like glimpsing the most beautiful face, or eating the most perfect mouthful – astonishing and fleeting, leaving me wide-eyed, blinking. It’s immensely hard not to clap.

Then one of the Serious Crew boys stands up on his own. He puts his hands in the pockets of his tracksuit bottoms and sings the opening verse of ‘Silent Night’, his expression transformed – radiance beams from thy holy face. We all join in the second verse, fortissimo.

It seems so quickly that the kings do their bit (complete with brilliant tantivy on the trumpet) and we’re belting out God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, the children trawling congregation for the collection. All around there’s the chink of change. There’s a flash of  orange and gold down our row, and the women all swivel forwards to see which of their men gave a tenner. Stevie’s laughing, so I’m guessing not us.

We’re all giving it welly to Come All Ye Faithful (once a year, at any rate), and then the children are all up on stage, posing for photos and it’s time for the mulled wine, mince pies and didn’t-they-do-wells.

I can feel my cheeks are flushed from all of the emotion, and I surreptitiously rub mascara from beneath my eyes.

‘So lovely,’ we all say. ‘So lucky.’

Jess speeds past, blowing a kiss and stuffing her mouth with sweets. She joins the rest of the children, all of her little buddies, now rioting unchecked behind the blue Vestry curtains. Lord Yarp is supervising the snuffing of candles, Stalwarts are gathering chairs, abandoned service sheets. There’s great talk of the new bells, and when they’ll be ringing.

I’m just upending my glass when Stevie catches my eye, gives the nod. We wrangle the daughters into coats.

‘I’ll see if they want help with the glasses,’ I say. ‘See you in a minute.’

The ladies manning the mince pie station tell me not to worry, it’ll all be dealt with in the morning. I’m relieved, thinking of the washing up waiting at home, the presents still unwrapped, the Christmas cake still un-iced.

”Night,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Outside the air has crispened, and feels wonderfully cool on my face. I’ve no torch but I don’t mind, I know every step of the way home. I think of the packet of crumpets in the bread-cage, and of how I’ll make a pot of tea and Stevie will’ve done the fires. The children will be in their nighties, and Country File will be on the telly. I quicken my step, smiling into the darkness.

Happy, happy Christmas. To one and all.