On Walking: Sunday 28th December

It’s all four of us walking, the last walk of the year, and we’re going on the Wroxton Loop, which the children and I love, and which Stevie’s never done.

‘There’re surprises,’ we tell him. ‘It’s not just all trees.’

It’s past eleven when we leave Horley, and the ground is still held tight by frost. Our breath plumes fleeting clouds in the windless air and our wellies slip on the frozen tarmac of the Wroxton Road. The dogs know we’re off on adventure and pull at their leads, towing the children up onto the crisped verges and down again; Pants high-stepping in excitement.

At the bottom of our village, we go left, across Emma’s Meadow, then right, across the new wheat field and towards the old rail track. The sun has melted the frost on the path and our feet squelch through rich, red mud. The acid-green and yellow crab apples that had been trapped, floating, in Martin’s new ditch, have all sunk, and turned silty grey.

The old railway is a busy walk, rutted and water-filled, thick with the fallen leaves of hawthorn, ash. The mud is crowded with footsteps, paw-prints and the tracks of bikes; all of the ice has been smashed and lies in shards over the path. The dogs run off ahead, hysterically intent, white-eyed, and the children follow, fitting their boots into the hoof-pocks of local ponies, momentarily morphed to unicorns. Stevie and I watch them gallop off and he catches my hand.

We reach Drayton, and cross the main road, hurrying to be off pavements and back into the fields. ‘There’s an amazing house,’ Elle says. ‘Dad. Come on-‘

The children pull Stephen past the Glebe House and to the footpath that curves back to Wroxton. We’re ankle-deep in Herb Robert and baby nettles; lush-leaved despite the cold. The path passes by Drayton’s tiny church, St Peter’s, tucked into its cushion of  meadow. It’s too low for the sun to see and remains frosted, as if popped into the deep-freeze to wait for summer.

We’re on our favourite stretch of the walk now, into the folds and creases of field and wood, Oxfordshire rolling on before us, ancient and benevolent; living to a beat of its own.

The children show Stevie the Wroxton Arch, one of the Wroxton Follies, high up on a ridge. ‘And there’s more, Dad. A massive needle and a tiny tower, but best of all is the bridge.’

The bridge is a low stone-built cattle-bridge over the Sor Brook, and we stop there to eat our picnic of turkey-stuffing rolls with pickle, and a box of grapes. The children dare each other deeper and deeper in the stream, and Pants splashes past, thrilled with his own fractured reflection.

There are long gouges in the wheat-field here, made from tractor-wheels, and finally Jess can stamp some unbroken ice. She does some slowly, some furiously, finally just jumping up and down, cracking, mashing. Pants barks encouragement.

Elle is balancing across the weir of rocks, inching her way through the water. ‘It’s slippy,’ we tell her. ‘Don’t fall.’

‘I won’t,’ she says, scornful.

Finally, we persuade the children onwards, up the Hill of Doom to the needle. It’s an obelisk, put there to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1739. There are people circled around it, taking photographs, and we catch the dogs, wave and walk on.

The children, already grumpy at leaving the bridge and climbing the hill, start to revolt in earnest, and Elle tries to do a death-walk on a wall around a pond. Jess and I run away, hating it when Stevie and Elle lock horns. They finally trudge up the last hill to catch us; Elle sullen, Stevie impatient, stalking in his boots. We walk on in silence, past the Dovecote and down into Wroxton.

Somehow, the bad moods pass without comment, and our family equilibrium is restored as we pass the poor, empty North Arms.

‘Let’s buy it and live there,’ says Elle. We shake our heads.

‘It’s thatch,’ says Jess, as if that settles things.

We cross the main road onto the Horley Road, and Stevie walks slowly past the sport’s field.

‘What’re you doing?’ I ask.

‘Looking for cricket balls. We lost loads last season.’

I suddenly remember we’re now nearer to Midsummer’s Eve than away from it. The time’s gone so fast.

‘Last family walk of 2014,’ I say. The children are ahead with the dogs, racing each other, hooting. Loud and bright and now almost as tall as me.

‘There’ll be loads next year,’ says Stephen. He bends to check beneath a shadow of root, then straightens. ‘And next week, we can have the first walk of next year. And then a whole year’s worth. So you can moon about trees and nature-‘

‘I don’t moon.’

‘You do. You should look forward to it. A whole new year of mooning-‘

‘Oh,’ I say, taking his arm. ‘Shush. Or I’ll moon you.’

He laughs. ‘Dare you.’

 

On Walking: Monday 22nd December

It’s early afternoon and it’s the Monday before Christmas. The clouds are cobweb grey; drooping over the fields with the sad exhaustion of over-washed smalls.

The children and I are walking the Meadow Circle, round the margins of Dave’s fields. E and J aren’t talking to each other, both bitter and truculent after an aborted game of Monopoly. They fight to hold my hand, muttering she said, she said, and I try to swallow the ball of anxiety lodged in my throat.

I concentrate on the ever-running lists in my head, clicking through in a ticker-tape litany that I must get right. Christmas lunch, presents, wrapping, washing, ironing, cooking, buying, sorting, cleaning. The Christmas cards lie unwritten next to a recipe for Extra Special Stuffing, for which the ingredients remain unbought. The hens need skipping out; the hyacinth bulbs need planting. My boots swish this-that through last summer’s grass. Must do this, that; and this, and this and this.

The wind worries at the children’s hoods, whips my hair into my eyes. Pants barks at a naked blackthorn hedge and two wood pigeons sway above us on an ash. The children have fallen silent, but the frowns and glares have gone; the curled lips dropped.

We slip through the secret passage and look down at the Sor. It’s very unlike its normal December self; quiet and clear, sliding over tree-roots like transparent silk. We walk on, unspeaking, beneath the oak. There are barely any acorns this year, after last year’s glut.

We reach the bridge into Emma’s Meadow. Jess pulls my hand. ‘You can paddle now,’ she says. ‘Now you’ve got new wellies.’

The three of us wade into the brook, stepping over the frills of watercress and sinking into the silt. Pants charges up and tries to join in, splashing us, making waves that threaten the children’s welly-tops.

‘Away,’ we shout. ‘Away!’

I squelch back through the deep cattle prints, call him to me. ‘I’ll take the dogs round,’ I say, whistling for Dora. ‘Come and meet me.’

They both wave vaguely, already intent on finding a cray, the outrage of The Electric Company forgotten (in their rules, they do not allow each other to own both stations and utilities).  I go off, ticker-tape at full despairing chat.

I march now, my best pace, in my big circle, march, march. Somehow, by halfway, I’m thinking of the book I must deliver for the 6th of Jan, and the synopsis for the book after. But these are my favourite types of thoughts, with none of the heart-thumping anxiety of the ticker-tape thoughts.

I come back to the children, still in the stream. They are daring each other deeper and deeper, laughing, their hoods down, cheeks pink. I watch them for a while, then look back to Dave’s field at the shrivelled yellow matchsticks of sprayed-off wheat. This field is full of rape, ankle-height and looking like heartless cabbages.

The thought makes me smile: Fie! Thou heartless cabbage.

Eventually, the children’s feet grow cold, and they emerge from the brook, stamping. We’re about to leave the field when Elle points at Pants, twenty yards away. ‘Oh God, Mummy look-‘

‘No!’

But it’s too late – he’s rolling like a nightmare across a town of molehills, flinging up foamed earth and fox-shit, paws cycling in the air, mouth wide in soundless glee.

The children hoot with laughter, then scream when he runs at them. I catch him and nearly gag: bastard stinking dog, I hiss in his ear.

We walk back up Wroxton Lane, me in the middle with a daughter either side, each holding a dog. We sing, because it’s Christmas, and we screech whenever Pants veers off course and we walk through his waft of stench.

I’m smiling, because when we get back, I’m not doing any of that ticker-tape litany. I’m going to make hot chocolate and heat mince-pies and we may, if both children wash the dog, we may pile onto the new velvet sofa and watch The Snowman And His (non-stinking) Dog. We may even, if Stevie comes home early, eat a chocolate from the tree.

‘We wish you a Merry Christmas-‘ sing the children. I join in, ‘wish you a Merry Christmas-‘

We all goose-step to force Pants back to the side. ‘We wish you a merry Christmas,’

‘And a HAPPY NEW YEAR!’

Elle and Jess
My bonkers daughters, collapsed on a bench, a whole fifty yards from home…