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…

 

On Walking: Thursday 11th September

God, I love September.

Hawthorn berries, rosehips and honeysuckle in North Oxon
Hawthorn berries, rosehips and honeysuckle

The dogs and I are over Bramshill, listening to the ducks telling each other off on the carp ponds. I’m sat on the stile, and I can smell great wafts of wild honeysuckle and sweet grass. I’m eating sun-warmed elderberries, pips and all, and watching a small brown bird inspect the rash of berries on the hawthorn bushes.

It’s almost six in the evening, golden time, and I’ve abandoned the washing up from the children’s tea to run away, up the hill.

As I watch, a fat Bumble Bee arrives to harvest the honeysuckle, and I creep up to take a photograph. Pants comes to see what I’m doing, then barks hysterically at the bee.

 

I laugh and  the bee retracts and reverses, louder than ever. Pants jumps away, then sits down as if in great trouble. The bee visits another flower, and the silly dog sits and trembles.

‘Silly Silky Pair,’ I tell him. ‘Silly boy.’

Bumble bee on wild September honeysuckle

Dora arrives to see what the fuss is about, then regards him with disgust.

We walk on, through the spinney and up through the stubble field, and I wonder about bees, and whether it’s true that their pollen can support our production of white blood cells. How does that work though? How do you get the pollen from the bee before it seals it into a comb? I really hope it happens without involving the death of the bee.

At the top of the hill, I pause, looking over one of my favourite views. Everything’s tipped with gold in the evening light; even the fields that have been drilled have a richness to the brown of their earth.

We walk on, Dora at my heels, Pants running away from his shadow ahead. I climb the stile leading to Clump, and notice the sloes – the most I’ve ever seen in this spot. I think joyous thoughts of gin, and hurry-up hurry-up to the first cold snap.

As I turn for home I remember the pasta pans and chopping boards from the  children’s tea. The ironing mountain and the bath with the grubby stripe. The new school uniform, still nameless, still heaped on the armchair.

Ripening sloes over Bramshill
Ripening sloes over Bramshill

But then I think of my saved Bombay Sapphire bottles, sat in dusty ranks, just waiting, waiting, for the sloes with that first kiss of  frost.

 

On Walking: Thursday 31st August

It’s too hot to walk anywhere; treacle-thick, breathless, thunder-bug heat. The sort that means storms, and that make me itch with impatience.

The dogs have been driving me crackers, but not as much as the children. I’m forced from the house with a lead in each hand, told to come back when I can be nice.

I don’t feel nice. I feel hot and cross and frustrated with the world that demands such silly hoop-jumping. We drift down towards the bottom fields, heading for Emma’s meadow. I mutter and gurn, grimacing smiles at a car that gives me a wide berth.

We reach the bridge and I let the dogs go – they shoot off as if glad to leave me behind. The leaves of the oak are motionless above my head, caught in a bottle-green glass. A couple of etiolated nettles lean towards me, as if to whisper a sting to my ear. I dodge through, run onto the path. The mud beneath my feet has dried into jigsaw cracks; wide enough for a mouse, deep enough for half a flip-flop.

I walk. The corn is still, greyish-yellow; jaundiced beneath a dirty white sky. I force myself faster, dodging fossilised fox crap, not pausing to examine the owl pellets. I know what’s in them.

Corn near Emma's meadow

I reach Emma’s meadow and clatter over the bridge, forgetting to check the position of the cattle. I’m twenty yards from the stile when I remember, but they’re up by the Horley end of the field. There’s a child crying in the caravan field; the fractious wah-wah of an exhausted toddler. The diggers are still roaring around at the sewage works, and I can hear a chainsaw from the village.   I slap at a horse fly on my upper thigh; it leaves a smear of blood, and I shudder.

I retrace my steps back to the bridge, and perch on the stile like a grumpy crow. The dogs run to my feet and I tell them to go off, go and play. Just go. The grasses in the meadow are hazed red and yellow now. Dock towers are oxidised the febrile red of iron. They look like sculptures amongst the cattle-flat glass, or the remnants of some once-great civilisation.

Beneath me, the Sor is choked with seeded meadowsweet and grasses, some one-and-a-half-times my height. Hog weed rears everywhere, beige brown. The air is heavy around my shoulders, pressing my fringe to my forehead. If there would be just a breath of wind. The lightest breath. Everything could change.

The child wails on, as does the chain saw.

Pants rolls in cowpat. ‘No!’ I cry, but it’s too late. He’s rolling and rolling, ecstatic, his mouth wide open in glee.

‘You bastard dog,’ I shout, as if into a pillow. He leaps up, capering, showing his haunches streaked green in the freshest splat imaginable. ‘No,’ I cry again. ‘You, you!’

I stagger from the stile, waving my fists as if I’d beat him, but when he lollops up so pleased with himself the fight goes from me. I scratch his silly head, between the streaks. ‘You’re an idiot,’ I tell him. ‘An idiot dog. You’re hard to love.’

We cross the bridge, heading for home. Dora is walking smugly through the corn, drawing attention to her non-rolling status. Pants canters off, oblivious.

I pause to take off my sunglasses, push back my sweaty hair. I can hear a rattle, the faintest, driest rattle. The corn. Moving in the wind.

 

 

On Walking: Thursday 10th July

I’m in the Spring Field, and it’s hot. So hot, I can feel the ground baking around my bare legs, see the shimmer in the air as I look downhill.

The earth is faded red-brown, crumbled, strewn with sprayed-off thistles dying an ugly, splayed death. The cries of the sheep in the next field are incessant, much louder than usual. It’s forecast storms soon, but standing here I can’t imagine rain.

I force my feet onwards, squinting despite my sun glasses. Each time one of my black trainers lands, the ground gives off hopeless little puffs of dust. All around are stunted, twisted weeds, clinging stubbornly to life despite repeated doses of Round Up. I can smell meadowsweet, honey-like on the warm wind. I step carefully: I don’t know what’s between the deep, deep cracks.

We reach the stile but I don’t stop. The dogs are subdued, too hot to even run, and they follow me silently.

‘Go in the stream,’  I tell them. ‘Run on.’ But they stay with me, as if I might need them. The bottom stretch of the field is in shade from the alders, and I walk more slowly, listening to the stream. We stop halfway across, and I look back up the field. My sunglasses have tinted the earth red, and for a second it looks as if it’s on fire, like the Warwickshire stubble-fields I used to know. I remember this sort of day from being a teenager, walking dogs when and where I’ve been told I mustn’t.

It’s the sort of heat that knocks days out of time, that creates mirages. The wind is the sort to provoke restless feet, to tease and push a person to brilliance or madness. Or to passion; the dangerous kind, that gets you in trouble.

We start to slog back up hill, and I notice that beneath the weeds are yellow and black banded caterpillars, lots of them, like an infestation.

Caterpillar for the Cinnebar Moth - taken before I realised there was an army. Munching... I think they’re Cinnabar Moths, but I suddenly don’t want to hang around. I imagine them crawling across my toes, up my ankle, and I’m gone. Freaked out. By-passed brilliance or passion, and gone straight to madness.

 

On Walking: Tuesday 8th July

I’ve got twenty six minutes before the school bus, and we’re marching down the Banbury Road at a cracking pace. I’m soon distracted though, by the large green keys on a sycamore. Some of the lowest have a pink blush, as if they’ve been dipped in a strawberry daiquiri.Sycamore key

Down near the bridge, I pull the dogs to a stop again to stare at a lacy saucer of  ground elder. On a three inch radius, there are no less than seven pairs of bonking Cardinal Beetles. Between some couples there is less than a quarter of an inch, and I can’t help wondering about etiquette – what if a bonking beetle bumps another bonking beetle and there’s bonkus interruptus?  What if one beetle fancies another beetle’s beetle, or if a lone handsome beetle flies in, would the other beetles chat it up, or would there be a brawl on the saucer?

These thoughts occupy me all the way down to the bottom fields, and I walk out from beneath the oak to a field of ripening, fat-eared wheat. The stalks are still green and the nubbles of corn are still soft. I trip over a mole hill, then notice that a mole has dug its way in a perfect line along the footpath. Near the bridge into Emma’s Meadow, there’s a monster hill, as if the mole went berserk and dug an underground palace. Pants wees on it.

I’m too scared of the cows to go into Emma’s Meadow, so I sit on the bridge and look back over the wheat. There’re great swathes of rye grass waving through the crop, shimmering in the sun. There’s Blackgrass too, with its bristly close-grown seeds. I wonder how farmers get it out of the harvest, or whether we end up eating it. The dogs have disappeared into the margins, where we walk in the winter. Pants is singing, which means he’s found a mouse or vole; thank God he never catches them.

Bus-o’clock is drawing near, and I call the dogs. I can’t go in after them: the margin is impenetrable with hog weed and grasses way taller than me. Even the heads of clover around my ankles are as big as golf balls.

I give up waiting and start walking home, knowing they’ll come when they realise I’ve gone. I can hear the dink-dink-dink of a hammer from the Drying Barn at the end of the village.  I’ve heard the domestic sound of a Hoover practically non-stop all day, making me feel guilty for being such a slattern in our house. The din’s being made by Dave and Chris, gearing up for harvest; anticipating the toil, sweat, dust, then the pay-off of a barn full of grain.

It’s the time of year that I feel the most jealous of farmers, their sense of purpose, focus, of gambles against fate. The knife-edge tension of the weather reports, the whipping out of moisture gauges then the best bit: go-go-go. As a child, I’d watch our neighbours’ barns with binoculars, trying to guess if today was the day the combines would roll.

The dogs catch me up as I stop to observe a two-spotted ladybird, and Pants jumps up my white Capri’s to tell me what a clever boy he is. ‘Gerroff,’ I tell him, walking on. ‘Silly silky pair.’ Dora speeds ahead, as if she’d looked at my wrist-watch. She waits by the oak, impatient, panting. Bus o’clock, her eyes tell me, Hurry up. Bus o’clock!

 

 

On Walking: Sunday 6th July

It is late Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the stile above Bramshill ponds. I’ve come here to think; my thoughts have been boiled and mashed and  I am reeling from too many people, parties, Darling-could-we’s, Mum-can-I’s, Carlie-have-you’s. Yes we could, you can, I have. But now enough.

The meadow below reminds me of fields I knew as a child. The grass is hazed reddish-purple with fronds and sprays of seed; there are random islands of stingers and docks, the jaunty bobbles of ribwort plantain.   The spinney begins on my right, and cuts down into the valley, across the medieval ponds, before running onwards, meeting the corner of the Scout Woods. It’s an ancient boundary, a right-of-way for foxes, rabbits, deer; there long before the lanes were put beneath tarmac, or the railway put down and peeled up.

From the stile, with Horley behind me, I can’t see a single house. I can hear the irregular piping of some unseen bird, the testy-hornet buzz of off-road bikes from over near Hornton. The breeze is warm, and smells of deep green hawthorn, summer grass, horses. Every knot in my shoulders is starting to loosen, every rattling thought beginning to still.

On the opposite hill, the wheat is green-gold, ruffled to caplets by the wind. The sun is hot on my bare thighs and the wind lifts my ponytail, cooling my neck. I tip back my head, view such richness through half-closed eyes. To my right is a regal spear thistle, with two tufty, purple flowers. As a child, I once spent an entire afternoon chopping up thistle-heads with an old nail, convinced there must be a nut in the bulge beneath the flower. Despite knowing now that there’s not, I still look at them and wonder if perhaps I had the right sort of thistle, or if the thistles I tried were too young.

Two Red Admirals are in a lovers’ dog-fight, and flash in front of my nose. Pants and Dora shoot from the blackberry briar and up the hill towards me. They practically roll their eyes when they see I’m still perched on the stile.

‘Go away,’ I tell them.

The hawthorn berries are starting to turn red on their blunted tips; the fox gloves are sending out their secondary arms from their bases, their main one exhausted.

I push myself off the stile, walk down the hill amongst the red and white clover, the grass feather-stroking my calves and making me itch. I shout the dogs, climb into the spinney.

My shoulders are free; the fearful rattle-rattle-crash in my brain is more distant, as if the noisy, raucous thoughts had all been bundled up, carted off, leaving just echoes to be ignored.

I use a wand of ash leaves to hold aside lofty chin-high nettles, wriggle my way through the cool green gloom. Even the echoes are fading now. I walk, just walk, through the trees.

Dora sunbathing on Bramshill
Dora sunbathing on Bramshill

Thank you to all those lovely people who’ve emailed, Tweeted and accosted me over the garden wall, wanting to know why I hadn’t published a blog lately, and was I all right? Yes, is the answer, completely fine. I had to finish a book in a very short deadline, and have been working tremendously hard. The book’s in now though, and the summer hols are nearly here, so there’ll be lots of walking, and lots of blogs.

Thank you especially to Paul Rodgers, who writes beautifully (and hilariously) himself.