Really, don’t bother reading. Only publishing because my ‘Drafts’ keeps getting emptied by Word Press. These are some of the notes I take as I walk, that never made into a post.
Crispy newness, suspended time. Sun through bare rain-blackened branches Arfa on ice, strange noise like walking on bells. Long for snow, skiing
Sunday 2nd February
Raw wind over Bramshill. Soundless world apart from squelchy boots. Hornton valley dun, brown and dark cream, like a female mallard.
Surprise to see sheep on what think was Winter wheat.
Pheasants having a party. Duck pond silent.
Aubretia falling purple and lilac in Church Lane.
Bulb bombing daffs up! Like bobbing balloons of yellow jolliness beside the path.
Oil seed rape flowers, snow drops. Trees cut down up Clump. Ash wands everywhere, as if secret, deadly wizardry battle taken place.
Beech trees throwing off shell-pink leaf cases; they look like long, thin acrylic nails. Blackthorn coming out in white clouds, foaming above dark branches. Grass suddenly lush and green Wheat ankle height
Sweet violets! Tiny, deepest Silk-Cut purple.
Dandelions and daisies scrunch up in the rain, as do buttercups. Bluebells out and glorious.
Huge amounts of splatty bird poo. Queen bees looking for nests – loud and bumbling.
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.
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.
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.’
I have recently learnt about gall wasps (Andricus quercuscalicis) and Knopper galls, and now I’m becoming obsessed with galls.
Basically, a gall is like a nest, or development nursery, for an insect or bacteria or whatever, and they grow on anything. The ones that I noticed were on the oaks around Horley. Essentially, the wasp lays eggs inside growing acorns, and as the grubs grow, they distort the acorn into a weird, sticky thing, like an unshelled walnut without the symmetry. Then the Knopper gall goes brown and falls with the rest of the acorns, ready for a wasp to emerge in Spring.
I know it’s nature, but it freaks me out, especially as Elle and I had collected a few Knopper galls in our pockets. The thought makes me shudder, and I keep imagining some dreadful moment when grubs spill forth from our clothing, like maggots from a dead blackbird. It would probably be at the school bus stop, and none of the children’s little buddies would be allowed to come and play again.
Anyway, at first it seemed only the little oaks were effected, the ones in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, but then we found them on one of Dave’s huge oaks in the field beneath the cricket pitch. It’s not all of the acorns, there are scores of beautiful golden ones, but every few feet, you find a Knopper.
Learning about the Knopper Galls, I also found out about spangle gall, which is what’s on the oak leaf below. I always asumed it was some sort of weird mould, but apparently not. It’s – Neuroterus quercusbaccarum, according to Wikipedia – another type of wasp.
Neither types of wasp appear to harm the tree long term, but I wish I could understand more – what do the wasps do, for example? Are they food for birds? If anyone knows how I could learn more – do say, I hate being so ignorant.
I am child-less, for the first time in weeks, and I can walk at the pace I choose, and think the thoughts I choose. I can decide what to serve for dinner (that marrow that keeps looking at me, balefully, from the dresser). I can examine any plant or insect that catches my eye, and I can stand stock-still in the middle of a field for five minutes, listening to ripe corn. I can then take a further ten minutes thinking of how to describe it. Not as plastic-beadily rattling as oats, is my conclusion so far.
The dogs and I are heading to the covert across the valley from the cricket pitch – through the corn fields that catch the very last of the evening sun. It’s mid-afternoon now, though, and the glorious morning has clouded to a featureless dirty-white, like grubby bed-sheets.
We walk down the Banbury Road, and I notice the stems of the elder berries are stained purplish-red, although the berries themselves stay green. They remind me of the neck-flush of an older woman with a crush, and decide that when the time comes, I shall wear a silk scarf.
We turn past Jamie’s Mum’s stables, and walk up the grassy ride alongside the wheat. I think about something I recently learnt – what I thought was some sort of long-whispery type of wheat is actually barley, and what I thought was barley was just a longer-stemmed type of wheat. And corn can mean any cereal crop at all. The bit I don’t understand was how I mixed it all up in the first place – I grew up on a small-holding in the middle of fields. You’d have thought I could tell the difference.
There’s a path cut through the wheat and I follow it, stooping to admire the tiny love-hearts of Shepherd’s Purse. The red-brown soil of the path has been compacted by walkers – this route leads to Ratley, and the National Herb Centre. There’s another plant here, sprawling rudely, holding its pink fingers up in defiance to passing boots. My Collins guide tells me it’s ‘Red Shank’, or Persicaria. Apparently, we used to eat it.
This thought occupies me all the way to the covert. How did we eat it? In salads? The guide says ‘the starch-rich fruits were formerly gathered and used as grain.’ Red Shank soup? Bread? I kick at a thistle, frustrated that ancient hedge-row knowledge is missing from my brain.
I reach the stile at the covert: my turning point. Not wanting to go home just yet, I perch on the stile like a silly fat pigeon, looking across the valley to Horley. I can see our house, the inexhaustible To-Do List scrawling out of our chimneys.
I turn my attention back to the Red Shank, and wish I were brave enough to serve it for dinner, mixed with pasta, some marrow (which I’d chop and oven-bake, with salt and rosemary and olive oil). Topped with pecorino and a few splinters of smoked streaky bacon.
‘Oh yes,’ I’d say. ‘Red shank. Or Lady’s Thumb. Delicious, don’t you think? Yes, of course…grown locally.’
I’ve fallen in love with a new wild flower – well, new to me. It’s called celandine, and now I’ve learnt it, I keep finding it everywhere.
It belongs to the Papaveraceae family (the same as a poppy), and its flowers are a glorious sort of splayed buttercup (with which it has nothing to do). According to my little flower book, the plant was recognised as a handy plant for detoxifying as far back as Pliny The Elder.
I smile as I read, instantly fifteen and back in a sweltering June classroom, doggedly translating Pliny (although it couldv’e been Younger), and dreaming of Glastonbury and escape.
The memory makes me like the plant even more. The summer I left Twycross (and turned sixteen) was completely enchanted – one long round of sunshine, festivals, parties and watching dawns break. I didn’t sleep in a bed for two months.
I tell my daughters the outrageous stories as we wander the lanes of Horley, hunting celandine. We find some tumbling down the Church-Lane side of St. Ethelreda’s, all the stalks shaped upwards like umbrella handles to lift the flowers to the sun.
‘They’re happy flowers,’ says Jess.
By far my favourite Celandine place is through Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and onto the Old Railway field. There’s a wide, shallow ditch beneath a Watership Down type ridge (and millions of rabbits). The ditch is edged by reeds, still brownish after the slow Spring, but in the centre of the ditch, hidden until you’re quite close up, runs an enormous swathe of Greater Celandine, defiantly, richly, brilliantly yellow; glowing and so pretty you have to stare for ages.
The thought drives me to my feet, and I whistle the dogs, call the children, pull on my wellies.
‘Somebody grab a key,’ I shout. ‘We’re going for a walk.’
I’m getting really irritated with my lack of Nature Knowledge. I come from farming and water-gypsy stock (my mum’s side), and I really ought to know better.
With that in mind, I now sally forth with mobile, poo-bags, puppy bribes and a flower book. I look like a tinker, my pockets bulge so much.
The new flower I find today is Garlic Mustard, which apparently has an aggressive habit. I immediately imagine it swathed in starched black and white, marching forth against beautiful, feckless bluebells.
It has other names – Jack In The Hedge (presumably with Jill), Hedge Garlic, Sauce Alone (Sleep Alone, too, I should think).
Garlic Mustard has tiny white flowers made of four petals in a sort of Maltese Cross. They cluster together at the end of long stalks, and their leaves look rather like glossy nettle leaves. The dogs and I are walking up The Clump, and the plant is thick under the newly-green hawthorns. I pick some to roll between my finger and thumb – my flower book says it should smell and taste garlicky. My sense of smell is hopeless, and I don’t want to eat it as it’s the perfect height for a peeing Labrador.
Apparently, people eat it in salads, and I think of my great-grandmother, ruling the world from the stern of her boat, sending my grandmother off to forage.
Farmers remove it from cows’ fields, as it taints the cows’ milk with garlic (handy, though, I should’ve thought, for bagna cauda).
I’m also advised it’s excellent for white butterflies, who lay their eggs beneath the leaves. It’s this thought that puts me off.
Popping butterfly eggs between my teeth.
The thought makes me grimace all the way home, my lower lip turned down in a way I know to be unattractive, but simply can’t control. Pop. Shudder.
I wimp out of the Garlic Mustard in our salad, and poke the lot through the wire to the Chickarockers. They gobble it down in a minute, crooning, then looking at me in expectation.
‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I say, remembering, too late, the problem it causes in cows.