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 Dog Walking – Saturday 29th April

Sometimes, if a thousand tiny things click into place, a dog walk can become a memory so precious, it epitomises something too huge to put into words. I realise that sounds a bit pretentious, but I can’t think of how else to put it.

Ellie and I went walking on Saturday evening, and we were only going to whiz the block, because Ellie was desperate to watch The Voice. But when we reached the gate to Roger’s Field, Ellie hung off it, frowning.

Dog walking, Apr 13.
Dog walking, Apr 13.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought there’d be the sunset.’

‘Too early, my love. Get off the gate, let’s go. Dor! Dora-‘

‘Can’t we just go to the Sledging Field?’

She had the same querulous tone she’d had all day, just dying for a fight. So unnerving. Ellie is like a bad-tempered show-pony. Beautiful to look at, but lashes out without warning. She climbed the stile with poker legs, and stalked off up the track. Distracted by pale primroses (lemon laced on the edges with a pastelly pinky-peach), I didn’t follow immediately.

But this is where it happened – a kind of creeping joyousness, stealing over us like magic from a cauldron.

Ellie turned to me as I climbed the stile, her face alight. ‘Mummy!’ she said. ‘Let’s just keep going.’

The light had turned to mellow gold, painting the sledging hill emerald green. We could hear the laughing of the ducks down on the old Carp Ponds, and a blackbird sang in the spinney next to us, almost unbearable in its sweetness. Ellie started running down the hill, Dora at her heels, and I wished I could just hold my hands out and stop that moment, and lock it in my heart forever.

‘Mummy! Look-‘ She’d found a patch of daisies, about as big as a dustbin lid, all tightly closed against the coming of the night. They looked more pink than white against their cushion of grass.

Wriggling through the spinney, we could see into one of Dave’s fields, planted with oil seed rape. I ducked beneath a shattered ash, and looked up just to see a shock of yellow in the green – the first flowering of rape I’ve seen this year. But I couldn’t stand for long, Ellie and Dor were out of the spinney and haring up Ross’ field on the other side.

‘Why are you laughing?’ she said, when I finally caught her up. I bent over, trying to squash stitch back into my body.

‘Because I’m happy,’ I said, between gasps. She ran at me and swung round my neck to give me a kiss. ‘When I’m a farmer,’ she announced. ‘I’m going to have fives ewes and a ram. But they won’t be sexing all the time.’

We crossed Ross’ set-aside and the view on the other side of the hedge caught me, as always. The very tip of North Oxfordshire and the very bottom of Warwickshire, all rolling hills with Hornton tucked in its folds like treasure.  It’s the view to look at when you feel hopeless, or exhausted, or you’ve just bounced your mortgage for the last two months. A view in which to escape, and understand context.

We reached Clump Lane and more loveliness awaited us. Ellie and Jess invented a secret path, years ago, when they could barely toddle, and Ellie went to climb up to it, as always.

‘Mummy!’ she called. ‘You have to come up here. Right now.’

A bluebell had flowered. She knelt on the damp ground, her hands gently holding up so I could see. ‘That’s what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?’

I thought I might burst. Or cry, so instead I sang, and we danced up the lane singing the Romeo and Juliet song the children are obsessed with.

When we reached the end of Clump, the golden light had gone and it was dusk. The Voice was probably half way through, but we’d reached that place of high, silly nuttishness that doesn’t care about anything but right here, right now. The daffodils nodded yellow heads to us as we quick-stepped home, and my daughter swung from my hand, yelling, ‘Juliet marry me, then we’ll never be alone-‘

We both waved to every single passing random in their cars, their surprised or grumpy faces making us laugh even harder.