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: Thursday 15th May

I’m stumping lop-sided down the Banbury Road, in one of those irritable, finickity moods where everything is annoying, and nothing is right. The dogs are pulling too hard, and I glare at a passing BMW that doesn’t move over enough.

It’s my first proper walk since I went up Cat Bells in the Lakes, and gave myself a stupid, stupid shin-splint. It’s far worse than the ones I normally get from skiing in cheap boots, and it’s put me in a filthy temper for nearly three weeks.

I can at least walk now though, and I’m heading to Dave’s fields beneath the dryer, because it’s the least amount of hillage. Everything has changed since I last came this way, and I feel hassled, as if I’d had a part to play, but missed my cue and now the production is sweeping on without me. All down the road, creamy hawthorn blossom froths onto  lacy white heads of cow parsley; garlic mustard, pink campions and gangling dead-nettle compete against lofty forests of nettles.

There’s a huge, soft clump of gentle comfrey to my right, and I glare at it as I grump past. Knit-bone. Get out of the hedge and make yourself into a poultice. I stump on, feeling fat and hot and at odds.

I reach the bridge and let the dogs off their leads. They leap the ditch – no water now, just dark, blackened mud – and fly off to the Sor Brook. I pause a moment, to look up into the oak. Its canopy is newly, perfectly green. Each leaf is cut clear and precise; Jianzhi art against the blue sky. There’s no wind down here, and I’m suddenly aware of a wood pigeon, calling its sleepy coo-chicoos. I blink and look at the wheat, then across the brook to the sheep with their half-grown lambs. Then I take off my jumper, slinging it on the hawthorn to collect on the way home.

The dogs crash through the grass of the margins, Dora making me smile at her meerkat impressions. We reach the secret passage – overgrown now, with cow parsley, nettles. Hidden by a vast bank of hawthorn.  We slide through the entrance and  in the bend by the brook-bank, I see a clump of sweet violets. They are flowering beautifully, deeply purple, as if they waited just for me.

By the time we reach the corner of the far field, my sourness has washed away. My knees are soaked from the long grass, and I’m fascinated by the lightening-quick spiders that dart ahead of my boots. I look up, and see a bra hanging from the willow at the edge of Horley’s stream, where it meets the brook. The bra’s been knocking around this corner of the field since early Spring, but someone – a well-meaning granny, or delighted school-boy – has hung it up as lost property or a trophy.

When El and I first saw it, weeks ago, Ellie had been scornful. ‘Why would you take your bra off in a field?’ Hoping to distract her, I said it could’ve been stolen. ‘But why?’

‘Head wear?’

Ellie gave me a dark look. ‘Weirdos.’

I’m smiling now, remembering, and the dogs and I walk up the field, next to the loud busyness of the stream. There’s cattle in Emma’s meadow, so we carry on walking the margin round, parallel with the village. Ellie’s poor fallen oak is ahead of me, and I think for a moment how lush it would be to sit on it in the sun, and look out over the valley. But I’ve emails, editing, estimates to type, floors to be mopped, baskets to plant. I’m still listing my To-Do’s as I sneak along the hedge, kick flat a few nettles, make a mighty leap for the top of the trunk. For a moment I scrabble, so horribly unfit – but then I’m up, straight-backed and grinning; the meadows spread beneath me like Gaia’s prize.

In our family vernacular, it’s an Innisfree moment. It means a perfect moment in place and time that makes sense of the world, and allows you greater freedom and understanding than you’d have ordinarily. It’s from Yeats, and one of the lines is ‘Peace comes dropping slow’. I feel that now – my fists unclenching, my joints loosening, limbs lengthening. I shake out my digging-in hair slide, lift my face to the warmth of the  sun.

I can smell the rankness of elder, hear the plaintive wail of a lamb. The dogs are sat, patiently waiting at my feet, and the three of us watch the perusals of a butterfly – white, with orange tips.

I drink my fill of that peace; let my shoulders grow hot, my mind grow still. The oak beneath me is slightly spongy with rot. I place my fingers flat against it, imagining it how many rings run beneath me, how many summers it stood through, before it fell.

After a while, I slide down, and the dogs get up, looking at me expectantly. ‘Home,’ I tell them. At the smaller of the Billy Goat bridges, I bury my nose in hawthorn flowers. I’ve recently read that they smell like dead bodies, but I can’t tell. To me they smell of the freedoms of my childhood; the lawlessness of North Warwickshire. They remind me of midnight walks, endless quests with no grownups, no paths, no rules.

I wind my way back through the fields to the Banbury Road, collect my jumper. The road is busier now, the school-run mummies belting past.

I raise an arm, wondering what they must think of me: potty dog-walker woman, limping with blossom in my hair, my phone stuffed down my cleavage like a call-to-arms.

They drive past too close, but I just smile and wave, blissed out.

 

From Ellie's Oak 2

 

 

Dog Walking – Meadows – 18th April

Oh! I’ve missed so much!

I’ve been at the London Book Fair this week, and then either racing the dogs round in the dark, or walking with lovely friends who stop me nature-gazing because we’re chattering too much. Ace for gossip, rubbish for my diary.

Utterly stuffed for time today, so Dora and I walked across Dave’s fields to the  Bottom Meadow. The wheat is just starting to come up through the heavy brown earth, and I can’t believe something so delicate can survive the ferocious squally wind. We pass a tiny velvet shrew on the path, and I want to stop to pick it up and take it to a hedge, but I don’t dare. It stands more chance of life with hawks around than it does if Dora were to notice it. I run on, just in case, and slip in the mud. Luckily no one around.

We reach the bridge between Dave’s fields, and someone’s broken the handrail. I wobble it, trying to figure out how it happened, and imagine a vastly wide rambler must’ve taken it out with their bum.

Over the next bridge, into Hamer’s Bottom Meadow, and a giant English Pointer bounds joyfully up to Dora and squashes her flat. Dora bristles but thankfully doesn’t snap. I’m blinded by my hood and the driving rain, but I just see Alison Carr being towed into sight by her golden Labrador puppy.

‘Bertie!’ she calls to the Pointer. Bertie rolls his eyes and rollocks off with Dora, both of them impervious to the rain and flirting like mad.

I realise Alison’s going the same way as me, but my brain’s stuffed with work, and I can’t think of a sensible line of conversation. Thankfully, she can, and we talk about dogs all the way back to the village.

We say goodbye, and I think how funny; despite sharing a dinner table, that’s the most we’ve ever spoken. I’m usually drunk and disorderly when I see her, once a year, at the village Progressive Dinner. I remember behaving dreadfully and eating lemon torte at her house once, and then Stevie and I wading through acres of gravel drive to get back to the pub. I had to wade back up it again the next morning to leave a thank you card, feeling like death. I kept thinking of Matthew Henry – He whose head is in Heaven, need to not fear to put his feet in the gravel.

I’m walking home as the sun breaks through, and suddenly the whole village is bathed in brilliant light and the sky is abruptly blue, as if the violent rain had never been. I put my hand to my hair to see if it’s wet, or if I just imagined it. Definitely wet, rats-tails style.

I’m just wondering how far down my cheeks my mascara may have run, when a handsome Daddy from the next village sweeps past in his Audi, blaring sports commentary. I’m too embarrassed and dishabille to wave, so I quickly study a budding willow, and pretend not to see him.

Oh vanity! This is why I have a reputation for being rude.