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. 

 

 

On North Yorkshire – Day 1 (‘Let’s Just Get There’)

One of the loveliest things about going on an English holiday (apart from not weighing suitcases), is taking the dogs with us. We’re off to North Yorkshire to stay in a cabin in the woods, where we will play Scrabble, walk until our shins are numb, and Embrace Nature.

‘Will there be bears?’ asks Ellie. We assure her that there will not. ‘Pity,’ she says.

It’s Monday morning, and we’re doing the usual stressy nightmare we do whenever we go away. Have-you-packed-the-torches-well-why-are-they-on-the-stairs-then, and I-thought-YOU-were-putting-diesel-in-the-car. This time though, it’s worse than ever, as we were out for Sunday lunch yesterday, and I haven’t packed anything. Not one thing. Worse still: three pairs of jeans (two of mine, one of Elle’s) are still in the tumble dryer. I don’t actually remember them until we’re roaring up the M40.

‘We’re not turning round,’ says Stevie. ‘Look. Let’s just get there, shall we?’

‘Fine,’ I snap. ‘I’ll buy leggings.’ He hates leggings. I shake out Sunday’s Telegraph and retreat behind it, muttering.

I sulk until the M1, but then I glimpse the pale face of Hardwick Hall up on its hill, and put down the paper. I say for the millionth time how lovely it would be to visit. Stevie rolls his eyes, but the atmosphere in the car has lightened; the holiday-feeling  working its magic. Yorkshire Moors! Sea-side! Hot tub!

As we pass Nottingham, the sun comes out. Blue scraps of sky are visible between the sullen March clouds. The blackthorn is starting to flower along the motorway – incongruous frills of white behind grey crash-barriers and bright orange rescue-phones. Here and there are clumps of just-flowering daffodils, and Stevie and I speculate how they came to be there.

‘Wild animals, birds?’ ‘Bulb-bombing truckers?’

The miles roll on, the children entranced by a DVD, the dogs silent in the boot like stowaways.

We join the A1 and marvel at the smoking giant chimneys of Ferrybridge.

‘Look Jess,’ says Stevie. He gestures to her to remove her ear-phones. ‘Cranes!’

Jess hums politely and replaces her earphones. Stephen and I exchange glances. Too grown up now, for cranes.

We go past York Racecourse, its huge glass stands glinting in the afternoon light, then we’re in the gentle sweeps of the Howardian Hills.

A sign comes up for Castle Howard, and I look at Stevie hopefully. He steadfastly ignores me for three miles, but then he crumbles, abruptly.

‘Fine,’ he says. ‘But only for two minutes, and we’re not going in.’ I have a wild moment, imagining leaping from the car and shinning the wall with the daughters and the dogs.

We pull off the A1 and drive past a giant monument inscribed with ‘The Earl of Carlisle’, but we can’t figure out exactly what the monument is for. It heads the top of a long avenue that undulates like a very long magic carpet. It’s bisected by huge stone walls, and I crane to see the main house. ‘I bet it’s amazing,’ I say. ‘Almost a Blenheim.’

The mysterious monument
The mysterious monument

‘Nowhere’s a Blenheim,’ shout the children.

We drive past yolk-yellow gorse, puffy fluffs of pale green goat willow. Then woodland; silver birch, larch, pine, ash. We see signs for an arboretum, but then we swing into Castle Howard’s car park, come to a stop beside its cricket pitch.

‘Look, look! It’s got a pavilion and everything, and they’ve got a wicket like Horley-‘

Everyone explodes from the thick air in the car and we run about, whooping, playing tig and shouting instructions at the dogs and abuse at each other. Then we put the dogs and Stephen back and head towards the signs that say Farm Shop. We walk into what was once the courtyard for the stables, and it’s the nicest place.

We visit the bookshop, the gift shop and the loo, and we buy three Castle Howard Pencils. The lady behind the till is endlessly patient as the children and I squabble over colours.

We finally settle (one yellow, one green and Jess buys a rubber), and whiz to the farm shop. It’s groaning with delicious things, and I hugely regret my grand statement that this holiday, I shall not be shackled to a handbag.

Playing tig on Castle Howard's cricket pitch
Playing tig on Castle Howard’s cricket pitch

‘I only grabbed a couple of pounds,’ I say. The children look appalled. They’d spotted tremendous cake.

‘We’ll just ask Daddy to get out of the car-‘ says Ellie. I shake my head, not holding out much hope. The children run ahead, and I arrive back at the car just as he says it: Where’s Your Bloody Mother? and Let’s Just Get There.

I wave my hands at the daughters’ chorus of disappointment.

‘Fine,’ I say. ‘It’s fine. Be calmed. Calm.’ I look at Stephen, who’s reversing before we’ve all got our seatbelts on. He accelerates and I look back at Castle Howard, its intricate roof-line indistinct behind the winter trees.

‘It’s a fabulous place,’ I say. ‘A day’s worth place, not a snatched half-hour. We’ll plan it properly for the summer and we’ll bring a picnic in the hamper.’

The gates of Castle Howard. The nearest I got - this time.
The gates of Castle Howard. The nearest I got – this time.

‘And a book each,’ says Jess, thoughtfully. ‘In case there’s cricket, and Daddy starts watching.’

I turn round in my seat, looking North to Cropton Forest. If this is a taste of Yorkshire, we think we’re going to like it here.

 

 

This is the first of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

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.