On Walking: Monday 26th May

I am walking through the margins in the fields below the dryer, where the grass reaches my mid-thigh, and soaks my jeans above my wellies. I’m walking very slowly, suddenly noticing that there’s a world around me, and that it’s changed completely from the last time I looked.Dora the Jack Russell Terrier

I have been finishing a book, and for the last two months or so, have thought of little else. The book has been sent away now, to Judith, my agent, and I feel as if I’m returning from someplace I can’t explain.

Stevie is relieved it’s over, and both children seem to have grown an inch or so.

But it’s the land that has really changed; the earth has warmed up, and you can smell summer on the air. Down in Bra Corner there’s a clump of pink campions, flowering as high as my hip, and nettles, growing even higher. The Sor Brook is low and slow; its depths bronzed in the sunlight. The sheep on the other bank blare at the dogs, and their half-grown lambs stamp impudent feet.

I drift onwards, catching my fingers through the lacy heads of cow parsley. Hogweed grows along this part of the margin, and a single stem has shot past its mates as if to compete with the rape. The flowers are a deeper cream than the froth of cow parsley, and its stems far more sturdy.early hogweed and oil seed rape

Knowing I shouldn’t, but unable to resist, I float up the field to Ellie’s fallen oak. I have to flatten nettles and a few very green thistles  in order to jump up. I’m awkward and land heavily; two months of intense writing have given me a fat bottom. I vow to jog.

Its hot up here; I take off my jumper to sit in my vest. Dora sits by my side; Pants is nowhere to be seen. Twelve inches from my right is a dead fieldmouse, recently decapitated. It’s tucked into a kink in the rough bark of the oak, ignored even by flies.

Last year’s stickybuds still scrawl a net over this year’s hawthorn, and I examine the leaves beside my face. The new stems of the hawthorn are dark pink, the tips of the new leaves are a darker scarlet, like the innards of the poor mouse. A tiny caterpillar clings to one leaf; it is black and white with a scarlet spine (I later find it will be a hawkmoth). We’ve seen so many caterpillars this week; the children and I use dock leaves to scoop them off the tarmac of the lane. I don’t let the children keep them in jars, after childhood horrors of cooking a dozen ladybirds to death in the sun.

I finished writing the book on Friday, almost three days ago. I know I won’t hear any feedback until the third week of June, and that I must absolutely not start messing about with it before then.  But I can’t help that terrible feeling of vertigo that I seem to get after finishing every book; that I must start the next, or I might forget how to do it.

I gaze across the valley to the Scout Woods. I can see the tips of the larches against the sky; dark green and pointed; a mountain range that surely must be much further away. The chimneys of the village are to my right. I can hear children playing, and the engine of a tiny red tractor in the opposite valley. This is the start of the half-term week, and I’ve promised the daughters park-trips and swimming; friends to play, picnics and French cricket.

Pants emerges to lay his head on my lap. His brown, speckled coat is greenish yellow, he has pollen furring his eyelashes and a blade of meadow foxtail caught in his collar. Dora tries to push her head beneath my arm, jealous of the fuss.

I’ve sat here for so long that my bum must be ridged red and white by the bark. I jump down, landing squarely on both feet. ‘Home,’ I tell the dogs. ‘Home.’

It’s early afternoon, the children are still away at a friend’s house. I’ve tried not to – I’ve really tried not to – but in my head I’m already typing: Chapter 1.

On Walking: Thursday 18th September

Today, walking down the Banbury Road, I notice the leaves on the limes are curling and starting to drop. The heavy green boskiness of late summer is beginning to lighten; the trees are beginning to draw into themselves. The banked lushness of comfrey has withered, the plants collapsing inwards, and the nettles have never been more beautiful. The smaller, higher leaves are a splotched bright green; the larger leaves are a peachy-pink, their veins and edges black, as if  inked in by a child.

Nettles

I can see through the verge now, to the secrets held in the wide, sandy-earthed ditch behind. The orange pixie-posts of Lords and Ladies stand beside the re-emerging crowns of primulas. Puff ball fungi swells in the dampest hollows beneath the trees.

It’s hot; the Indian summer warmth has amplified the smells of Autumn; leaf-litter, sheep-shit, elderberries, tarmac. I practically skip down the Banbury Road, it makes me so happy.

By the road bridge, I turn right, into the fields below the dryer. The margins have been cut, and the fields look at once bigger and smaller. They are roughly brown, stubble poking through at odd angles, and I wonder what’s been planted, what will soon start to grow. Pants circles off in search of deer, and Dora inspects and pees upon every single black mound of fox poo.

I reach the bridge to Emma’s meadow and eye the cows. They eye me back, barely ten yards from where I’m standing. I whistle the dogs, and turn left, down to Bra Corner. The closely-cut margins make for blissfully easy walking.

I haven’t walked here since the start of summer, but it’s like rediscovering something precious; the heap of stricken alder, covered in thick moss (must remember, for Christmas and the mistletoe ball), the rioting cricket willow. Pants still growls at the upturned roots of a tree, its bark rotted and its wood bleached dirty white, like giant bones.

The Sor Brook is quiet, unhurried. It’s loud for most of the Winter and Spring, foam trembles in its rushing tea-brown eddies. Now though, it’s palest amber in the sun-dampled shallows, darkly green in its depths. It slides slowly past, almost silent; serene.

Oak gall
An oak gall

Dead dry thistles and hogweed straws rustle beneath my boots. I walk on beneath old friends; the sweet chestnut with its glossy, scissor-cut leaves, the alder with its golden grace. Then to one of my favourites, an oak beneath which narcissus grow in the Spring.  It has hardly any acorns this year, the gall wasp has turned them all to odd round, dry, marble-type things.

I go on, and the secret passage is in front of me, strapped with brambles, prickling with blackthorn. I look at the defences consideringly, and eat a blackberry.
The dogs go through but I turn and walk up beside the hedge. Autumn needs to do its work here, then the deer will return. I pinch another blackberry, walking with my face to the sun. Some secrets, I decide, can be saved for another day.

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

 

 

On North Yorkshire – Day 3 – North York Moors

I’ve got this thing about landscape and resonance and connection, and the call of the moors is as strong as that of the sea. I want to go and walk, and listen, feel, look, be.

‘Such a bloody weirdo-‘  says Stevie. But he agrees to drive wherever I decide and to find us the barest, most forsaken bit of moor possible. ‘And then this afternoon,’ he says. ‘We do the forest mountain biking.’

I try not to think of the seat-bone agony to come, and instead whip out my map. As we drive, I try to tell the daughters about great dramas on moorland, but can only remember snippets of  Bronte and King Lear. I’m pretty sure Macbeth involved a fair bit of moorland too, but I don’t think any of them had a particularly jolly time. I don’t feel they communed (Lear may have wailed a bit).

Happily, my ideas of moorland have been shaped by Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome – I think of it as a place to range free, without grown ups and with plenty of pemmican and chocolate.

We decide to go without the tyranny of Sat Nav and I sit very upright, my finger on the map, directing us out of Cropton. I get a little bit carried away with the sense of adventure, and we leave the sensible A169 to career off down narrow, hair-pin tracks.I mean us to go to Cockayne Ridge, but somehow, inexplicably, we end up on Danby High Moor.Danby High Moor, North Yorkshire (2)

From the bubble of our car, we admire vistas and point out glimpses of farms down in the valleys. The colour scheme is very pleasing – all duns; bark-brown heathers, ochre moss, grasses the colour of milky tea. But it’s not until we get out that we can feel the place.  The wind snatches our breath, unclips our hair, numbs our cheeks. It gets in our ears, our noses, buffetting our brains clean and leaving us with the faintest taste of the North Sea.

Stephen has parked the car just off the grey satin ribbon of road and we stand across it, our arms outspread. The moor demands that we bend to the forces at work, that we recognise its elemental power. It’s impossible to stand still, the wind won’t let us, and we run whooping from the road and down a quad track. Pants and Dora are insanely happy, intent on unknowable missions,  almost frantic in their need to discover, to know. They send up black grouse every few seconds, barking as the birds whirr low over the ground, their red heads target-like.

Dora, rabbitting
Dora, rabbitting

The Moors are covered in tracks like these, unsigned mostly, and we’re careful to remember the path we take. The ground upon which we’re walking has been compacted by sheep, skeins of their wool are caught on bushes of stunted gorse. To either side of us are shallow mossed arbours, springy and soft underfoot, as if walking on velvet eiderdown. Reed-like grass grows in thick, brazen clumps, bleach blonde with mousey roots.

After twenty minutes, our eyes are watering and the children are asking for hot chocolate from the flask. We head back to the car, looping around blackened heather.

‘A fire?’ says Ellie, doubtfully. We tell her about men burning with big gas torches, so the grouse can eat the new shoots. She wanders off, mid-sentence.

We leave the dogs out free whilst we huddle back in the car with the flask and a lump of cake each.

Dora is in  rabbiting-mode, snuffling ecstatically along tiny pathways made for a her jack-rat legs. She’s much happier than she was in the rock pools of Robin Hood Bay.Danby Low Moor, North Yorkshire (4)

Our car windows are down so we can whistle if any cars come, and we can hear the faint calls of sheep on the wind, the peculiar music of wind up our exhaust.

The landscape makes me think of all my favourite childhood textures; close crop of the old snooker table, my dad’s corduroy trousers, the tweedy roughness of hemp sacks in the derelict cowshed.

We finish our drinks, but we still don’t leave. The fells are crossed with the uneven zips of stonewalls, and we can’t see any road but the one we’re on, just occasional beads of cars running along the landscape. Down below, in the valley, we can see copses of un-tellable trees, their bare arms like upended witches’ brooms.

Eventually, the children start talking about mountain-biking, and what colour bikes they might have, and anyway, Mum, how far is it to Dalby Forest? Stephen forcibly requests the use of Sat Nav, and then we’re whistling the dogs, driving away towards the A171.

Stephen looks at me as we turn onto the main road.

‘Happy?’ he says. ‘Did you be?’

‘A little,’ I say. ‘But I’m going to have to come back to be sure.’

Pants!
The Silly Pants! Oh Dog of Little Brain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the fourth 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.

PS. Thank you to my American friend, and his prod of ‘Get on with it!’

On Walking: Wednesday 6th November

There’s a certain twisted pride to be had, in wet-weather walking. A grim-faced relish  in stumping across lethal, greasy fields, and through sodden, thigh-high grasses.

Today we are walking through Dave’s bottom fields, and it is raining in a drizzled, irritable way, as if the clouds just can’t be arsed. The sky is the dirty white of an old sheep’s fleece, and the wind is blowing the rain sideways. Upwards, too, it feels like. Up beneath my Oxford Shooting cap, or down (horribly)  my neck, making short work of my flowered green scarf.

The dogs and I forge on, sticking to the margins of the fields to avoid the worst of the mud. Pants is his normal loopy self, but Dora is close by my heels. Too close – I occasionally catch her chin with my heel.

Peachy November grass
Peachy November grass

The rain pushes me deeper into my thoughts, which is good, because instead of mooning at trees, I’m thinking about European politics, and whether the Common Purpose people are goodies or baddies, and will they sue me if I use them in fiction? I think about it for the whole length of the Dryer field, then again in the next, the one before Emma’s Bottom Meadow.

At the far corner, I stop for a moment, surprised. The chlorophyll in the grasses has dropped to such a level, that in the rain-dim light, the grasses appear a peachy-pink coral. I’ve never noticed it before, and it’s particularly strange when set against the dead Angelica – its seed-heads black with rot. I frown at it for a moment, distracted from my plot. Why’ve I never noticed this before? Is it because grass is so rarely left uncut?

I thrash onwards, my jeans soaked to the hem of my jacket. Even Pants has become more subdued now, and he’s covered in reddish mud. There’s a fat Springer in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and the dogs are so dispirited, they don’t even bother to go and say hello.

Cheer up, I tell them. I scrape uselessly at my knackered Hunters, pushing cold mud through the holes and onto my feet. I add such discomfort to my shield of rain-martyrdom.

Jolly up, dogs, I say, hauling them along. At home there’s a fire, and dry towels, and a biscuit. Come on, lickety-split. Let’s march. I thrill to the spiteful squall that hurls wet leaves in my face. Weather. I am a country housewife. Thou shalt not defeat me.

On Walking: Thursday 3rd October

It’s raining, and I’m walking over Dave’s bottom fields, peering out from under my cap. I’m already hoarse from shouting; there’s cow muck flung all over the stubble and Pants feels he must roll in it. I do not share this feeling. I chase him as if in a dream – my legs are moving, but he out-paces me so easily, I may as well not bother.

I’m distracted from my impotency by a new foot bridge. It’s three planks wide and has a handrail, so no more falling off into the sinister swathes of Bella Donna. Apparently, the council arranged for it to go in, which lifts my mood slightly. I’d far rather pay for footbridges than pointless mowing.Arfa Pants past the new foot bridge, Dora in the distance

We reach Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and I turn left, heading away from the village. Dora disappears into the stream and Arfa Pants follows  with a great splash, thank goodness. I encourage him back in to get rid of eau d’cow.

As I walk on, I spot some pinkish-purple clover, which my nature books insists is red.  It also informs me that red clover is useful for menopause. That word annoys me. I’ve recently learnt it’s French, from Greek, and I can’t help wondering what we called it before. Having said that, perhaps we never lived long enough to find out.

I keep going, thinking of things ending, of beards starting. Might I grow a beard? I imagine myself as an old lady, menopause a distant point behind, still stumping round the meadows of Horley. I think I’ll be one of those tough, stringy old birds with compost making dark crescents in my fingernails, and dog hairs all up my sensible navy trews. I don’t suppose I’ll care much on the beard front, although I shall care muchly if I lose my reading glasses or if I can’t hear the news on my radio.

My thoughts start to turn a bit dark, and I’m distracted by the leaves of the willow around my feet. They’re beautiful; some a pale lemon, others a rich yellow splashed with brown, like an over-ripe banana. Looking up at the willow branches, some as bare as wands, I see next year’s buds are already nubbed into the stems.

Such preparation for rebirth and Spring cheers me, and I pull down my cap against the rain, whistle my dogs.