I am perched on a stile in the sun, feeling its warmth on my black-clad legs, on my forehead, my hair. I close my eyes, tip back my face further, breathe in, breathe out. The children are crashing around in the covert further down; I can hear a blackbird scolding them. My daughters continue their secret mission, calling to each other in the American accents of their private play world. We’re in the Spring Field. The Sor Brook runs through the bottom of the valley, and Horley stretches cat-like over the hill beyond.
I can smell the resin of the spruces around me; the pureness of the cold air. I straighten my back, stretch out my arms, balance, imagine the sun soothing, heating; enlivening every inch of me. I don’t need to think, speak, react. Just be. Right here, right now. Blissful.
When I open my eyes, I’m smiling. Grinning out at a field of growing wheat. The dogs are pheasant-baiting and I can hear the children a way away, down the bottom of the field, maybe in the next. They can never stay away from the brook for long; it fascinates them, and they spend hours trying to cross it, dam it, wrestle from it any secrets or Signal cray it may carry.
I slide from my perch, looking for signs of life in the patch of mares tail. None yet, just last year’s exhausted stalks, bent and folded like articulated bones. I walk beside mole hills, arranged in a neat line beside the wheat margin, as if the moldywarp was asking for tolerance if he kept out of the crop. On the last of his hills, there’s a shard of glass, thrown on the very top like a sky-light. It’s thick, greenish, half the size of my palm. I imagine the mole wrestling with it, determined to eject it from his tunnel. I pick it up and nestle it into a fold of ivy around a fence post.
I reach the bottom of the field, hearing screams and crows of delight: the children have found a fallen tree across the water. They’ve crossed into a small copse, are inspecting a rogue clump of snowdrops with their sharpened spears.
‘You must see, Mummy, you must see.’
I clamber the fence, trespass with impunity born of life-long practice. The fallen tree is a spruce, mossed and slippery, but I cross it anyway, followed by Pants, wobbly on his long legs. We become a team of intrepids, and we fight our way through brambles and grasses to discover lofty bull-rushes and bogs and a bush with bright red bark that one daughter thinks might be flammable. She breaks some off and tries to put it in my pocket. ‘But Mum, it might set light in mine, and I need to Google it’. We decide it’s safer to put the twig in the brook, and we congratulate ourselves on disaster averted, a deadly danger diffused.
They’ve slipped back into their play voices now, and are deep in their world. I stand and watch a moment, listen. I could nip back to the sun, bask a while longer.
‘There’s snakes, y’all!’
I tamp down my smile, pick up a stout stick. Join in the play.
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?’
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.
The last town we drive through before reaching Cropton Forest is Pickering, the sign for which stirs uncomfortable memories. ‘Something odd,’ I murmur, but then I stop as the memory crystallises into shape.
Pickering. The last name of a brawny blonde labourer who always turned up at Young Farmers’. He was the one you had to snog at the end of a party if you hadn’t found anyone else.
‘What?’ says Stephen, as we drive over the crest of a hill. The North York Moors is suddenly rising before us.
‘Nothing! Golly! Look at the hill!’
Poor Master Pickering. I hope he’s happy, somewhere, not still cow-eyed and slack-jawed at the bar, hoping it’s his lucky night.
We’re winding through Cropton village now, dark-stoned houses with jolly orange-red roofs. The dogs are sitting up in the back, sensing the end of the long journey. The children have taken off their head-phones, bored with DVDs, and we all lean forward, peering from the car windows, searching for a signpost. The Sat Nav counts us down with smug efficiency.
I say for the hundredth time: I hope it’s going to be nice. We have bad form for British holidays, especially ones where we’ve taken the dogs. When the children were little, we never had any money, and we did everything on the cheap. We once took our German Shepherd (Archie) to Devon, and stayed in some tin-hut type chalet with the most terrible smell. It had black mould ringing the smeared windows, like eye-liner on an ageing raver, and human-hair balls beneath the children’s beds. The owner met us with the key, and to take our money (‘Cash only, dearie’). She had a blonde candy-floss beehive and insisted on telling us that the guests before us had left a giant poo in the middle of the floor. They hadn’t had a dog. As soon as she had gone, we ran to the on-site shop and bought three bottles of bleach, a mop and a scrubbing brush. Whenever we have tough times in our house, we always console ourselves that at least we’re not in the Tin Shack.
It’s starting to spit with rain with rain as we follow the signs and turn left into the woods. We drive up a rough Tarmac road, and a sign welcomes us to Forest Holidays. We pull up next to a house and courtyard area, all pointing and talking at once.
‘Go on, then,’ says Stevie, leaning back and shutting his eyes. ‘Go do your stuff.’
The children and I jump out, staggering as we shove our feet into trainers, trying not to squash the spears of new daffodils.
‘Look, Mummy! Bikes!’
The courtyard area has a bike-hire shop to the left, and those lovely chunky hard-wood tables and chairs up the centre. The weather has turned them that soft silver, and I briefly imagine sitting at one with a coffee and the paper. Reception is up a couple of steps, in the little on-site shop. We go in, and are instantly welcomed by a team of smiling out-doors types in green fleeces.
‘Hello,’ we say back. ‘Hello, hello.’
I sign us in as the children roam the shop, louder with each new discovery. ‘Pencils!’ ‘Jam!’ ‘Mummy! They Make Pizzas Actually Here!’
‘Anything you need, or want to know,’ I’m told. ‘You just need to ask.’
I can’t think of anything sensible, and we say thank you, thank you, and run back out to the car. We pile back in, waking Stephen up and sending the dogs scrabbling with excitement. Stevie starts the car and we roll slowly round the one way system, looking for our cabin. Cabin 29. We keep stealing little looks at each other. It’s so nice. All so nice. The cabins are arranged on a short of sprawling figure-of-eight, with plenty of space between each one. Smoke curling from chimneys tell of wood-burners, and quite a lot of smart cars are parked on the bends of the eight, away from the cabins themselves. A cock pheasant struts out in front of us as we climb a slight hill, and Pants erupts into a series of howls.
‘We know,’ we tell him. ‘We’re nearly there.’
We find Cabin 29, and race with the key. Ellie spends at least five minutes trying to open the door, sending the rest of us into orbit with frustration. Finally, she gets it open and we all crowd into the hall. It’s so warm, so clean and Scandi-style, like the very best sort of ski-chalet.
‘Dogs’ll be in here then,’ says Stevie. The children kick off their shoes (which they never do at home), and run into the living room. We hear their cries of delight and follow them in. There’s a big, curving sofa, big enough for all of us, and the whole of the back of the cabin facing the trees is glass.
‘Hot tub!’ we shriek. ‘And look at the fruit bowl, and the map, and we’ve got two loos – two loos darlings – and look at the lovely kitchen with gas, and oh my goodness, look at the picnic table and the woods and IT’S JUST ALL SO NICE.’
Stevie and I go into domestic mode, unloading the car, taking the dogs for a run (straight into the woods) un-packing everything, immediately, bustling with the kettle and making hot drinks.
A Forest Ranger with a pony tail comes to talk to us about heating and how to work the telly (which sorts out our Wifi), then gives us a whole load of brilliant places to go and visit.
‘You must go to Whitby,’ he says. ‘Best scampi in England. Seriously.’ We write a list as he talks, and he shows us where to go on our map. The children ask him about the pizza we can order.
‘We’ll go up to the shop, later,’ I say.
The ranger grins. ‘You can order it from your telly-‘ The children are in raptures.
Later that night, after we’ve stuffed ourselves silly, marked up maps, hot-tubbed and we’ve opened a bottle of wine, Stevie and I lean together on the long sofa. I tuck my feet up, away from Pants and his loving nibbling. Dora is fast asleep on the rug, exhausted by the car.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘This is going to be a brilliant week.’ Stephen is scrolling through the lists of films for the children. I nudge him. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘Going to be brilliant here. At Cabin 29.’
Stevie stretches out his arms and yawns loudly. He’s grinning, his face mischievous. ‘Yeah. It is. It’s all right, suppose.’ He gives me a sly look. ‘Just about beats the Tin Shack.’
I punch him, aiming for a dead-leg, and the children tell us to shush, just shush, they’re watching their film.
This is the second 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.
We’re walking up the Hornton Road – marching really. There’s a sly wind that keeps nipping rudely beneath my blue woollen skirt, and despite my stripy beanie, I’m cold. The dogs grumble as I drag them past favoured wee spots. From the Jackie Chan I can see sunshine spilling like treasure from behind the huge, dark holly tree on the edge of the churchyard.
We’re going so fast, I hardly pause at St Ethelreda’s horsechestnuts. Barely a week ago they were gorgeous; their leaves dipped in tumeric, in smoked paprika. But now their branches are bare and vulnerable, awkwardly crooked. A few mustardy leaves cling on, but the rest are on the pavement, rasping their exhaustion against my welly boots. I’m gone – I want to be over Bramshill, the panacea to the heavy black-poker pressure of stoves-in-before-Christmas.
It works every time. I perch on the stile, looking and listening; drinking deep of the peace. The frantic trapped-bird of my brain, that flutters and bashes against insolvable problems, finally begins to still.
Ahead of me, I can see the smart stripes of the new wheat, shooting pale-green through the rough stubble. That sly wind is ruffling its way through the beech woods now; the young beeches beneath me are are darkly copper in the sun, now sage, now dun. To my left curves the dark arm of the Scout Woods, and as I watch, the sun races across the grazing beneath the wood. For a moment, the distant grass is luminous; a glorious, wild, velvet emerald. Even as I reach for my phone, it’s gone, the magic raced onwards, beyond.
I slide down the stile, galumph down the slope, vault the fence to prove I still can. As I go through the spinney, I hear the clown-in-a-box laugh of the ducks from the ponds.
I whistle the dogs, climb out of the trees and slog up the long flank of the wheat field to the crown of the hill. I keep my head down, tucked away from the wind, keeping the moment when I reach the break in the hedge, and the valley spills before me; all for me to savour.
God, do I savour. I see brown-and-white cattle in the crease, the neat patches of maize, the biggest rhododendrons in the world surrounding the pheasant pens. And above it all, arching blue sky, strewn with sharp-edged clouds.
Pants, bored of my mooning, canons into my legs, then runs away laughing. I glare, but walk on. The stile onto Clump Lane is broken, its top bar loose from one side of its moorings. It’s lethal, crotch-wise, for anyone who puts their weight in the wrong place. I step over, careful of my sensible, thick tights.
We start walking up the Clump, towards Horley, the dogs weaving, play-fighting around my legs. I shout at them to go off, to go away, but then I shout to come on, faster, let’s go, come on. I’m chasing them up the hill, hooting to wind them up. My coat’s undone, my hat off. Warmed through. Happy.
Fear of weather is such an ancient, instinctive thing. I’m never scared of snow, rain or cold, but howling wind sometimes terrifies me beyond all logic.
All day I’ve watched the weather, feeling a nameless anxiety pinch at my heart. It’s freezing, and the wind is hurling itself around Horley like a vicious drunk – stripping magnolia brides, smashing the cups of tulips.
The dogs and I set out around half-two, both of them full of nervous energy, winding their leads around my legs, yapping at young leaves blown end-over-end along the lane. I shout at them and pull their leads to get them to heel, but two seconds later they’re launching themselves in opposite directions, and I haul them back. Through my general wind-induced bad temper, I’m aware of a flicker of something positive: hard to get bat-wings when you walk two dogs.
I stomp up the Jackie Chan, heading for The Clump, which I reason will at least be sheltered. Walking any of the meadows would be awful – the wind snatches at my cap, and shoves rude cold fingers up my jacket. It’s not May. It’s some dreadful mis-shuffle with the worst of March. A branch of lilac is torn free, and lands at my feet. The dogs leap on it, mangling the flowers, barking now. My eyes are stinging, my nose and mouth numb.
Outside St Ethelreda’s, there’s carnage. The wind is ripping free the blazing candles of the horse chestnuts, and I can hear the groan of the stiff old branches. There’s a lighter, skittering noise, like someone rifling a tray of bones; it’s the huge holly, shuddering on the corner of the graveyard.
I put my head down and march on, holding onto the dogs as if they were all that is sensible and rational.
I reach The Clump, and catch my breath, sheltered for a moment by the final fold in the hill to Hornton. I hesitate for a moment before letting the dogs go, but then tell myself off.
Of course there’s no malevolent spirit. Of course the dogs aren’t my protection.
I think of the stories of the Gytrash, and remember my own hell hound, with whom I was never frightened. For the millionth time: I miss him.
Arfa-Pants and Dora disappear in seconds, launching themselves into the banks of swaying cow parsley.
On my left is a field of rape, the flat light rendering the field a sickly yellow, liverish. Unwholesome.
I walk up The Clump, pulling faces and daring the wind to stick me. At the top of the first hill, I start to lose my nerve. Here, the wind has a run-up from one of the Taylors’ fields, and smacks full force into the side of The Clump. Great wands of sycamore spin down like shot game, and the noise is starting to hollow-out my head. It’s a low roar that I feel as well as hear – the resonance makes my guts shiver, my bones loosen, as if I’m about to fly apart in pieces. I clutch my jacket with both hands, and promise that the minute I reach the stone table, I’ll turn back.
I want my dogs to be here, in front of me, but the wind snatches my voice, renders my whistles and shouts puny and ridiculous. I keep my eyes up, scanning the branches of ash, of sycamore. Watching the treacherous elder, and knowing how suddenly they can fall.
I reach the stone table, tag it with my hand and turn for home, determined not give in, crumple up and hide in a badger hole.
Halfway back, I notice a gap in the hedge I’ve never seen before, about four yards wide. The wind has come through it as a solid thing, crushing flat the cow parsley and bluebells, ripping free their petals and sending them in a blue-cream swathe against the dried red-mud of the lane. I’m too afraid to cross. Both dogs are back with me now, fretting around my legs.
‘Go off!’ I shout. ‘Go on. Go off!’ But Dora just whines, and neither dog will go forward. A tiny, sensible part of my mind is telling me there’s nothing to be frightened of, but I am frightened, horribly. Every sense and nerve is at full-alert, telling me there is something evil, something there that will do me harm. The roar changes pitch around me, and I hear the rubbery squeak of two branches forced to move against each other. The light darkens still further, and I feel an awful desperation that spins me round to face whatever it is coming after me. The lane behind me is empty.
I swing back, just as the dogs dart forward. There’s a black cat, sat in the lane ahead. I’ve never seen it before, and it doesn’t move as the dogs pelt towards it. There’s a crack behind me, as distinct as a pistol-shot, and I run, flat-out, down the hill, as fast as I ever have.
Dora and Arfa-Pants are nowhere to be seen, but by my side is a black shadow, running with me as he always did. Keeping me safe.
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.
Dora and I did not escape the house last night until 7:45, by which time, we were both going crackers.
It took me a good five minutes of head-down marching before I even noticed I was still in my slippers. I didn’t dare go home to change in case Stevie said, ‘Thank God you’re back. I’m off to Nick-The-Brick’s.’
It took another five minutes for my shoulders to drop from round my ears, and to let the beauty and peace of the evening seep down my spine.
The sky behind St Ethelreda’s was the first thing I noticed – that beautiful unearthly grey-blue just before dusk proper. There were faint streaks of rose and gold, and birds appeared against it, briefly, blackly.
We walked up Hornton Lane, admiring the tête a-tête narcissus that everyone seems to have planted this year. Their prim neatness seems to make daffodils look gawky and unsophisticated, like leggy school-girls in their first night club.
Snowdrops are mostly over, flinging off their shrivelled petals and waving tiny bare stamens. Nothing very demure about them now.
We turned up Clump Lane, me picking my slippered-way over puddles. Dora shot off, intent on finding squirrels to murder. The light was playing tricks on ordinary colours – the clay of Clump looking its most vibrant orange.
Coming to the top of the hill, I bumped into a Handsome Horley Husband, and immediately tried to hide my feet and bat my eyelashes at the same time. He looked a little surprised, but we had a lovely conversation about the satisfaction of digging veg beds.
I was distracted by the beautiful view over towards the Scout Woods, and left my mouth on auto-pilot, which is always a worry. I tried frantically to remember what we’d been talking about – Spring? Mother-in-laws?
I hoped I’d not said anything inappropriate about beds, veg or otherwise.
A brace of duck called down in the valley, and I realised it was almost dark. Stevie would be dancing with frustration, eager to escape a Small Girl Sleepover party and reach the manly sanctuary of Nick-The-Brick’s.
‘I must go,’ I said regretfully.
Dora refused to leave the badgery-smelling garden of Bramshill Farm. I was too embarrassed to go in and get her. I waved the Handsome Husband good-bye, and slid off on my slippers, praying that Dora would notice and have some sort of female loyalty.
She caught me up at the end of Clump Lane, panting with the joy of her run, mouth wide in Jack Russell grin.
I grinned back, fussing her silly head. We turned for home, my red slippers livid in the half-light.