On Walking: Tuesday 11th February

Horley, taken from Spring Field
Horley, taken from Spring Field

This morning there was rain and sleet, and this afternoon, there is bright sunshine and blue skies. I’m slogging my way up Spring Field, and I’m wearing far too many layers. Spring Field is on the opposite valley to Horley, and has been left as stubble over the winter, which means it’s now covered in early flowers. Everywhere I look, there’s something unfurling into tentative colour: scraps of blue speedwell (Veronica), tiny finger-gloves of pink Hemp nettle. There are also clumps of what I think might be heartsease, like a wild viola, although its gorgeous brave yellow and purple faces are yet to appear.

Pants shares my love for this field, and loons around in huge circles, silly ears flapping. Dora is not so keen. Tiny streams are pouring through the heavy orange soil, and she stops every few seconds to shake out her feet. By the time I reach the muck-heap in the top corner, Dora is nowhere to be seen. I stop trying to photograph a plant with tiny white flowers (what are you, dammit?) and stand and shout. Pants leaps around, as if to say, ‘I’m here! Pick me!’ but there’s no sign of Dora.

‘Rat!’ I shout, against the wind. ‘Bloody dog!’ I whistle too, but still nothing. And then I lose my breath, and fear closes my throat. I can see her, in her yellow fluorescent coat, trotting steadily through the mud of the neighbouring field, back the way we came, heading straight for the Banbury Road.

I’m far too far away to run to get her – I can’t run anyway, the mud sucks at my boots like some living thing, desperate to consume me. I shout again, uselessly, starting to slip and slide down the hill. I fumble my mobile from my pocket, ring Stevie.

‘Get in the car,’ I say. ‘Dora’s on the road-‘

Pants is barking, thinking this is all some brilliant new game. She must’ve reached the double gates by now, just before the Sor Brook bridge.  There’s a green truck with a horsebox rattling down the hill from Horley. I freeze, terrified I won’t see it come out the other side of the bridge. But I do,  it accelerates up towards the Warwick road. I start to run, clumsily, my boots sliding out from under me.

‘Dora! Dor!’ I think about the time she ran out in front of Dr Nicely-Tightly, or when she ran up the Wroxton Road, a queue of five cars behind her. Thank God for the fluorescent jacket – worth all the piss-taking as long as it keep the silly animal alive.

I skid down to the gate, and see her, just as she slips under the first of the double gates. She’s at least two hundred yards away.

‘Stop!’ I bellow, raw-voiced. ‘Just bloody stop!’ She does, just as a skip lorry thunders past.

I call again, forcing my tone to jolly-fun ‘come-on-then-darling-isn’t-this-a-lark!’ and thank God she responds. She starts coming towards me, just as my phone rings.

‘I can see you both,’ says Stevie.

‘Sorry,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry darling. I thought it was curtains-‘

And I can’t shout at her now, because she came to me, and she’s wagging her stump of a tail as if expecting a pat. I clip on her lead and ruffle her head, before turning her round and marching back into the Spring Field. I’ve bulbs to inspect, and views to record.

We march through the mud, lickety-split. Passive-aggressive dog-walking with a rictus grin. But then a clump of dark-edged green leaves catch my attention, with one single tiny purple and yellow flower. Heartsease, flowering after all.

Hemp nettle in the Spring Field
Hemp nettle in the Spring Field

Speedwell, with the smallest scraps of blue flowers

On Walking: On Hunting

We’re heading up over to the Orchard Field, and Pants and Dora are swinging and straining on their leads.  They’ve caught the scent of the hounds who lolloped through the village yesterday, leaving their big paw prints over the wide grass verges. Dora’s father was a Hunt Terrier, and I wonder if the scents provoke any ancient instincts. I hold her lead tightly, in case she shoots off down a drain.

The rain is falling in an unfriendly curtain, and I can barely see out from my hood. I fit my boots in semi-circular divots left by the horses, and wonder what glory was to be had, riding to hounds on a grim, grey Wednesday in North Oxfordshire.

The topic of hunting makes my heart race. It makes people so incredibly angry – far more than illegal deer hunting, or mole-trapping (which makes me FURIOUS), or dog-fighting.

I’m ambivalent about foxes. I’m not very good at killing things. But I’ve been around chickens most of my life, and as a child, I remember my mum picking up the poor, headless bodies of the pullets in the side paddock, putting them in a black plastic sack. She had tears coursing down her face, and was shaking with rage. I had that same rage, twenty years later, when I caught a fox half-in, half out of my chicken pen, one summer’s dawn. My birds woke me with a tremendous noise and I shot outside in my knickers, then chased the fox (a whopping dog) out of our garden and across the cricket pitch. I was so angry I didn’t feel any pain in my bare feet, nor care that any early walkers would have seen me; breasts bouncing, buttocks wobbling – streaking and shrieking, ludicrously waving a gardening trowel. If I’d have caught that fox, I’d have squashed it flat, shoved it in the van and driven into Banbury for it to live outside Iceland and be urban.

But to be honest, I’m not at all sure that general anti-fox hunting feeling has anything to do with foxes. I was at the school-bus stop yesterday, when the Warwickshire came up the Wroxton Road. Every single one of the women I stood with made hissing noises and took a step back into Bob and Brenda’s driveway. The Huntsman waved and called hello, and the hounds were merry and controlled, but still the others didn’t call hello, just shrunk back further. I stood alone, with my phone camera, grinning, loving the ancient treat of seeing horses and hounds trot briskly past in the rain.

When they’d gone (the last rider was a lady, who looked as if she were wearing an old Scout tent) I asked the others why they didn’t like them. There were mutterings about hounds meeting the school bus on the bends, and horses shouldn’t be on roads at school-bus times, and that they think they can ride where they like, and they don’t shut gates. No one mentioned foxes.

‘Bunch of knobs,’ came the last comment, and we hastily turned the conversation back to types of dining chair. But how interesting.

And then there’s my own thoughts on hunting. I went out as a child in the late eighties with Pony Club chums, and frightened myself silly, but I still love the whole glamour and bravery of the thing. I have all sorts of unsuitable crushes on men in tweed jackets with shiny-topped boots, and my heart races ridiculously when I hear the horn, or the shoes of trotting horses clipping past. I’d love nothing more than to be at the back, giving the fences and ditches a go, spitting mud out of my mouth, swigging a hip flask behind a blackthorn copse. I don’t want to kill a fox, though. Or see a fox being killed. In fact, I’d like to take foxes out of the equation altogether.

We reach the Orchard Field and I let the dogs go as I stand beneath the little oak. Mid-wee, Pants suddenly does his funny half-collapse before going on point, and I start running to catch him before he mullers the cat from Meadowsweet Farmshop, next door. But I’m far too slow. He’s off like a rocket, bendy rubber-toy body flying over the yellowed goose-grass. Dora goes after him, a second bullet, complete with yapping. They’re heading towards the spinney, away from the farmshop – it’s too far – the cat won’t stand a chance. I dash the rain from my eyes, reach the top of the hill.

I see their quarry; it’s getting away and I stop shouting and laugh, my breath coming in heaves. Not a poor little cat. A bloody great fox.  Go Pants, go. Point it towards Banbury.

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.

The Carol Service – 22nd December 2013

We spill out of our house, noisy and chattering, calling ahead and behind – have we got everybody? Are we all here? Stevie and Weaze are still in the house, ostensibly sorting the dogs. Really, topping hip flasks.

We’re going up the hill towards St Ethelreda’s, where the children are in the Nativity: El is Mary and Jess is The Star. We’ve all been drinking port and eating Warwickshire Extra Strong, and an amazing Oxford Blue with home-made quince jelly. All apart from Little Sausage, who is not yet two and prefers crumbed chicken goujons.

We’re forced single-file as we hurry up the Jackie Chan, and I feel a squinch of pleasure as we see the church on our left –  ancient windows lit gold, promising the carols of childhood. The Sausages are up ahead, crossing the Hornton road with the buggy, and Lulu and Giddyup and I hurry to catch them, our heels loud on the pavement, our breath misting in the night air.

Inside, it’s already packed, almost the whole of the right pews full of Horley children in costume – an entire population of sheep, kings and angels, faces bursting with importance and excitement. The older village children are up on the stage, in thick Christmas jumpers and bobble hats. They all look very serious as they survey the milling congregation below, and there is no fidgeting. Stalwart church types whiz to and fro, organising extra heaters, sorting out service sheets.

‘Patrick!’ stage-whispers a tall older lady in tweed. ‘Who on earth are all these people?’

‘Tourists,’ answers a younger man, steering her towards a heater. Extra benches are appearing now, from out of the Vestry; newcomers continue to pour in.

We nip quickly into the left aisle, with me on the end, so I have a good view of Mary and the Wandering Star. On the stage, above the children’s heads hangs a glitzy cardboard star turning slowly on an invisible string. It should look deeply naff, but instead it’s oddly touching, and just as it should be.

‘I must take notes,’ I mutter, thinking of a scene in my book. I pat my pockets, and realise I’ve forgotten my little notepad. Far worse though; I’ve forgotten the ‘thank you’ flowers for Tess and Brenda, both of whom spend weeks rehearsing the children and planning the Nativity. I clap my hands to my mouth in case I swear, and then see Stevie has arrived at the bottom of our row.

‘Go home!’ I mouth. ‘Forgotten, forgotten!’

Stevie rolls his eyes and grins. He mouths back ‘silly cow’, shaking his head as he edges his way out of the pew. The organist – fabulous organist – is playing In The Bleak Mid-Winter, and Lulu and Giddyup have found me a pen for my notes.

I sigh with pleasure, looking round at the glossy bunches of holly with their blood-red berries, the fat white candles flickering in the draught from the constantly-opening door. We can smell the mulled wine with its oranges and cloves, warming for after the service, and the burnt-dust smell of gas heaters. There’s a steady roar of conversation from the impious, and occasional yelps of laughter from the inebriated. Lulu and Giddyup are making up names for people to go in the blog, and keep collapsing with giggles.

‘Yarp, yarp, yarp,’ says Giddyup, as one of the more handsome stalwarts pass, flapping his arms. He pauses by our pew, one hand in his pocket, the other held crooked like a teapot. ‘Lord Yarp,’ she says, her voice low. ‘Completely perfect.’

The church is stuffed full now, and everyone is waiting. Opposite our pew is a school-buddy with her two pre-schoolers, Charlie and Holly, who are dressed as a shepherd and sheep respectively. They wriggle on their mother’s lap, anxious for the off.

‘Where’s the vicar?’ someone says, in puzzlement. One of the Stalwarts leap to the stage, and the congregation watch expectantly. He exhorts us to enjoy the Nativity, then purses his lips and asks us not to clap.

And then the whole thing is under way: one of the serious crew on stage is up and solo-ing Royal David’s City, then we’re all on our feet, feeling our way through the tune, tackling the high bits and trying not to break on the impossible ‘And’s.

It soon becomes evident that there will be no vicar, but that the service will be done entirely by the children of Horley. Somehow the readings and carols take on greater meaning, as we hear words spoken since we were children ourselves, and heard by our own parents, and grandparents, who in turn heard those words before we were even thought of. We get to that bit in The Bleak Midwinter about cherubim and seraphim and tears are falling down my cheeks, taking with them my mascara and my self-conciousness. By the final verse, the beauty of the words have affected everyone, and hands are squeezed, glances exchanged. Forgiven. Loved.

In turn, the children appear in their places: Mary is visited by a star, the Inn Keeper is duly knocked up. Every time there’s any action on the stage, Holly the Sheep makes a bid to join in, and her mother catches her by the ankle. We’re belting through O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Holly the Sheep is prone in the centre aisle, crawling commando-style towards the action. Her mother pulls her back on her belly, trying to sing at the same time. On our row we sway with laughter, and I wipe away yet more tears.

Angels arrive and the children break our hearts with ‘Away In A Manger’. Holly finally escapes and gets on stage, standing pleased as punch and baa-ing, waving and smiling to an adoring crowd. My Elle gets the giggles, and her Baby Jesus, (Thomas: a huge brute, once mine), won’t fit in the manger. She squashes him in, and he springs free, his chubby plastic arms waving.

Soon we’re onto Hark The Heralds, and I wish I was standing near Chris Howell, Tess’ husband, because I like his singing. I can hear some voices doing lovely fancy bits and I wish I could gather all the singers up so I could hear them properly together, without the awful braying coming from a few rows back.  But then our local choir-mistress, Debbie, comes forward to lead the Serious Crew in Gaudete, which is the first ever time I’ve properly listened to a madrigal. It is a moment like glimpsing the most beautiful face, or eating the most perfect mouthful – astonishing and fleeting, leaving me wide-eyed, blinking. It’s immensely hard not to clap.

Then one of the Serious Crew boys stands up on his own. He puts his hands in the pockets of his tracksuit bottoms and sings the opening verse of ‘Silent Night’, his expression transformed – radiance beams from thy holy face. We all join in the second verse, fortissimo.

It seems so quickly that the kings do their bit (complete with brilliant tantivy on the trumpet) and we’re belting out God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, the children trawling congregation for the collection. All around there’s the chink of change. There’s a flash of  orange and gold down our row, and the women all swivel forwards to see which of their men gave a tenner. Stevie’s laughing, so I’m guessing not us.

We’re all giving it welly to Come All Ye Faithful (once a year, at any rate), and then the children are all up on stage, posing for photos and it’s time for the mulled wine, mince pies and didn’t-they-do-wells.

I can feel my cheeks are flushed from all of the emotion, and I surreptitiously rub mascara from beneath my eyes.

‘So lovely,’ we all say. ‘So lucky.’

Jess speeds past, blowing a kiss and stuffing her mouth with sweets. She joins the rest of the children, all of her little buddies, now rioting unchecked behind the blue Vestry curtains. Lord Yarp is supervising the snuffing of candles, Stalwarts are gathering chairs, abandoned service sheets. There’s great talk of the new bells, and when they’ll be ringing.

I’m just upending my glass when Stevie catches my eye, gives the nod. We wrangle the daughters into coats.

‘I’ll see if they want help with the glasses,’ I say. ‘See you in a minute.’

The ladies manning the mince pie station tell me not to worry, it’ll all be dealt with in the morning. I’m relieved, thinking of the washing up waiting at home, the presents still unwrapped, the Christmas cake still un-iced.

”Night,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Outside the air has crispened, and feels wonderfully cool on my face. I’ve no torch but I don’t mind, I know every step of the way home. I think of the packet of crumpets in the bread-cage, and of how I’ll make a pot of tea and Stevie will’ve done the fires. The children will be in their nighties, and Country File will be on the telly. I quicken my step, smiling into the darkness.

Happy, happy Christmas. To one and all.

Bonfire Night! Tuesday, 5th November

Every year, we whiz down the Warwick Road to Warmington, for Warmington’s Bonfire Night. It’s always on the actual 5th, and the bonfire is always a whopper.

Warmington Bonfire, Warwks, 05.11.13
Jess’ earmuffs!

This year, we’re off with our chums, the Always-Sprightlies, and it’s half past five, and we’re eating a vast tea of jacket potatoes and Bolognaise with buckets of grated cheddar to keep us going. The children are already screechy with excitement, and are winding up the dogs, which worries me.

‘But will he be okay?’ I say, for the hundredth time. It’s the Pants’ first experience of fireworks, and he’s already tried to wee on the stairs. Dora is in her cage, grumbling away like an old kettle.

Just as we’re agreeing that wouldn’t it be lovely to have a glass of that red, someone notices it’s almost six, and then we’re all swirled into activity – grown ups clearing the table, children all crammed in the hall wellying up, me turning on the television and RadioTwo full blast.

‘What’re you doing?’ asks Stephen in horror.’I suppose you’re going to leave all the bloody lights on, as well?’

‘Yes,’ I hiss. ‘And where the hell is Merlin?’

We open the front door to all pour out, and the missing cat streaks in, straight upstairs to hide beneath a bed. I can hear Pants whining, and I hesitate on the doorstep. Dora joins in with her clockwork bark, and feeling horribly guilty, I pull the front door closed and run to the van in the darkness.

The Sprightlies beat us there, and save us the last  space in the lay-by above the village. We’re all pleased, because it’s the best get-away spot and crammed with cars from Horley and Hornton. We all get out and discover we’ve two working torches between eight.

‘Gosh,’ says S, when Stephen puts the Maglite in her hands. ‘What a whopper,’

We skirt St Michael’s (which is beautiful, incidentally – but more grey-in-the-stone than our lovely St E’s), stumbling only slightly in the starlight. ‘Come on,’ say the children, and drag us down the hill into Warmington proper.

Oh, but it’s pretty, even in the dark. Warmington can trace its roots back to the Mesolithic age, and it spills gently down a hill like a tipped treasure chest. The houses are grouped round two generous greens – the top one has a big pond, and I always think that if I could draw my perfect village, I would definitely steal bits from this one. We pass the pub – The Plough – all yellow-lit and heaving with handsome farm-types in checked shirts.

Village children are rushing around coat-less, brandishing light-sticks, and we can smell sparklers and hot dogs and onions, and behind all that, the hot, crackling smoke of the mighty fire.

‘Can we go, can we go, can we go?’ say our children. The men slide off to ‘bring you hot drinks, darling,’ and S and I are left to peer through the darkness, trying to identify the flame-licked silhouettes of local buddies.

‘I’m sure that’s Tasha’s hat,’ I say. ‘Or not. Oh, I’ll wave anyway…’

The men come back empty handed – no tea! – and the children are racing about playing It in the crowd. S and I natter on, as is our way.

Just as I’m starting to shiver (no tea!), the fireworks crack and vhisp into extraordinary, pointless life, lighting all the faces around, eliciting oohs and aahs, as parents try to jolly surprised young children

‘Too loud, Mummy!’ wails a boy in the crowd. Our four are transfixed, and Stephen pulls me against him, sheltering me from the wind. He keeps pretending to jump at the bangs, and I slide my hand to horse-pinch his thigh: hard. This is the first year I’ve not had to hold Jess – she was always petrified of the rockets and anything that does that crackle thing. I look at her profile now – eyes wide-open, mouth laughing and chattering. She’s wearing enormous grey furry earmuffs, and I smile, privately, and wonder if they’re boosting this new-found bravery.

Warmington Village Bonfire Nov 2013
Sorry for rubbish camera, but you can just see the reflection in the pond…

The fireworks last the perfect amount of time for me with no tea.

‘Can’t we stay?’ say the children, as we call them to us. ‘Please, please?’

‘No,’ we say. ‘School tomorrow.’

We start walking back up the hill to the layby, sharing bags of Haloween Haribo to keep us going.

We’re full of plans for next year, what we’ll do.

‘And whatever else,’ I say, navigating the cars. ‘We’ll bring some tea in a flask.’

‘And hot chocolate,’ says Ellie.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And hot chocolate. More torches. More flasks. It’ll be excellent.’

On Walking – Monday 4th November

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.

Pants and Dora near the Spinney

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.Bramshill's Valley

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.

On Walking: Sunday 9th June

Sometimes, Horley is so beautiful, so enchanted, that I can’t bear to leave it. I’m walking early, and with a thumping post-karaoke head, because today we’re off to Cambridgeshire.

I like Cambridgeshire, but today I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be at home.

The dogs seem to know they’re being abandoned for the day, and they misbehave – Arfa Pants snatching Dora’s lead in his teeth, Dora deliberately tripping him up on his silly gangly legs.

I’m supposed to be going quick, because Stevie wants to get off before the traffic, but my progress is slow, because I keep noticing new things – a clump of yolk-yellow cowslips beneath a cherry tree, a Warwick Rose clematis storming darkly up a telegraph pole.

Down by the stream, there’s a honeysuckle in flower. The delicate, delicate scent is just discernible above the stronger smells of lilac and nettle – it makes me think of being a child, and catching a glimpse of a very beautiful woman in a fabulous ball dress.

Arfa doesn’t think much to my mooniness, and starts talking (which sounds sweet, but is really NOT). Once he starts, I can’t make him stop, so I turn back up Wroxton Lane towards home, floating on a honeysuckle high. Thankfully, Arfa pipes down, and instead tries to chase Dora, who’s not on a lead.

I reach the bottom of Little Lane, and I really know I should go straight home. Stevie will have loaded the car, fed the cat, bawled the children out for roller-blading instead of cleaning their teeth.

I turn left, beneath a small horse chestnut with salmon-coloured blossom. I let Arfa pull me up the steep hill, and we stop half way to inspect some creamy-white rock roses, jaunty above drying aubretia. There are more rock roses further on, red this time, and with two fat, furry bees circling thoughtfully.

Outside the Manor is one of my favourite treats – an old copper beech in its absolute prime. From the outside, its leaves are a glossy aubergine, but inside the leaves are the most glorious gold-green, and as you gaze up, you feel that pulse of awe you get from cathedrals.

My phone beeps a text in my back pocket, and I know without looking it will be Stephen. I quicken my step, and jog the rest of the hill to Ross’ paddock, where I let Arfa off. Dora vanishes. The grass in there is higher than my knees, and in the distance, the rape fields are a soft green, just smudged now with yellow here and there. The Scout Woods are on the opposite hillside, and with its band of evergreens looks like an ironic eyebrow, lifted at the antics of Horley villagers.

Arfa gallops off after a Cabbage White, and I can hear a song thrush: hey Arfa, hey Arfa, hey Arfa. I think of Ted Hughes, and his line about birds having a single-mind sized skull. I wonder if it would be liberating or constricting to only ever have one thought at a time. It might be nice, though, to finish one line of thought, without another barging along, and another, another, until you wish you could lay your head inside a foxglove and go to sleep.

Eventually, I gather the dogs and head for home. Arfa strains half-heartedly to chase one of the Cousins’ Buff Orpingtons, the puffed Cheesy-Wotsit of chicken world. But I start to hurry now, suddenly guilty at bunking off for so long. We jog down Hornton Lane, past prim clumps of pink-and-white dianthus. The gutter’s full of creamy blossom blown from St Ethelreda’s horse chestnuts – as if the fairy folk had held an illicit wedding. I nod to the hats of the gnomes beneath the first chestnut. One day I’ll know what the plant is that makes them.

We thunder down our road, my best flat shoes slap, slapping. I can see Jess ahead on roller-blades, Stevie’s stood by our wall, watching the Sunday cricket and chatting to Raymundo, our neighbour. For a tiny, hopeful moment, I imagine he’s going to say we’re staying, and I can potter in the garden and read the Telly. But then he hears me and turns round.

‘Bloody hell,’ he says. ‘Bloody hell have you been? Late! So late!’

And then there was a mad scramble of last-minute loos, locking doors, checking dog water, checking chickarockas, forgetting open windows and car revving.

We finally roll out of Horley, a two-hour drive ahead.

‘Cheer up,’ says Stevie, giving me a mint. ‘Be home soon.’