On Walking: Monday 6th April

It’s the Easter Bank Holiday, and I’m walking before the family arrive, before the house is filled with mad, chocolate-stuffed children, claw-clattering dogs; veg peeling, gravy-making, beef-carving (Are We Sure It’s Done?) and the best of the family gossip. It’s barely eight o’clock, and I slide away from the breakfast dishes muttering about willow branches, their immediate collection deadly necessary for the Easter flower arrangement. It’s still misty down here by the Sor Brook; I’m hidden, hiding.

I hear the rusting-hinge shriek of a pheasant, see Pants shoot off to my right, like a speckled rocket. I follow the deer tracks along the margin, Dora stepping carefully in my wake. Some of the cloven hooves are less than an inch long, and I think of dancing fauns and Rites of Spring.

In Emma’s Meadow, the mist thickens, and I turn left, into the wall of it. The end of the meadow is where the old mill once stood, although all that can be seen of it now are bergs of broken concrete, a few worn red bricks beneath the glide of the Sor.

I go because it’s supposed to be haunted, and I want to dare myself.

I cross the troll bridge, my rubbery feet almost silent. On the other side, skeins of dirty grey wool hang on the gnarled hawthorn, dulling the fluorescence of the lichen. The children’s paddling pool is drained and nothing moves but the dogs, who have drawn close to me. Beyond the bridge, I turn to look back at the village, but it’s gone, lost in the mist.

A bird scarer explodes in the next field, echoing oddly, bouncing weirdly through the valley. My heart jumps and I run, laughing at my own silliness, but running all the same.

I stop when I reach the lane, and then walk sedately on, suddenly too hot in my navy fleece, my pink woollen gloves. The sun is breaking through. I reach the lay-by the children and I are alternatively fascinated and repelled by. It marks where the old railway once ran, and reeks of wee and nefarious night-doings.

We once found an entire sheaf of empty Durex wrappers. ‘Don’t touch!’ I shrieked. ‘They’re, um…grown up sweet wrappers.’ I regretted the fib the moment it left my mouth. But there were at least five torn wrappers, how would that sit in an impromptu birds and bees talk? And five? Was the unwrapperer particularly inept, or spectacularly stud-like? Or went for all five at once?

Every time I walk here, I wonder.

I reach the splendid goat willow, and pinch three sprays of fat, yellow-speckled catkins for my daffodil jug. Elder wands are sprouting new leaves like miniature palms. I notice the hazel; new leaves the size of my thumb nail, dropping down just so, like a fop’s handkerchief. The stingers and sticky buds are ankle height, no match for my wellies.

I climb the bank to the stile and pause, looking out over the valley towards Horley. The mist has almost burnt away now, the village has reappeared in the early sun. I shimmy through the uprights of the stile, holding the goat willow, swinging the dog leads high so they won’t catch.

Beyond the brow of the hill is our house, smelling of roast beef and rosemary. There’s still a pudding to make, the loo to clean, the napkins to iron, the washing to peg out, the kitchen to mop. I look at my willow, and smile. Willow catkins, hazel wands and daffodils to arrange.

goat willow

 

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.