On Walking: Thursday 8th Jan

I don’t want to walk today. It’s cold; windy and raining, and I want to stay at home, use my sour mood to skip out the gritty-bottomed saucepan cupboard. But Pants keeps laying his silly face along my back as I scrub, and every time I straighten, Dora runs to the leads, claws skittering on the floor. I clatter pans and slosh bleach to express my irritation, but they win, like they always do.

The rain drizzles away and we go down the Banbury Road to the Spring Field, because we haven’t been there yet this year, and because there’s a scrap of blue sky in that direction. There are a double set of gates into the first field, and usually I like the satisfaction of foiling their idiosyncrasies to open them. Not today: today I haul myself straight over the top of both, perch like a grumpy crow, before splotting down to the mud below. Once, twice. I land square each time, heavy-thighed, heavy bellied: too many Christmas chocolates.

I quick-march around the first field, head down, eyes fixed on the soggy remains of greyed wheat stubble. I can hear my breathing and feel the sweat in the small of my back, and I walk faster, faster. By the time I complete the second circle, the sky and I have changed mood. I stand in the middle of the gateway to Spring Field, feel the sun on my face and hear the birdsong in the blackthorn hedges at either side of me. I try to see which birds they might be, but they’re too quick, flitting up the hedge in front of me. I follow the margin up the hill, imagining the fat from those chocolates melting off.

Halfway up, I pause, and ahead, Pants wheels left to avoid the giant muck heap, sending a power of woodpigeons up into the sky. I’ve never seen so many together and I stop in astonishment. I can hear the flap from tens of wings – maybe hundreds – and they whirl up into the sky like leaves caught in a curling wind. They move in a solid vortex towards the covert that runs the full flank of the field, and I catch a glimpse of something terrible. As they fly, the birds cast huge shadows in the low, winter sun, and for the most fleeting of moments, a basic flight-fear jolts my muscles. I instantly rationalise the shadows – I know they’re only woodpigeons, and birds have never scared me – but such an ancient reflex fascinates me.

Dora and I walk on, beside the top hedge. An elder lies shattered across the margin, the lichen on its bark has been nibbled by roe deer. The blackthorn protects the tuiles of Lords and Ladies, poking up from the winter leaves like glossy green cigars.

Pants is out of sight, but I can track him by the frantic pheasants that occasionally hurl themselves from the undergrowth.  In the top corner of the field, I stop to look at Horley on its opposite hill. In the horse’s field next to the Cricket, the sun gilds the top of the ridges, making the shadows seem deeper. I can see our house, with its one super-clean cupboard. From this side of the valley, the other cupboards don’t seem to matter.

I shuffle my feet to warm them, and notice charcoal, piled on the mud in a neat heap. There’s about enough to fill a dinner plate, and I wonder how it got there, and by whom. The only human footprints up here are usually only mine. I stretch, walk on.

At the bottom of the field, by the Sor Brook,  clouds of midges jig in sunshine. I stand and watch them for a moment; at a breath of wind, the midges squeeze together, like fish with a shark.

I walk on, thinking about genetically-influenced fears and phobias, mysterious piles of charcoal and the men that once worked those ridge and furrow. I take off my hat, tip back my head, grateful to the sun, the fields. Conscious of my luck.

 

Horley from Spring Field

On Walking: Thursday 10th July

I’m in the Spring Field, and it’s hot. So hot, I can feel the ground baking around my bare legs, see the shimmer in the air as I look downhill.

The earth is faded red-brown, crumbled, strewn with sprayed-off thistles dying an ugly, splayed death. The cries of the sheep in the next field are incessant, much louder than usual. It’s forecast storms soon, but standing here I can’t imagine rain.

I force my feet onwards, squinting despite my sun glasses. Each time one of my black trainers lands, the ground gives off hopeless little puffs of dust. All around are stunted, twisted weeds, clinging stubbornly to life despite repeated doses of Round Up. I can smell meadowsweet, honey-like on the warm wind. I step carefully: I don’t know what’s between the deep, deep cracks.

We reach the stile but I don’t stop. The dogs are subdued, too hot to even run, and they follow me silently.

‘Go in the stream,’  I tell them. ‘Run on.’ But they stay with me, as if I might need them. The bottom stretch of the field is in shade from the alders, and I walk more slowly, listening to the stream. We stop halfway across, and I look back up the field. My sunglasses have tinted the earth red, and for a second it looks as if it’s on fire, like the Warwickshire stubble-fields I used to know. I remember this sort of day from being a teenager, walking dogs when and where I’ve been told I mustn’t.

It’s the sort of heat that knocks days out of time, that creates mirages. The wind is the sort to provoke restless feet, to tease and push a person to brilliance or madness. Or to passion; the dangerous kind, that gets you in trouble.

We start to slog back up hill, and I notice that beneath the weeds are yellow and black banded caterpillars, lots of them, like an infestation.

Caterpillar for the Cinnebar Moth - taken before I realised there was an army. Munching... I think they’re Cinnabar Moths, but I suddenly don’t want to hang around. I imagine them crawling across my toes, up my ankle, and I’m gone. Freaked out. By-passed brilliance or passion, and gone straight to madness.

 

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