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: Monday 2nd February

I am sleep-walking down the Banbury Road, pulled along by Pants. We’ve left Dora at home, guard-dog for Elle, who’s been tremendously sick, and who is now lying supine on the sofa, drugged with cartoons. Pants leads me over the verge, down to the ditch; beneath the oak and into Dave’s field. I let him loose from his lead, watching as he wheels away.

I shiver, duck my nose into my old silk scarf. The air is so cold it feels thin, leaving me breathless. The clouds are a viscous grey; the sun an indistinct silver coin; false treasure in a treacherous sky.

Last night had been unending, holding Elle’s hand and trying not to catch her fear. ‘It’s just a bug.’ I said it over and over. ‘You’re going to be all right’.

‘But Mummy, it hurts.’

This morning, bombed from lack of sleep, I gave Stevie and Jess half-raw porridge. Tepid, gritty. The same colour as the sky.

Now, I start a lumbering jog, flapping my arms to warm up. I pass yellow catkins, hanging in pairs, no longer than half the length of my little finger. The birds are noisy; wood-pigeons clatter from an ash ahead of me. I put my head down, run on, inelegant in my wellies.

By the time we reach the bridge into Emma’s meadow, I’m warm. I don’t linger on the bridge; I don’t want to leave Elle for too long.

When she was a baby, I would hold Elle’s hand in the night. I’d put my arm through the bars of her cot, awkwardly bending, hold those precious tiny catkin-fingers. I’d be there for hours sometimes, unable to pull away in case I broke our hearts. Her hand is barely smaller than mine now, and the nails are half-varnished, bitten, the fingers long, clever. A great big ten-year old’s hands. As the waves of sickness twisted her body last night, her hand was tight, tighter still on mine.

‘Make it stop,’ she’d cried, and I’d wanted to cry with her, snatch the pain from her body and bear it, beat it, myself. Even the memory brings a sting of tears to my eyes and I stand in the field, blinking furiously. I glare at the jammy-scarlet of the blackberry wands; the unearthly chartreuse of the lichen on the hawthorn above.

I know that she’s over the worst, and that it was only a bug, but that same old nameless need that used to wake me in the darkness, is propelling me up the field, hurrying me past the cricket-bat willows; molehills go un-inspected.

I can feel the layered imprints of my daughter’s hand; the new-born, the toddler, the endlessly confidant six year old, the strong and brave almost-eleven year old. And I can hear the words she said last night.

‘Mummy, don’t let go.’

Elle walking

NB: After racing up the village like an idiot; red-faced and sweating, I found Elle serene on the sofa, tucking into a handful of dry cornflakes. Kids! Who’d ‘ave ’em?

 

 

On Walking: Sunday 5th October

It’s barely eight o’clock when the dogs and I leave the house, and the sky ethereal blue.  There’s been a frost, and it’s cold; properly Autumn after the Indian summer.

The iced air sears my lungs and makes me cough. We set off through the village towards Bramshill; there’re no cars this early, no walkers or church-goers. Wood pigeons are noisily copulating in the chestnuts along the graveyard, and the air is still; expectant of good things.

As I walk up Church Lane, I can see the thick belt of the Scout Woods across the valley; a finer band of mist bisects it, as if the larches were caught in a smoke ring.  I imagine how beautiful the rest of the valley will look, and quicken my pace, hurrying as if to meet a lover.

I don’t let myself peek until the I reach the stile above the sledging hill, then I climb to my perch and sit, and look, and look.

The early sun is behind me, lighting the beeches golden, rust red, warm bronze. The fields behind roll green, clay-red, dun; the new shards of Winter wheat are a bright, plastic green, the grass of margins and hay meadows are a bleached white-yellow. I settle to watch the frost melt from the grasses in front of me, to listen to a nameless bird sing on a descending whistle. The ducks are joking the day to wakefulness and a fox slinks along the bottom fence. Pants and Dora are deep in the brambles to my right: ecstatic and hunting mice.

My fingers become painful, I’m gloveless, and the cold minces them red and white. But the sun is hot on my hair, my ear, and I tip my head back, as if I were a cat looking for fuss.

It is the morning after my wedding anniversary. Eleven years since becoming a wife –  six months scandalous later, a mother. I changed utterly and completely the day I married; grew up in a way that still leaves me breathless with fright. We thought I had miscarried our child the night before the wedding, and a doctor had patted me on the shoulder and told me, never mind, try again. You’re young.  I said my vows through lips numb with misery and shock, my eyes fixed on Stevie’s as if he could save the life in my belly. I remember nothing of the reception, except blood, more blood. Blood and the enormous hoop of my wedding dress.

The next morning, we went straight to the JR for a scan, Stevie reeling with hangover, me convinced I was still pregnant – I could feel it – and more blood. I still had confetti stuck in my tangled hair. We were supposed to be on our way to Gatwick for our honeymoon, but instead we waited, waited.

She was still in there, our daughter, laying on her back with one hand raised, as if to wave hello.

‘She was testing you,’ said a doctor. ‘Checking you really wanted her.’

Now, sitting on this stile, eleven years to the day since that scan, I feel more blessed and thankful than I can ever imagine. That baby – presumed gone – is now a thumping great ten year old. She has a sister, who’s nine, and we have built a family that exasperates and thrills us, drives us bonkers and makes us happy in a way we could never have known, eleven years and one day ago.

After we left the hospital, Stevie and I went to Boar’s Hill, in Oxford, to sit on ‘our’ bench. The view was once almost as precious as this one is to me now, and I remember thinking how today, everything that I was, is now only a part of everything I now am.

Looking out now, over Bramshill, I can feel that change starting to shift again. The 5th October. Always, for me, the start of something.

 

From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.
From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.

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: 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: 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.