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Names trees give themselves

Rain lashes through a wimple of cloud. Days of dirty skies have succeeded one after the other lately and whenever I look out of the window with a fool’s hope, the rain whitens everything with its diagonal, dashing fall, making a mystery of the view: a veil between me and the world. My slate-grey mood prowls withindoors to the tattooing droplet-driving dance. Everything is variously damp and dank-smelling inside as well as out and the house is, for a time, unhomely and I a fidgeter indoors. But, after a morning’s fall from a granite firmament, now the belt of rain-pall has slackened and I step out into mizzle — a good word — which is to say a something or nothing rain; half-masted between a mist and a drizzle; short-changed out of full onslaught; a cobweb of wet on the eyelash; rain’s last resort. The onomatopoeia of ‘mizzle’ suits the barely-embroidering dew of it on my skin and clothing. By using it, I think with a deft complacency, I am keeping this scarce-heard word alive, breathing life back into it as it wets my tongue. Mizzle. It’s one of many words we’re helping to lose through the slow erasure of non-use.

Hand in glove with the elements, my walking today is warm and muggy — almost cosy — in my spangled mizzle-sheen and I lift up a round face into the lea of where I think the sun might be, there in the opaque, blinding white halo. The valley has been washed by heavier morning showers than this and now the very last dregs in the sky-cup are filtered through a fine cheesecloth of cloud leaving only this light haze to drowse upon the grass banks and the willowherb. Its speckling on my skin is almost pleasant; a light refreshment after the stale indoors. I’ve timed my walk with the weather and, in a sudden access of exuberance at the lessened rain, the postman hulloes me and calls that I’ve brought the sun out with me. I am word-stumbling in denial, but he’s curiously adamant as though I had the power — a weather-charm weaver — and, cheerfully amused at the thought, I press on.

Looking out across the valley as my steps draw me down into the crease of it I see — whoosh! — a swift performing its sky-dance, its black wings the merest lilting on the wind. Insects must be drawing it to thread itself back and forth across the scree of cloud, and with what a swooping joy it cleaves the air! Such effort for just a mouthful on the wing, I think, hoving onward though back-glancing at its dipping display. Around me, nature is turning herself to the business of fruiting. Where once were the delicately white-anthered blossoms of the hawthorn, now berries thicken in perfect curvatures; apples are approaching shop-worthiness on the tree; and the rowan berries are already choleric with red, their orange anger earlier than ever this year. I see a whole cycle from flower to fruit on one bramble bower: the pink-white rose-like blossoms, the green fruit still tightly unripe, and the rich blood-black berries, as heavily hanging as antique ear-bobs. It is a worry what the birds will do as a result of this too-soon bounty when the year draws on to dearth, and I send my thought up with supplication: not too hasty, autumn. As if drawn by these forebodings, my eye is caught on goose-stepping lines of black rooks and crows patrolling the playing fields for worms. There is something morbid about their presence as they move forward in forensic searches, like a police line punctuating the green with their funereal sweeps.

The top of the Glen shows itself dazzled and imperfect; the stone houses rendered softly indistinct; and the tree-bank losing its sharpness. The sun, making a brief appearance, sets the haze to silver and I know that somewhere there must be a rainbow, beyond my sightline and beyond my gift today. Trundling on down the hill, my steps mechanical having walked this path so many strides now, I am headed (I know it with sudden clarity) for Hirst Wood: for just-in-case cover; my native tree-patch; nature’s ancient thatch in serried rows of leaf upon leaf. Sometimes my feet draw me down to the wood with the instinctive understanding of sole to soul.

Hirst Wood emerges as a shadow on my left, its darkling silhouette of beech, birch and oak hugging the side of the Leeds Liverpool canal; occasionally dipping a toe in it. Now that I have the shortcut by Caroline St and Dallam Ave by foot-rote, the prospect of being ensconced, enveloped and covered over with green is only ever a mere 10 minutes’ walk away. As with other ancient woodlands, admittance to this hallowed, treed sanctum has been bargained for with many walkers’ feet. If we stopped turning in at the side of Hirst Lane, it would forget us and close the gap over again with irrepressible green as though we had never been here at all; never pressed the leaves with our feet; nor watched the squirrels’ scampers; not heard the invisible birds’ calls. No respecter of people this wood, and I am heartily glad of it.  I tuck myself away into the fold of its trees, my steps cushioned on a thick layer of rich black loam: good growing soil that roots you if you stand still for too long, but pleasant to push a toe into. A complicated black, textured and coarse, with bits of bark and moss returning to the earth. Centuries of leaf mould worked over by worms, beetles and mud-boring bees have connived at this good grounding.

I crane my neck up in an arc of longing at the top-lofty beeches and birches; their branches crackle-glazing the sky in stilled squiggles; their cover giving me dry underfoot. Their arms uplifted are greedy snatchers at the hemisphere: ’tis the lure of drawing upward to the highest height; to the point at which the wood tries to leap out of itself into the sky; where the mist rests on the tops of the trees; where the smallest branches quiver their littlest leaves into the air. And then in meteoric rush, like ball from bat, stone from sling: a wood-pigeon casts itself aloft from its cover — a signal to others of the presence of an intruder — and though I provoked its flight with an incautious step, it’s my heart that seizes in the relative stillness. The alarm raised, it’s many minutes of patient waiting before the woodland creatures disclose themselves again. A grey squirrel in stops and starts frets its way from one tree to another, keeping me in sight out of one obsidian eye before scarpering up skywards again. Birds begin their calling-on songs again.

 

Deep in the heart of the wood, the trees tell me the names to call them by: wood-waker; root-delver; bark-bone maker; timber-teller; crown-weaver; sky-tracer; storm-quaker; trunk-bracer; root-throne forger; wildling-wose; spring-bloomer; ring-worker; skin-splitter; treacle-sapper; burl-wound bearer; heartwood-wedded; wind-singer; groan-swayer; nut-hatcher; place-crowder; high-yammerer; close-creeper; leaf-twitcher; branch-creaker; breeze-shaker; autumn-surrenderer; leaf-looser; rime-wearer; dryad-dancer; rough-cladder; sky-stretcher; stone-breaker; whack-shiverer; rain-taker; squirrel-friender; south-bender; soil-anchor; ground-gripper; sun-chaser; bough-lacer; mage-whisperer; sooth-grower; seed-blower; whip-branch tickler; sometimes-sickener; blast-bowled sentinel; night-moaner; woodpecker-martyr; earth-sifter; light-blending dapple-sender; path-riddler; way-pointer; fey-shifter; branch-lifter; star-gazer.

All the names of the trees suggest themselves in the crook’d, bent and twist-turned forms I walk between; in the soughing of the wind about and through them; in their wood-barked complexions. Oaks are best for gnarliness; the birches straight but ghosting in their white papers. The beeches, taller than all the rest, have by far the highest conceit of themselves. This wood holds a queen of beeches, burled and cankered about her large waist; bent with age; over-crowding the path. She is so generous in size that many Merlins could have been enchanted into her. Surrounding herself she has sown a circle of her young: satellites to her parent tree. She reaches out arms to her progeny. Nothing much will grow under beeches because the shade they manufacture with their leaves is so complete; not so the shiver-leaved birch whose tremble of leaves is so light-permissive as to be almost translucent — and so they are when a shaft of sunlight hits them. The floor of this woodland, under birches and between, was so thick-carpeted with bluebells in spring that walking here was, for a month, entirely blue. Now the cracked pods of the spent bells have all but unburdened themselves of their black seeds; just a few still await a forager to help spill them.

Though it is a modest woodland, barely half a mile from end to end, to enter Hirst Wood as I do today, fugitive from mists and the threat of more rain, is to claim sanctuary from the world without for a quiet while: a pause between two breaths on a walk. I begin to appreciate this wood as meaning more than its parts: the accumulation of the years of its trees told in countless hidden rings; its centuries of leaves; yearly nests and egg-hatchlings; squirrelled nuts and acorn-ripenings; parent trees and be-treeings. And indeed, with barely a week passing without my accustomed pilgrimage to Hirst Wood, it has acquired for me now the savour of a walk-familiar: that is, a place one may walk and let the mind spin-drift because the peculiarities of its ways are so known to foot and memory. To go through, into and under it day after day — to know it in all its guises — is to walk, I have found, still partly in the wood when away.

When bees dance

In drowses of movement, in winged occlusions, bees dance;
their wings sound furies, their humming never single but
joined in buzzed harmonies; tiny fidgeting fledgling beings
trimmed in flower dust and seed: carriers of living things;
carriers on the wind, nectar-drunk and plenty-eyed,
busy about the honey-glide. Wish I had enough eye to see
and ear to hear the single paean each sends through hive:
shopping lists of which nectar’s choice and where
the yellow dust pollen waits in sufficiencies.
I wonder do they dance of my garden and of me,
of the honeysuckle and the bells of the penstemon,
these soft-furred, furious things? A heartbeat in one;
a squeeze against the breastbone drawing on in drones;
sometimes still in secret strokings of antennae –
a sociable etiquette, wiping pollen from oval eyes;
more often a ritual vibration gives tongue to the hive nation.
A colloquy on the wing – mapping terrain since first
spring – claiming each flower between. The dance begins
on the landing board in feints; a single split from the whole,
stirs itself up, sloughing subtlety – all uppity – no longer
moving in general mass, but individuated articulated
energy. Perhaps it is ordered, orderly frenzy, but to me
it seems bee anarchy: dense, tense clenches of sound;
all wound up, and I batten down my body hatches at the
approaching buzz-flights, tightly wound as a spring
myself; bearing the agglomerated sound as long as I can.
Later, I still hear still feel the ghosts of their wings;
and visions of bees dancing entrance my dreams.

© Bracken Hall Wildlife & Countryside Centre, Glen Road, Shipley

Remainders of Coal Ways

Six kilometers from Rombalds Moor and adjacent to Hawksworth lie the brute passes of Baildon Moor. This is coal country and we send our steps into the still-black paths of it with presentiments of steep slopes choked with slakes of coal dust. The crag which makes the Moor’s topmost point up-rears before us with taunts of unclimbability; the paths clawed into the sides of it leave raw, differently-coloured, untidy edges in its fascias, like candle wax dripped down its sides which has melted the land away in its wake. These deep, hollowed-out half-moons of paths cup our feet awkwardly as we place our steps; their rocky bottoms pocked with eruptions along the way. Our boots grapple and scrabble, our ankles wobble and struggle on the shifting shale of coal glass, graphite dust and slate shard that clog such paths. There’s grist in this walking: eyes down, heavy frowns alert to where the way might betray us, shoulders round and bound forward into the uphill strikes of the paths. Lung-puffed and quad-tight we three labour to the top, occasionally calling a thin strain of encouragement to one another: keep going father; keep going sister; keep going daughter. The going is slow and the paths know our every stumble, every founder and falter, like haltered horses wearied by the uphill on these deep-dug ways. Coal wagons laid them as early as the fourteenth century, but it was the Victorian corves that entrenched them, greedy for mill brimstone; grinding into the ground expedient traffics from the shallow surface pits, with some days more, but increasingly less, coal to show for their back-and-forth trips.

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The element up here is an alchemy of gloss-faceted carbon mixed with sand- and limestone sedimentaries and shale. In some places the coal could be mined just under the surface skin of the Moor – its black dermis – easy pickings for colliers but low-grade at the top; the quality stuff harder got at and lower down in the dense, adamantine clutches of the ground. A messy craft of shaft and shovel to draw the deep, eighteen-inch-thick black treasure out. Now, if you scud a boot across the thin-grassed hillocks up on the crag, near the old pits left like belly-craters to fill up with rain, you uncover still a jet, dusty shale. Shards lie in smudges of smashed and broken pieces that hardly resist the boot, littering the path in compressions of primordial trees squeezed with economy into dark mysterious seams through stretches of time. A gobbet of coal from up the moor-path is a surprise of lightness in my palm: fetched through three millennia to my small hand, attesting to lost topographies, an inky remainder of strange oversized ferns and giant forests that once covered this land in close, pre-coal darknesses. Here now – after oozes of swamp, harsh glaciation and vice-like pressures – only grasses dare to shuttle up from earth to sky. Now the terrain is bald, the once-buried swamp forests in their secret pressings are forced to light again through its peeling, friable skin. And I think: everything falls apart at the seams at last. Coal remainders – uncanny when thought of as archaeology – show the Moor has not forgotten its ages-old biography. Its history has been matter-of-facted into place names and topography with Lode Pit Lane and Colepit Close.

A map of the Baildon Moor ‘Inclosures’ made by Robert Saxton in 1610, shows the craters of four surface coal pits like navels in the landscape. The workings were open; but later day-holes were dug into the sides of the hill for miners to disappear into like moles; bell-pits sunk down to seams and opened out at the top to collect up their black. These are now grassed over and boggy at bottom; the putters and huryers who worked and umbilicalled them more than a century since, dead, perhaps forgotten. In the 1852 Ordnance Survey map, several of the pits were already marked as old and out of use. Extensions to local railways and problems with floods would eventually close the remaining three mines worked by William Midgley after the 1870s. A census in 1881 shows only 3 men left working the pits, like fossils themselves, stuck in a monotony of work, scratching a living out of a land where the quality coal had already gone. Nothing left but the bits and pieces that I see today – carbon drawing on to dust – fit for home fires only. Now not even the tenements and settlements of the peripatetic coal workers remain at Low Hill or Moorside: in the end as transitory and finite as the black stuffs they excavated, no sooner uncovered than gone and moved on to the next seam of inky black sheen.

© Bradford Antiquarian Society: 1610 map by Robert Saxton of the Baildon Enclosures.

We make for the trig point on the topmost plateau of the hill to claim the lie of the land with satisfaction in our eyes, lungs, and feet braced wide apart against the wind. Cross-hatchings of putters paths, flecked with coal, go down from here near the old pits. Shards of the erst-landscapes lie at my feet like jumbled words that perhaps made sense all in a line down there in the stratified dark: a reflective gloss in the light of a lantern. A wilderness is available to us in 360 degree vistas and we see the enormous pock-marked leavings of nineteenth-century smeltings along the Dobrudden access road as though a volcano had extruded them in sulphurous loads. They lie quietly now in large cankers of surface slag, partly cladded over with grass and moss. The birds have marked this territory as theirs now: the meadow pipits, skylarks and plovers in numbers as the strong, vital sound attests. All heard but hardly seen. On the way back down I collect a banded curlew quill discarded in a tussock and put it carefully away to take home in my pack.

Smelting_Heap_Baildon_moor

The coal ways of Baildon Moor have become something other than they were originally carved out for. As early as the 1890s, day-trippers from Bradford – weekenders getting away from the cloying monotony of Victorian inner city smog with advice from zealous doctors; golfers anticipating the tee; butterfly collectors crazed with their nets; tweeded twitchers – all swarmed the Moor and overran the villages in pillages of the middle class at play. In 1910 the Shipley Times declared, “The country is tempting just now.” But industry itself was once powered from here: the traction engines, steam machines, the factory wheels, the tall valley chimneys issuing their smuts; these all got their spark from deep in the heart of the Moor.

 

With thanks to Joyce W. Percy whose article, ‘The Lost Villages of Baildon Moor’ was very informative, published online on the Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society’s website.

lines made while walking

Bramble mobbed and sure-shod i clamber up the glen on a soft camber of path under trees that shout in the merest breeze; and a slick of stream – more a dribble really, last loosenings of rain – partners me as i climb next to the tram line. Running off from the hill up top and making its asides, sometimes shrill but now a silver jumble of stone-jostled sounds. The water-tumble is joined by a sharp, distinct line of birdsong; no choice: bright day, sun out in everyone’s faces and the birds are loud in all places. Summer rejoices, everything exceeds itself, getting bigger and bigger with vitality of sap. A wren sends a voice out into the world larger than its own thimbleful of body.
How does it do that?
i walk under beech and oak, beside birches broken in anonymous storms before – perhaps – anyone thought to give storms names. i touch their cracked, lichenous skins and get in close to them, running a finger into their lines to find the paths far smaller things than i make their ways to and fro in. The trees overspread themselves and together enmesh the eye that would see through them.
Lines over lines over lines.
i walk the glen edges as if i’d know my limits, drawing my own line by Baildon Moor, up round the crags irresistibly down-looking into a dark crease of valley where the river can be heard as a whisper of something far greater hidden under dulled green canopies of trees. The crags are hard on the knees, up-reared and sheer, opening here into a crevasse, there onto a platform. Further on they perform the way itself; stretching out as bridges where the sandy silt of this sandstone grit which overlays the clay’s been washed away in – perhaps – those same nameless storms.
Take a lungful of air deep and try to preserve it as long as i can; become a bellows, and air and spore, sap breath and moor-dust travelling through me. Eyes close to the view and turn inward to the view there. Spare.
And for the first seconds when i open them again, only blue as through a filter.
This is common land that endures for common folk to walk, to own, to share, and make lines across. Up by the woods-deep tramway; up Prod Lane; until the world opens out on top of me: sky blue, scudded with vapour lines and falling away limitless above. Rocks below foot become quarries and precipices at sheer horizon lines, leaving signs of violence; a landscape aggressively made to fit around and between.
i have seen rocks not as infinite in their roundness, nor as inviting of touch. My hands drag across them, invisibly marking lines on them as i try to decipher the marks other hands have carved on, not through, them.
Even these are not indelible to the rain.
Then through the grasses between as i go from monolith to monolith of rock – my steps older than Jurassic up here – carboniferous grit works itself into the grooves of my boots; the sleeves of my smock. And i pick a stalk for something to hold onto: its papery gold crackling in my palm as i squeeze the seeds of this almost cropped barley top.
Feet other than mine have made deep, dry-banked line-trenches on this rock-buttressed upland; walking a resolute yes to the rights of common ways: dog-walkers, runners, school-returning kids, lovers – these have all helped to lay down the lines of the glen.
Their sunken hollows – light lines between grasses and boulders – forcing and shaping the landscape around them, give the illusion of permanence.
May these lines never fade and may feet always walk read them.

Meadow walking with Moths

Summer burst with its glory into my corner of Airedale in the week leading up to the solstice; the sun having discovered that it could be brilliant again and sending down its heat; the magpies almost dazzle-shy from the reflections off the water; and the sky a porcelain blue overhead. I spent the precious mornings once got out of bed in this hot heady week like a bluebottle at the window, my heart dashing itself between chores against the panes of glass to be outside and about my walk. Heat with the smother of a blanket enrobed me when first out of doors, and then it sat like a baked stone in the mouth. The infinite palette of green and the flowers with their newness still upon them were chromatically burned onto my retinas, so that there was the ghost-blindness of them when I closed my eyes to summer’s wild happenings in the tucked-up shade of those nights. Outside, down the hill, past the canal and the boat club, the desiccated riverbanks dusted me as I clambered over squeezes in the dry stone walls, my dress trapping warmth and insects under it like a collector’s net or a bell jar; specimens for later. The river was lazy and slow, haloed with murmurations of flies, caught in the spangled reflections off the ripples of the water. I trained my strides to their pace, my gaze resting in dream-visions of sun-caught fire on water. It’s all going on in there, I thought. The gill-filtering fish; the spawn in its molecular gluts; the tadpoliest prefaces to frogs; the reeds and weeds quiescent to the river’s course; the silted clouds starting up round newts. But on the surface, there was just the gentle hum of fly-swarms and my thick thirst.

Every summer in some sense recalls the first summers I experienced when a girl and in it I recognise again the features of my child – my tadpole – self. The grass tickles now as it used to tickle bare legs under blue and white school summer gingham as I looked forward to an impossibly long holiday, like a thief waiting to steal into the hot outdoors. Every seasoned tree I now see in its already-antique, spring-lost green is descendent of those in Richmond Park, holder of the trees I used to climb, the bark sharp to the skin and the nooks within its shape ready to be dens. The baked sizzle of asphalt now summons memories of the baking of the roof tiles under my childhood windowsill when they radiated heat into summer evenings for dangling little feet to warm themselves on. In that impossibly furnace-like week, before the solstice and Midsummer’s Day would come to jinx everything, my eyes – like the eyes of the child inside me – were on stilts to cram in everything they could see.

Then came the rain, lording it over the last week or so, making the world soggy, the paths bogged, and the river almost solid with flood. I experienced walking only wetly and uncomfortably. Now it is the last day of June: plenty into summer, post-solstice, and more than midway through the year. All harum-scarum today, the year seems busy fashioning a gilded shell for itself to climb back into in autumn; its thought turned inward and busy and private. It is a day that casts its gaze forward to a cold winter to retire into. Or so it feels now with bulging rain clouds ominous above, cousins only once removed from the deluges that have been falling ceaselessly this week in days-long tyrannies of showers. The Aire is in spate, the weir at home overflown with it – nigh to bursting its banks with it; and the red clay chokes it, muddles the fish in it, so the fishermen by the way have an easier catch of it. The churning red makes some of the mallards fastidious of dipping a web-toe in its fast flow. This watery world is strong-currented, swollen, with whirlpools eddying near the banks ready to catch at the shanks of the unwary walker. The minnows’ spring shoaling to glean the warmth from the shallow water’s surface seems many weathers ago now. I would not have been a fish these last few days in the spated river, blind to the world and the fisherman’s hook, of a sudden tossed and tumbled in amongst the rocks, fast-driven and knocked about pell-mell. Only the week before under the blaze-balled sun the river was a sluggish, lucid drawl, its pace philanthropic to the fish in its run.

I have misgivings, caused by these sudden summer rain deposits, about the solidity of the path under me today as I begin my walk: my purpose to discover what lies beyond the patch of woodland at the base of the Chevin. The ground up top on this ancient ridge is millstone grit, so called because it was formerly a preferred substance for quarrying millstones; but today the foot of it is mud-locked. Avoiding the worst of it with walking on the grass either side of the track, still my feet suck into clay leaving deep foot wells behind me; something of myself on the way. In spite of this I make steady uphill progress under a thicket of branches, between tall stems of sorrel, grasses crowned with their heavy heads of seed, and nettles grown up tall as weeds. There is white clover at my feet along stretches of the path, but not further into the verges – the grasses won’t make room for it there – and, smiling, I am made like Olwen of the Mabinogion who sows flowers into legend with her steps. The way opens up from close quarters between trees into a meadow on the cusp of gold from green. Sending my eyes out across it, I see there is no evidence here now of winter dearth; any scars there were have been completely covered over with straight grassy glyphs searching upward for the sun behind its shroud.

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The air over the meadow is close. At first all I see in the shifting sea before me is the grass and the aged green, but gradually the eye trains itself to look more closely at spots of colour shifting among the screen of stems that are wattled and webbed together. Are those flutters? A distinctive clap of papery wings dragging a body up in the air with it, clumsy, colourful, its course unplotted and full of darting diversions. More of them, riding the undergrowth, give purpose to my steps as I pick one to follow. I send my feet after it, like untidy ploughs imperfectly bending the stalks of rough meadow-grass, and they start up clouds of ringlet and small skipper butterflies as I pass, their dusky soot and sunset wings flapping the air jubilantly. It’s a tussocky wilderness in here: a micro world of seed, spider and chrysalis husks on knapweed stalks; everything busy from first peep of dawn until the late long-day dusk. The narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths have hatched here perhaps in the last week or so and are now busy drinking nectar, mating, and stretching their black and red wings, it seems, with relief after a week of rain-soaking. A couple, holding themselves delicately and tenuously among grasses, are wedded together in the quiet cool underworld of the meadow, perhaps to be meddled with by cobwebs and spiders as others have been. These meadow spiders have their nurseries under dew-crystalled canopies of cobwebs slung between the grasses. They loom them over their eggs with morsels in wait for their hatching. I tread carefully round them, spider-fearful and not wishing to crush their gauzy confections that are dew-lapped in the grass.

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Butterflies and moths do not like to be abroad when it rains: they hide themselves in the low-leaved nooks of their host plants or cling to the undersides of trees and hang there in stillness, letting a sort of catatonic calm settle over them. They do not sleep, but they enter a state approximating it. There are so many here today that I cannot see how they could all hide themselves from the wet. But, wonderful though it may seem, they have; and as soon as a dry dawn arrives they emerge again with a fevered industry, ready to mate and gather energy and begin the cycle again. They fly like thimble-sized hummingbirds for two months only, furiously working and laying their eggs under leaves. And then, weary at last and having ensured their progeny, they die.

Today, here among them, following them in circles, my joy sits on the wings of this day-loving moth.

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In amongst the clover

Their white flowers offer
their lips to bee lovers
as they hover and linger
over a drop of nectar,
that is possibly sweeter
than anything – far better –
than I might taste, ever.
Whitely they bob like a
lay of snow over the
green in thick blessings or
a dying surrender at
close of an afternoon’s
long, tender while.
Trembling smiles
on the green near that
tree, but not under.
I watched the mower
cut down the clover
as though it were nothing,
just tidying the green.
For every clover that’s been
I mourn a little. Dreams,
spun from days of growing,
return fresher, quicker;
irrepressibly sweeter,
and here for the summer;
with rain to get plumper,
and lusher and bee-stung;
blushing beneath a sun
that beams adorations
on white-globe plantations.
I was never so happy as
when walking through clover,
a disciple of summer,
catching eye-fulls of bee-fur
on a blisteringly hot day.

(Mis)Adventures of Mole and Ratty

“As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.
A brown little face, with whiskers.
A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.
Small neat ears and thick silky hair.”

(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, first meeting of Mole and Ratty the water vole)

Anyone who has read The Wind in the Willows will be sympathetic to the spirit of whimsy that is calling me down to the High Royds lake this weekend like Mole, out for an adventure, enticed by the season’s “imperious call…moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him.” They will be equally appreciative of the practical joke that lies in wait for me by the banks of the lake.

Rain is waiting in glowering clouds up above the Chevin this Saturday morning, and I walk sky-glancing and pelt-wary to see whether I’ll have time for a proper bit of walk or not before the clouds move over to unburden themselves of their grey. Visiting my parents, I have been tempted by mum’s bright-eyed account of her recent sighting of a water vole in the grounds of High Royds to try my luck. I have never seen a water vole – few people other than dedicated naturalists, wildlife hobbyists and the luck-smiled have – the vole’s natural timidity and small litheness of movement making it a tricky subject for observation. I hold an idea in my mind of a fur-balled, preciously round and wet-slicked little mammal. It borrows the features of Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty from Wind in the Willows, whom Mole first meets on an impulsive foray down to the river. Rounder and fairer than a rat, with a beaverish mouth and teeth; eyes a beady, wise black; ears tucked back. So rare are they now, having seriously declined in numbers since the 1960s, that a breeding programme has been undertaken this year so that nearly 700 water voles, fresh to the wild and the countryside, are on the cusp of being released in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest. Perhaps they are releasing them right now I think as, friskily, I make my way down to the lake with a tickle of relish: little lissom, furred bodies moving from one element to the other even now as they slip into water. It is a happy Saturday-morning daydream.

Now, down here deep in grass by the lake, I rock my footsteps in quiet half-moons of movement: soft, grass-friending, like a careful old blotter rolling across the margins of a page. I think all these quiet thoughts into my steps, for water voles are easy to startle, chary of people and quick as fish into water. I see the circular forming ripples on the slate green of the water and hold my breath for rain, but these rims are made by clouds of ducking flies, not raindrops. Safe for a while then. There is the steady wah-wah of a mallard call – I’ve seen their young already about this morning. Swallows or swifts (bird twins to my amateur eyes, sharing a silhouette) lace the sky ahead in trembling flights and I am torn between them and the tracks that have been laid down in the grassy bank. These might have been made by the quiet-pawed water vole, and a little grip of excitement takes hold. Sorrels, clovers, buttercups, thistles, and grasses bracket me as my feet tie a ribbon of steps around the lake. The abundance of different flowers is a good sign. Water voles create a diversity of water habitat that is typified in such displays, and the flowers before me blow as encouraging flags to my search. It would be such a present to see a water vole I think in supplication. I gather limbs together by the side of the water and sink down into depths of grass to wait.

Water voles are unconcerned by mere human wants or timeframes, however, and I am here a good half hour of hopefulness before anything stirs. A damsel fly, bluer than description, shimmers glitteringly before me, showing off its finery, its segmented abdomen curling curiously. I see you, and yes you are quite lovely – but I am about other things here today, and I settle back again from my dazzled inspection. The furry bees play at clover beside me – yellow thoraxes and white fluffed bodies, their baskets of pollen on their knees. The buzzing is almost sleep-sending. It was a late night welcoming my sister home last evening and my eyelids are heavy reminders. I feel like Mole emerging into light from a dark nether world.

You have to be patiently fly-and-spider-crawled if you’d wait a water vole out. Nothing; and later still more nothing. I will come back tomorrow morning, I decide, and this time earlier to catch Ratty at his morning constitutional.

It is Sunday morning and – barely a peep of cloud in the sky, an early dry heat, and rabbits running in seesaws – I make my way down to the lake along prescribed (and un-) paths, a certain determination in my step. Doubtful after yesterday’s walk, I have made sure of the spot by the lake through close questioning of mum – the keeper of this rarefied knowledge – as though I would get at the very patch of grass the vole had been sitting on. I make for the place now, wary of dogs and runners who might scupper the stillness; my own footsteps as hushed as a yawn in a Sunday service. And there, just as I move in, silver-backed in the sun, I see it for a split-second before it senses me and moves on. A pulse of gratitude beats through me. A rare mammal, practically at the bottom of its food chain, and I have seen it here basking in the heat of the early morning sun. It runs off down the bank and, behind and as quietly as I can manage, I find where it’s gone to ground and I sit down in a dewy tussock nearby thinking, the game’s on. It is a long truce ensues. I begin to fear dogs bounding my way, hearing the sniffs and barks coming towards me, thinking of their wet noses exactly at the level of my face. This will not do. I get up, potter to the lake-edge and vainly hunt for any clues. I double back on myself as two runners pant past and – flash! – there again is a glimpse of vole, a beady eye, whiskering off down the bank. I am put out at having only glimpse-sighted it again: ought to have reconnaissanced the spot, I think. Methodical this time, I see the drain cover in the bank with the perfect view of the patch it seems to like – a lucky find in a pinch – and I settle down, grateful for not having to be dew-bottomed again, and wait. The lake slumbers under the climbing sun, mallard- and coot-swum. There are little bug-itches to my arms and legs, but I do not move; these are not enough to trouble me to make a vole scarce.

Something creeps up behind me as I hear the unmistakable sounds of bending grass and furtive rustles. My ears are almost twitching, and I sit in sepulchral stillness hardly daring to breathe. One black shining eye amongst the tall grasses, out of which, the vole seems to be watching me and trying to decide if I will harm it or not. Barely a foot away and sitting sniffing in the grass, and I can’t believe my luck, heart galloping at the glint of this black eye. Clever thing to come up unexpectedly behind me, stealthy as a snake through the purple grasses, the tallness of which lends cover and safety. My eyes scan around it; yes, I see it now, a run through the grass, I have indeed been lucky to pick this spot I think to myself with a proud little glow. And yet. My head still as a statue turned towards it, I do not detect the roundness of feature I expected to see in a vole. A runner passes and I watch it gather its front paws back into itself in a protective ball, poised, and I can almost see the tension in its muscles. It has heard danger and is ready to spring away if needed. The runner speeds off and we both settle down to examine one another again in the descending quiet. Its ears are pronounced and my misgivings lengthen into doubts. By halting steps, half forward and half back, it sleeks towards me, now no more than an inch from my foot, revealing itself smooth-pelted, nose-twitched, letting its whiskers tell for it. At last I see its tail, carried behind it like an afterthought – the clincher in the game: it is ribbed, pinkly bald and long. Ah. That’s that then. Patience has been rewarded in a fashion; not a water vole but a brown rat instead. The irony does not escape me, having come down to the lake to find Ratty.

I sit believing myself not too disappointed for a while. I am proud at least that I can tell the difference between them and laugh a little at the bathos of the moment. But, my thought pipes up, after only the most compelling of evidence. The tail – which for so long it seemed to have hidden from me – the tail is indisputably a rat’s tail. Rattus norvegicus is a rodent only a little less famous than its history-shamed and plague-carrying brother rattus rattus, the black rat: the documented killer-by-pathogen whose doubled name suggests it represents the archetype of ratishness. I rebel a little at the idea of rats because they are omnivores, and so by extension I know it would eat me given half the chance. If it was hungry enough. However – and here I cling a little to my romantic illusions – this rat is a gent not so unlike Grahame’s Ratty. He simply sniffs me and then, with a complete indifference and nonchalance, heads off in the other direction. I tell myself that I am pleased to have seen him – even though he’s not a water vole – as he makes down the bank. Of course with all the dog-walkers, runners, push-chair walkers and litter, it was pretty well bound to have been a rat rather than a water vole. Wrong to blame him for being only what he is. And, my train of thought builds, I had seen no evidence of tunnels in the banks, and not once had he actually gone into the water with the quick ‘plop’ of a paw-footed, sure-footed waterman. To do so would have been a water vole’s surest means of escape if disturbed: a bolt-hole into the wet at need. I shrink my lobe of disappointment and send-up my hopes with inward teasing. A rat for a water vole is perhaps not so pitiful an exchange.

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Apparently well-groomed, he is simply another example of urban wildness leaching into housing estate hinterlands; a scavenger picking over human and canine leavings. I chide myself that, after all, I can’t be too choosy about which of nature’s offerings I will accept and which I vilify.

On the way home, butterfly-led, feet folding the grass along this lake-circling desire-path, I worry how I will break the news to mum. Tell her the truth and I’ll demystify something magical: unspin a dream of a supposed sighting. And yet. I look heavenwards as if to find an answer to my quandary and white-bellied swallows catch my eye and drag the sky in their fly-hunts. At least I’ve learned to tell a swallow from a swift today. That is something. Beside the fuss-making chittocking of magpies, my heart walks a little heavier than when I set out. Perhaps though – and here I catch a little at hope again – perhaps. It is arrogant to suppose that merely because I did not see a water vole, so too she did not. It could be that she did, and I tread a little more lightly over bulrush cotton, inviting possibility.

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Illustrations © E.H. Shepard

Walking with my Father

My father’s strides are twice the strides of mine;
bee-blinded and spore-gathered I drag the path behind,
lingering by the dry stone wall a time
to see lapwings, fluff-fringed, give chase with their cries.
He makes space for my whimsies, as though delay
at vetchlings and foxgloves and other outdoor loves
were not a pain and he’d not rather be going
to lay the path ahead, to seek a stile,
and leave the tussocks, bogs and ditch behind.
The way is long, he’s things to do, but this too is true:
he lets me amble slow to know a place,
while striding on and covering twice the space.

Patiently, he waits my searches out,
calling advice on where to step and not.
In spite of warnings I am mud-slicked, got
with grasses, seed-muddled, moth-tickled, hot.
He keeps a gracious silence on my dirt;
he’s seen me bramble bruised and hurt
in childhood trees at childhood games when young,
knee-high to a sapling, unformed, unbegun
to life and death and future happenings.
His hands have swung me high up into trees;
and round in circles. Now, older, his hand’s squeeze,
in the fields’ up-and-overs, is an ‘if you need.’

Together but separate, like moon and planet,
each walking our own particular gait. Always though,
when got ahead, he waits with half a knowing smile,
drawing a bead on the horizon mile until,
fresh with meadow daisies, speedwell, sorrel,
and weathered with smiles of green dreams –
of black moths and bullocks one week new,
and full of my discoveries and spring-caught cheer,
I at last appear; never so slow that he’d leave me behind,
even if he’s fly-swarmed and over-sun-warmed waiting.
My father strides with steps twice-large as mine,
along the path I’ll in my own way find.

Of Flowers, Wildernesses and Hauntings

The sounds of puttering families background the first part of my walk today, like a stereo left on – white noise in the street mingling with the birdsong – because it’s the weekend and we are all thumbing our noses at the unpromising sky. It is that species of spring in-between weather when some people throw caution away, donning shorts and short-sleeved tops, and others pass like admonitory puritans in full rain-gear as if to say, these clouds won’t clear. I am somewhere in between, a half-optimist, a hedge-my-bets-ist, with a cardigan and jeans rolled half-way up and pumps on my feet. I disdained an umbrella and a watch on setting out, a decision I’ll probably regret, even if it was made in the spirit of freedom from constraint. Largely oblivious to the surrounding sounds of humanity beside, behind and in front of me, I have my nose folded into a book on wild flowers, resolving to find them all out in their haunts, until a fretful child complains loudly at a sudden shower and a beleaguered father, weariness in his step, consoles with the magic words we will go home. Not I. The rain invokes the latent metallic tang of the soil from the ground and I am overtaken by a pall of warm, wet, mineral mist. This may be as good as it gets today and I am eager to collapse into it.

The search for wild flowers, taken at face value, sounds romantic and a little frivolous; a remnant of a very Victorian manufactured chivalry, or that dreamed up in the musical Camelot when Arthur earnestly explains the legitimacy of flower-gathering to Lancelot, as though checking through some form of ‘Chivalry Calendar’ where it is written next to May/June, in large gothic typeface, disport thyself with finding wild flowers and garland thy lady therewith. I am for looking, not picking today. The right to gather flowers was one of many time-out-of-mind rights hotly contested in the late Victorian period between the rural working classes and landowners. Enclosure of much formerly common land made the picking of flowers, from which a whole folklore including country songs, herb lore and courtship rituals stemmed, a tradition soon to be lost. Since then I wonder how many of us really see wildflowers: the bit of wild on our doorsteps. Too many are prosaically classed as mere weeds, their former uses forgotten. I am come today to see how my native patch is enlivened by wildflowers; as I say, not to pick, for I prefer my wildness left where it is, though my intentions are indeed acquisitive. I mean to put names to them, to assemble each different one into an imaginary bouquet, collect them up, and write them onto the page; to better learn them so as to know them when I see them again. I am determined to become a noticer of all nature’s ‘nothings’, and to build a deeper connection through noticing. After all, a flower’s honest intention and design is to be noticed, simply in order for pollination to take place. And if, as Marvell claimed, the ‘industrious bee computes his time as well as we’, then perhaps I might just as well spend a little of my time over flowers.

Casting myself adrift, then, into the flower banks of Shipley glen, between the canal and the river, I am in no great hurry, and I look – really look – at every flower, like a pollen-stockinged bee myself, deciding where to land a glance, stick my nose, or linger. I am delighted and thrill-drunk when I match them to their names. To confer names is a serious business, an act of creation, as Brian Friel understood when he wrote, “We name a thing and – bang! – it leaps into existence.” There are the flowers I already have names for – yellow water iris, poppy, forget-me-not, cow-parsley – but then there are the new discoveries along the way: tiny, bright yellow purses of the kidney vetch by the side of the water, the true blue of the crane’s bill, clovers in two colours. So engrossed in my examinations am I that I startle three mallards sheltering under the bank who skitter and flank together with a splash as I return guiltily to the safety of the path. Even the outrage of mallards cannot stop me from continuing my searches however. Flourishing on an overgrown soil heap, there’s the wild pink geranium, herb-robert, that some call storksbill because its forming bud is beaky. Its flowers are unshowy and unfussed by my regard: tiny-veined, five-petaled faces lift up lively to the sky; its stems flushed red under the sun. It was believed once to be a good luck charm and a fertility herb. Hopeful country wives had it tucked under their pillows, their heads laying down wishes on top of it. Now that we’ve been formally introduced, I begin to see it cropping up everywhere, a sort of guide to my walk today, as though vouchsafing my passage.

Well into the thick of the meadow are the brute stems of the hogweed, supporting flower heads as big as dinner plates, swaying heavily, and looking like they’ll bend or break in the breeze. I clamber ungainly into their midst in tick-fearing perhapses of footsteps as if at every step a nettle might hold me to ransom over a sting. I will NOT be stung, the soles of my feet insist quietly, caution in their presses. Nettles too have their flowers though: little woolly skeins of green. And though irksome to us, 40 different varieties of insect, winged and carapaced, depend on this prickly pest plant, including the red admiral butterfly, and a host of moths. A scattering of heart-shaped leaves is prevalent under the hogweed: black bindweed that some call buckwheat is leading a merry dance and you have to look hard to see where it has snaked the stems of other plants. Some call it devil’s tether, swaddling itself and other plants tight together. A closer look confirms it has made a pact with the nettle; it is growing up its stems, neatly corkscrewing them in black, and proffers its counterfeiting leaves so I maybe won’t see the stinging set beneath. How clever of them to fall in together at such a trick. Just in case of mishap, I find a patch of dock leaves close by for a swift remedy. Nature is astute like this.

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The next flower-bearer I almost miss, as it so eagerly blends into the general green – this suits its purpose, you see. Sticky goosegrass – or cleavers, catchweed, stickeljack or grip grass (apt-sounding names) – barbs my hands and arms as I take hold of it to find its white pin-prick flowers. I was careful of the nettle, for I knew the risks, but no one ever told me of the rash goosegrass can give. Red itch blooms over my arms and (somehow) my neck and I am defeated in spite of myself, splotchy and needled by heat. A lesson learned. The goosegrass has swallowed the low-lying branches of an ash and is making quick work of the willowherb underfoot, sticking to it tenaciously by virtue of its tiny hooks under leaf and along stem. Its flowers are, according to my book, ‘rather insignificant’ and no bigger than a dot; but it’s as well not to dismiss this busy worker. So rapacious is it, I can almost see it move, trying to muffle and stifle everything in its path like a super-animated cobweb that needs no spider to direct it. It is the swiftest and most adamant at reclaiming land for nature; butting in and talking over its neighbours, running as fast as its prattle will take it. No wonder its flowers are so small; all that energy goes into throwing out streamers, which feel along other plants like scouts going ahead into battle, the forerunners on a quest to colonise more and more green. The thing that all these plants have in common is that they are most often to be found in waste places or places whose cultivation has been suspended. Humanity moves out and these plants move in as speedily as they can, bringing a bit of wildness to suburban fringes.

I sit down by a gurgling swell of the stream – an Aire river tributary – to eat my lunch of bread and cheese and cherries and to let my bare toes burrow into grass and sandy soil, needing the contact with the earth. My bottom is quickly wet from the earlier shower but I don’t mind as, with illicit pleasure, I cast my cherry stones into the stream to be taken where the water wills. A pitter patter of rain starts up again, steadily getting heavier, so I remove myself to the cover of a sycamore, generous-leaved and obliging, still listening to the water running over stones in hollow-sounding plunks. Coming from farther away, I can hear the disturbance of the weir like a knife upsetting the river, giving it drama and something to complain over. Then a child splashing about happily with his father, singing, ‘rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ My lips curve in a sickle moon of delight.

When the rain slackens off and the sun shows itself, I take the little road by the boat club with no clear idea of where I am headed, only knowing that I have exhausted the flower-spotting down by the river and wondering what the side of the valley might reveal. The road leads to a gate and then a wide avenue, which is sun-speckled, warming, fly-moted and rich with the smell of cows from the adjacent field. Manure and hairy hides baking in the emergent sun all mingle together and I breathe deep. This is a Thomas Hardy smell and my mind hooks onto images of hot, milky summers in lowland pastures. Brow pressed against a warm cow side as milk fizzes into a bucket. A blackbird capers madly across the road at my coming looking a little chastened and indignant (and, it must be said, a little silly) at being disturbed. Couples of them begin to sing to one another from the horse chestnut trees, ending in high-noted questions that never seem to get answered, going round and round in endless enquiry. I am jealous of them: jealous that I did not find this avenue in the early spring when the trees had their spires of scented blossoms, all running in a perfumed line. I hug the field boundary here and, warily now, spot the goosegrass again, this time enacting one of its other names, robin-run-the-hedge, as it makes quick work of enveloping the holly margin, covering it up in its sticky stems like a lover that won’t let go.

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The sun is tucking and untucking itself in the clouds and can’t seem to make up its mind whether to partner me the rest of the way. Its aloofness pricks my determination to enjoy myself as I pick my path over stone, pressed through long use into the clods, and pause by a hawthorn tree. I hear a start in the ivied roots here and wonder. A vole? Mouse? Stoat? Rabbit? But none of these appear. A pair of tiny wrens suddenly emerge, each no bigger than a thumb, nut-brown and spotted, very dear. Miniature delights. In birders’ terms they weigh no more than a pound coin, but I would not put so low a price on them. Tremblingly they sing as though they are putting their whole souls into the thing and I stop to listen, and watch them bob their tails. The field where the cows are grazing seems hazed and full of possibility as I look out over it and I take in a glad breath as the path starts to build ground. Further on, a squirrel and I surprise each other equally and hold each other’s gazes, mine looking into its eye glittering darkly from where it sits frozen on top of the wall. It is a strange feeling, knowing that for this instant its whole little being is fixed entirely on me and mine on it. There is a little stand-off, but the squirrel is the first to break contact and back-track disappearing who knows where. It is uphill work and tiring, come on legs, and I keep looking ahead to gauge the distance still to go until I reach my summit and the limit of the path.

I do not expect what I find next – a full-stop at the top of this little lane. A gate – but so curious a gate – leading on into Fairbank Wood, a patch of woodland awkwardly situated between boundary walls of various kinds, each jutting out at degrees to clasp and hold the wood between them. This gate looks more fitted to being in one of the royal parks in London than bracketing the way to a scrap of woodland off a farm lane. As strange as Lucy coming upon the lamppost in Narnia, I think to myself. And, with six golden sceptres at the heads of the iron posts, it is grandiose and out of place: a relic from something else, and here my mind catches at a truth as it turns out. I later learn this all used to be part of the Milner Field Estate at the heart of which, at the heart of the wood, was a gothic-steepled great-house owned by Titus Salt, mill owner and founder of Saltaire, and his son. It seems it was an unhappy house which, rumour has it, blighted those who lived there with strange and unusual deaths or persistent bad luck. Fortunes lost, sudden heart attacks, drowning, scandal, blood poisoning from a thorn scratch. Queer happenings, made the more uncanny by being focused in one place. Now I know a little of its history, I wonder if there is such a thing as genius loci: if a place really does have a spirit or a memory.

I pass through the gate onto what looks like an old carriage way with a central three-cobbled line snaking it like a back bone. And occasionally a row of stones cuts across the way to carry off flood water through little culverts spaced at intervals along the base of the dry stone wall. The astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term ‘Big Bang’ to describe that primary cosmological shock, grew up near here in Gilstead during the First World War, in the lea of that sad house, and wrote of how he and the other village children used to squeeze themselves through these culverts to sneak onto the estate, only to be caught and have their hides tanned by gamekeepers. The woodland floor shows no signs of upkeep now, having given way to ground elder in advancing militias. Hollow-stemmed, deep-rooted, intractable – the devil in a garden. It’s another sort of wilderness here, but this time the kind that follows tacit abandonment. The house, apparently, could not be sold at auction – no one would buy it – and so was dynamite-blasted in the 1950s. Then demolition gangs were sent in to finish dismantling it, leaving the stone as a resource for mill repairs. This ‘undoing’ of the house speaks for itself, for it was very splendid in its hay day and entertained royalty twice. Now only rubble remains. The woodland has completely taken it back: the goosegrass, bindweed and elder all smothering the persisting stones into silence. It has returned to nature and, my superstitious thought supplies, perhaps does not look kindly on interlopers. The mosaic floor of the conservatory is still discoverable in the middle of the wood, and lying under the fast-growing trees are the old cellars, ivied over and moss-grown. Little snatches of herb-robert grow in the cracks of the old garden steps; or to give it its common name, death-come-quickly.

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Sparable or Sparrow’s Bill Lane, wall-sided and tree-shaded, leads off on the left here – a public right of way, still tramped by walkers’ feet, the sign pointing the direction proving that it’s not forgotten. An old labourer’s path perhaps; a shortcut for the estate workers from whence they could hear the ringing of the mill’s shift bell; a trysting place for lovers after the Sunday service. To walk it is to walk into history, treading where so many other feet have trod before. Two Neolithic-looking stones guard its entrance, though in truth they can be no more than 200 years old: they keep the way. Walking it now, I am helping to keep it too, and in a split-second of kinship with other walkers, and other writers of walking, feeling the pound to ground as a great leveller of humanity, I smile and am eager to dive off into the lane to see where it might take me. Half an hour later, wearied, still rash-prickled and now a little fretful, I have been sucked down into twists and turns until I am disorientated and no longer know my bearings or the direction for home. The path draws me in a noose more tightly around the former estate and there is a closeness on it and a feeling of needing to get on that I don’t investigate too carefully. The tree cover breaks at last and it’s like coming up for air, a brief caesura in the chug of mud and close-cropped ivy and stumbling stones. This is where Fred Hoyle used to take himself off for his gambols to spot birds’ nests; where, at the age of seven, he overcame his fear of the dark by making himself walk this track at dead of night as others had done before him. One of the most renowned astronomers in the history of the discipline, he perhaps first sighted the stars from a clearing such as this, quaking a little at night terrors and sinister shadows, as I quake a little with having been turned about in the wood in the broadness of day. And I glance up through the veined tracery of tree branches and leaves at a liquid sky, above which the stars wait invisibly.

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A walk into wet

I have been two days inside like Jeremy Fisher at the back door watching the pelting rain come down in slaps onto the mossy tarmac of my back yard. Throughout this plashing, there’s been a magpie haunting the eaves and chimney of the house with an ungodly squawking. I would say it is the rain has made it drowned-feathered and cross, but the magpie twitters even in the tentative truces between the rains. I wonder if it has a nest nearby it’s worrying over. Then, superstitiously, I think on a heartbeat, one for sorrow. Perhaps it is old Maggie – or my superstition – impels me to venture out today in spite of the weather. There is an uneasiness and all-thumbsiness to my preparations as though the spirit were willing but the flesh… I secure myself inside my rain coat (an improbable yellow) and shore up the feet in wellies, determined that the rain is not going to get a foothold. I will bring brightness with me today, I think with a touch of hubris, amidst all this dulled grey.

My rain coat is waxed so that the hood, when up, is like the skin of a drum and magnifies all noise in a little bubble about my head. This is a risky business near cycle lanes and traffic but, like an owl, I will be swivel-headed watching for anything coming. The thick drops dive-bomb me as soon as I close my front door, smacking the drum, and I body forth in hunkering strides with a grim and wholly sham defiance. Beat, beat, beat. Puddle-wonderful comes to me out of nowhere, an echo of E.E. Cummings. Humph! I make my position clear in my hunched shoulders like hardened soldiers: I am here under sufferance and because the magpie is a loud complainer.

The wind has worked itself up overnight from the west and the first part of my walk faces it head on. It shoves at me with unfriendly imperatives: be on your way! So that I have to tuck myself into it as it whips the air out of my lungs. Langstrothdale was the last place I walked in wind such as this, except that was in January in freezing weather and my brain didn’t even work then, just seized in icy surrender. Even the teeth feel that biting a cold. I should be grateful today then, but there is breath-stealing effort in this kind of walking and I find it hard to concentrate on much at first save putting one foot in front of the other; in front of the weather, as it strips through the glen. Nature’s joys are a little harder sought on a day like this; a turning day – a between-the-acts day – a spring-cleaning day when the season spills and washes itself,* tramps down and glosses its spent early signals underfoot. Sluicing everything to shiny newness. The wind beats the bounds and flushes out anything weak, spent, dead or dying. As I press on, the wild garlic is a yellowing untidiness about me, the rain releasing the last little ghost of its flavour. And in spite of my efforts I am soon washed too, ruddy and glow-faced with draggled ends of sleeves; glasses made prisms hard to see out of. Myopic mole. I tell myself that this wind, cold off the Atlantic, is a hopeful harbinger that carries the first promise of summer in its blasting breath. Hmmm. It’s a while before the buoyancy in this kind of thinking takes.

Still, I look for the seeds on everything: little universes waiting to burst their lives next year in quiet splendour. They do not mind if no one is watching; don’t mind bending a little under rain; just doing what they’ve always done. Grasses like weather-vanes beside the way bow beneath the wracking winds, frantically pressed together in creaking conference. They remind me of that bit in Vaughan Williams’s Greensleeves when the violins chase each other through grassy meadows. Or so it seems to me. Spring is turning into something else before my eyes. There’s been a curtain call and I wonder if I’m meant to see this bit. On the nap of the wind is a forethought of summer, soon here to throw up new things amidst the detritus which is already turning back into the ground. Buttercups – cups o’ joy I call them – bridge the gap and are grown top-lofty and scraggly in the meadows. They’ve got some ambition in them to grow so high, but the rain teaches them a humble lesson.

Early_June_Walk_JarofMemories(Kylie_Norman)

(Some titbits I collected from the path on my walk)

I am all out of kilter today, at odds without knowing why, and I feel petty and churlish as I pass by dervishes of buffeted elderflowers, saucers of cream balanced against the wind. To stick a nose into one is to try to catch its secret, except that you can’t. No attempt at enfleurage could recreate just that smell of rain-washed freshness. Underfoot lie the wind’s casualties: sycamore wings, oak apples, confetti of blossom. Tiny pine cones snap and groan against the boot. All this banquet brings the birds out into the path with tilted heads as if to say, perhaps a caterpillar or other juicy morsel has fallen. Blackbird, crow – a sparrow no bigger than a fistful of feathers. And on the playing fields beside the river, sharp-tipped swallows broadcasting and scooping the air as if they would catch the rain in big-bellied nets. A mesmerising layering of flights against the heavy grey. These are not bothered by weathers. Driving forward into the wind, I am almost oblivious to snail matings down on the ground: the two here are busy about their business, fuse-clamped together (again in spite of the weather).

Why, then, do I contend today with the weather? Ornery and morose. The willow wands in the water let loose their streams of leaves – why don’t I, like them, let myself be borne on? The rain has coursed the path with sand-flushed rivulets until it becomes a flowing tributary beside the river. Sucking my boots under. It’s true what some people say, that the path has muscles of its own; it’s honing them on me as I try to keep some kind of firm ground under me. I am planted into the path at intervals only to have to labour out of puddles dishonest about their depths. Yes, walking is striving today.

Still there is a pleasure in being out under this heavy soak. Mouth full of the smell of soil and soft mulch under trees; leaves waxed in watery deep greens, reflective as glass. Clover, and something other I don’t have a name for, have crept out beside the bank. I don’t know many names for the flora and fauna I see and I walk onwards groping at the kinds of names they might be. Pink gossiper, lifted lips, gossamer glory. Fancies. Beside them, the water takes the image of the rain like a negative, reacting in bubbled dips to its pelting, throwing out rounds of ripples. I wonder what it sounds like to a fish? Is that a stupid question? It seems to move in harder and harsher clouds for a while and I am bent-backed with it – surrendered at last. And on the bank a wagtail is sitting, like its name, in perpetual motion, just watching out of a little dark eye.

Loosening a little, the wind lightens on my return and the rain shakes off some of its emphasis. Now just chatter in the background, the kind you encounter from an unexpected acquaintance at the supermarket, slowly but surely settling into their patter. I mind it less now, this hum-drum clatter, my feet slurping into puddles I had groused at on setting out, stirring up the silty bottoms of them with a – perhaps – gleefulness. Now I make my peace. Palms outward to Old Mother Goose, hissing her sharp-tongued warning at me in protection of her littl’uns; I’ve heard all your bluster before, mother, I won’t harm you. And, wetly, I turn back up the hill.

I arrive home sodden, fresh-faced, buoyed and better for having had the breath knocked out of me. And for having been distilled a little in elder blossom.

 

*I have, with a little licence as to season, used an image from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring here, taken from Tom Bombadil’s explanation to the hobbits after a wet day in the Old Forest, “This is Goldberry’s washing day…and her autumn cleaning.”