Nature Notes

Brown hares, snow hares.

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I never meant to go out that far, that high or for that long. At least, not before getting some chores done. But, when it stopped snowing after more than 24 hours, the world was so transformed, so breathtaking in its beauty, I was utterly taken; spellbound.
The light coming through the end of the holloway flung long blue shadows from the trees like a throw line towards me. Christmas-carded with snow and so heavily weighted, the branches form a tunnel low enough to have to crawl through in places.

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The open down is a glittering moonscape. The tussocky meadow anthills smoothed into unearthly, rounded humps.

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I climb up alone, beyond the place the snowplough stopped on the road below me, creating a white wall higher than my head. The snow that had been at my welly tops, was now well above my knees.

All the way, I have the company of hares, or at least, the impression of them. I track the lines of their crisp prints in the snow, measuring two, then three of my strides to one animal, as it increased speed. Criss-crossing, racing, up and down the ramparts of the hill fort, mostly on top of the snow, sinking three or four centimetres in, they too cast their own blue shadows.

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In a wedgewood-blue sky, the sun dazzles off the wide snowfield and a frost layer of ice crystals that sparkle on top. I am enthralled, enchanted; bewitched by the blueness of the snow, the polar silence, the arctic curves and folds. The panoramic aloneness of it.

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A succession of 4x4s try the adventure of the road below. They hit the snowplough wall and are stuck. Another from the opposite direction seeks the road, finds only fence post tops; the drift, skimmed smooth and innocent over the top as if with a palette knife, would swallow a Land Rover whole.

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At the top of the hill are more cookie-cutter hare prints. I can clearly see how far the hindfeet overreach the forefeet, crossed like the legs of an animated director’s chair, between great gaps of suspension above the earth. It makes me smile.

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The Wayfarer’s track is heavy going. I sink to my hips in great, cold duvet folds of snow that fill up my wellies. I have to surge and swim my way out, grateful that no one can see me. The dogs are struggling; summiting the drifts, then sinking up to their necks. I should head home. But I want to take it all in. I want to see all my beloved, familiar places transformed like this. I don’t think I can ever go home again.

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And then, 974ft up, at the height of the hill, 26ft short of a mountain, three hares dash up from the ground in a cloud of powdered snow and sprint a figure of eight ahead. Bright, chestnut forms, burning against the snow like sleek racehorses. Brown hares. Almost-mountain hares.

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Nature Notes

Hedgebottom Foxes.

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A blank-window pallor gleams through the bottom of the bare hawthorn hedge on the hill above. Where protective tree tubes have been, the hedge bottom is open and spaced evenly by slender trunks, giving it a cloistered appearance. It is an unusual vantage point for me: a steamy kitchen on a Saturday-job afternoon. The scribbled thorns above arched panes of castellated winter sky, make it look like a flat trompe l’oeil painting. A hare sits silhouetted under one of the arches, cleaning its long ears; a pre-Raphaelite figure combing her hair at the window. It stretches its back like a cat; a Mariana in the moated grange, framed by a pillared casement that Tennyson, Millais or even Shakespeare might recognise. I stop toying with a loose curl around my finger, stretch the ache out of my own back, put down my binoculars and snap out of a reverie.

At home, the sky seems brighter through the wood’s lattice of leaded lights and a change-up of bird song. The mistle thrush astounds us by turning up the volume, calling the whole wood out with his special brand of dogged, melancholy optimism. At noon, an owl calls three times from the wood.

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I walk the dogs later, hoping to reach the big beech hangar on the down before sunset. I don’t, so I stand and watch the gold soak into it, like syrup into burnt toast. The hanging wood looks like a great creature on castors, drawn back and poised at the point where gravity is about to let it go, screaming downhill. It looks full of rollercoaster tension; all the frisson of crepuscular, vespertine activity hidden inside.

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Neither dog spots the fox. A broad stroke of sunset gilding its back, it moves through the blurry myopic squint of earth haze and night air and melts into the maize without a rustle.

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I drop down into the familiar sunken lane with a primal thump of fear and doubt. The lane could be black water for all I can see. It isn’t of course. But something, not a dog, trots past panting lightly.

There are small disturbances in the hedgebottom at head height, the tiniest flurries of flicked leaves every few strides. Voles and mice darting away, trembling at owl cries. At eye level, a shadow doubles back and runs past in a zoetrope of flickering motion. I seem to have become tangled in a thread of foxes.

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Wavy-limbed oaks are wrapped in jumpers of ivy, their sleeves unravelling around a fuzzy, diffuse moon. At midnight, returning from a friend’s house, a woodpigeon calls from the wood. The moon is in the village pond, alerting me to the still, black water and the sharp smell of snow.

Nature Notes

Shifting mists.

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Each day, tentatively and in small increments, there is a little more light. And signs, too, of the season to come before we expect them: snowdrops and bluebell shoots, blackbird notes, the first drumming woodpecker and the gold lamb’s tails of lengthening hazel catkins; sherberty yellow daubs against the cold, wet, teabag-browns of the wood, their citrusy yellow powder, bright as a yellowhammer’s head.

The cold weather pulls the birds into the garden, ready for the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, possibly. A mistle thrush sings strongly at the top of the oak, leaning into a north-easterly and carolling into the darkest part of the year, when we have swung furthest from the sun, to call it back. Below him and his singing, I’ve hung the mistletoe bough from the house in the apple tree, where I have also left some lights, until the batteries run out. Green-gold sprays of mistletoe I planted 12, 10, or 5 years ago are sprigging from the apple bark.

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I walk for hours from home without seeing a soul. Wreathy mists come in and out like the ghost of a sea this once was, making strange islands of distant Pewsey Vale, White Horse and Liddington Hill. The mist unfurls like breath, like a shifting, magic carpet rolled out, like a silk scarf trailed along the valley floor.

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There are fresh rumours of otters in the lake of the big house. It seems at first outrageous. Yet here is the river source, nothing more than an ooze, widening into a ditch, widening into a stream – enough, for these tricksy, ethereal animals; silk scarves in animal form, nosing upstream like the mist.

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In the evening, there is the glass clink and clitter of skim-ice broken in the trough; and the curlicue purl of breath from a dunnock singing on the boundary hedge. It reminds me of the white mist of the morning.

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Gone sunset, and I shake out more straw in the barn for a cold night; a stored summer of thick gold ribbons for warmth and colour. My son gets home in breathless, infectious awe, from riding his mountain bike alongside a hunting barn owl. Twice, there and back.

The back door opens and the light spills out.

Nature Notes

Trespasses.

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The fog and its hiding, muffled property lends me a welcome, invisibility cloak that I wear in repudiation of some kind of exile.  Walking alone and further to get to familiar places sharpens the senses. By the swing gate, the upturned aspect of ash twig-ends, ending in lamp black buds like deer’s feet, show me the way: up and onwards, with light steps. I pull on a bunch of dangling ash keys and let myself back in.

The drip and distillation of climbing into the cloud purifies, condenses and collects my thoughts. Long-winged ravens sweep past unseen, rustling like stiffened taffeta just beyond the fog’s blank page of white sky. When I reach the gorse and look back, there is a perfect fogbow: a  gauzy rainbow of faint blue and red in an unbroken halo below. I could almost dive through it.

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Another day, another transgression. The new growth on the hedgerows is a damson pink to match the breasts of a pair of bullfinches keeping pace with me, until I lose their white bottoms among the snowberries. Woodpecker and owl holes are revealed in trees.  A stand of ash and yew trees are splashed with the white tell-tale emulsion of a kite roost high above.  A woodland pond has re-filled with the week’s rain and is pitted all around with an impasto of prints: pheasant, wild duck, muntjac, roe and fallow deer (slotted brackets that increase in size and depth with the species) and is stitched all around by the bills of snipe and woodcock.

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The pond is framed by an arc of bramble and the straw-braided, bright red berries of black bryony. But the smoke-blue smouldering seedheads of Old Man’s Beard, Traveller’s Joy or Father Christmas are my favourite. The thick, twisted ropes of wild clematis travel up and onwards through the hedges, in defiance of the hedgecutter, reaching the tops of trees. Adam Thorpe called it bedwine in his chalk country novel Ulverton. It becomes an emblem of time-travel, or the linking of stories and ages through a place, a constant thread. Bedwine, betwine – it comes into its own at this most magical, inbetween time of year. The grey, frosted globes each covet a filament of golden light within. Nature’s own fairy lights and baubles.

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Midwinter; and a mistle thrush leans into the wind, carolling, to counterbalance an earth tilting furthest from the sun. The days grow longer now by slow increments. The mistle thrush, the ‘stormcock’, continues to sing poetically and powerfully from the top of the oak, above the apple trees and their mistletoe. One evening 14 fallow deer cross the road in front of us, a big dappled and antlered buck bringing up the rear. We name them twice over – Dasher, Dancer, Donner and Blitzen … I am still seeing things – more, perhaps, than before. I am not cut off.

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One night, my daughters and I watch the Geminids fall like coloured glass from the sky, through Orion’s upheld, cartwheeling arms. We spy the Christmas Comet Wirtanen as a chalky thumbprint near the Seven Sisters, and confirm it through binoculars. A fox barks and is answered. Owls call. Golden plover whistle over.

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After a stormy spell, my son – who drove our Christmas Tree home with ‘L’ Plates swinging from its trunk – watches the illusion of the Cold Moon being hurled through the racing sky and clouds. It makes us dizzy and we laugh at the trick of it.

After all that wind and bluster, the hill is visible as a sharp black silhouette, the apex of a barn roof arcing behind the wood blown clean of leaves. Still there.

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Nature Notes

Owling.

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I own neither a passport, nor a house, but last night, saw 4 species of owl within a mile of home.

I heard the first before I saw it. The yelp of a little owl from the farm as I walked my youngest daughter home from school. We scan the outstretched limbs of the trees overhanging the field – the autumn filigree of beech mast, all nuts expelled, against a big heaven – until we find the owl’s small, rounded outline and approach carefully. A tree’s length away is enough: it bobs up and down with a stay-where-you-are pee woo woo; fierce eyebrows pale in the failing light.

Walking the dog half an hour later, the day begins to fold. There are quince bright as lightbulbs or lemons in the bare hedge. Field maples stake the boundary at lamppost intervals: wet pools of yellow light in lost leaves, glimmering up from the earth. The sunset has formed an apricot browse line under the sentry beech that marks the footpath, against the rain-dark, navy serge of Wiltshire’s vales.

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I walk beneath the big wet coliseum of an ancient chestnut, its bark split into great warped boards, like an antique wardrobe left out in the rain. I spot the tawny owl at the moment we make brief eye contact. It flicks off the branch and is gone through the complexity of trees in absolute and dextrous silence. The empty branch rebounds.

I get into the car to pick up my son from a village 7 miles away, where the bus from college drops him. There is still enough light and as I drive up the road that cuts through the down’s steep escarpment, I habitually scan the fence posts for owls. The short–eared owl, however, comes off the hill and flies alongside a few wingbeats, thwarted briefly in its hunting flightpath. Level with my wing mirror, it turns to look at me: a round face and kohl-rimmed, fiery eyes, held steady, then it powers in front, and is illuminated in my headlights. Pale and striated as winter grass with black brackets at its wrists, it sculls off on wings like long, thin oars.

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Our return journey is made in near-darkness when, in the same spot, a barn owl comes into view off the hill and over the car. It alights on a fencepost. We coast on the clutch until, windows down, we are at eye-level with it. It has its back to us, satellite dish head tilted to the ground, gathering, triangulating and pinpointing sound. We are a distraction. It turns its head through 180 degrees and fixes us with sloe-black eyes framed in a heart-shaped face. A spellbound moment and we drive on to leave it in peace, the headlamp beams filling with December moths.

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Home. Then evening stables. Through a gap in the sailing clouds, I can see the handle of the plough and steer myself by it. The pale orange frost moon rising takes my breath away. Tawny owls call from the wood and there is the shhhhhp of another barn owl. I have astonishing riches. To each horse, I carry the moon in a bucket.

Nature Notes

Rain birds, sun blushed. Pluvialis apricaria. 

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On the highest hill we are under the rain. Exposed as we are, we can see it coming towards us, a wall of grey obliterating the landscape in its path. Later, there are spectacular rainbows.

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After sunset, I walk out onto the big arable fields on the highest hills. Hares are silhouetted on the skyline against an apricot sky. They lope, graze and pause to clean long ears, pulling one at a time through their forefeet.

It is almost dark. Redwings call as they migrate over – and then I hear the first disorientating whistle of the birds I’ve come for; plaintive, loaded, melancholic. I turn around and around but can’t pinpoint it until, with a rushing sound and a quicksilver mist, the birds sweep past.

Golden Plover. Pluvialis apricaria, which roughly translates as: rain bird, sun blushed. They may have bred in Iceland, where they are fondly seen as the sweetest harbingers of spring, like our swallows. They are said to foretell rain. Certainly, on wilder, wetter, windier nights, they form bigger flocks. Then, their whistle is such a pure, clean sound, cutting through the wind, reminiscent of oystercatchers, anxious and fearful: collectively, they are a ‘dread’ of golden plover.

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The birds come round again – or perhaps it is another flock? The almost-human and haunting whistles again, too tueuu; the birds so fast and shifting, their notes are always behind them, leaving me pirouetting for them in a darkening field.

Then more drop from the navy sky, whiffling down with a flash of pointed wings, then vanishing into the inky blue field, leaving the air full of the sound of unseen wings. I step slowly forward and there is an eerie rushing, swishing: a great snaking rope payed out at speed; an unsettling, surround-sound, an invisible monster in the dark that would frighten me to death if I didn’t know what it was. They are flying so low that I cannot see them above the night-blurred margin of the close horizon.

Ten more steps and they lift with a softer, seductive sound: a wave drawing back from shingle, a 1lb of sugar poured into a jar, the prolonged shusshh of a satin dress slowly slipping off a bed and falling to the floor. I draw level to where I think they are and pass: their nervy flights shorter, less anxious and not calling now. They and the night have claimed the hill.

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I walk the last strides off the field backwards and this time when they lift I see them briefly – flashes of sharp, upright wings like flickering sails skittering over the surface of a dark pond. A silvery shoal, low, low and gleaming like knapped flints in the starlight.

I walk home exhilarated and slightly dizzy, down off the wide, dark field, higher than anything else I can see, into the velvet dark below, feeling like I’ve been up among the very stars themselves.

Nature Notes

Prosperous & Starveall: Old Pots & Old Gods.

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It’s been a week of climbing shining chalk tracks into china blue skies. High on the downs, the views open up to Pilot Hill and Siddown Warren, then Ladle Hill, Watership and White Hill. At Granny’s Lane, a weasel shoots across gleaming flints, as if someone pulled it across on a string; it disappears down a hole between tree roots, like a mouse stretch limo.

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Halfway up another chalk holloway, an excavator has dug a drainage hole and unearthed an old, household rubbish dump. Littered across chalk dirty as a remnant snow drift are dozens of Shippams Paste jars, potsherds, the spout of a tin teapot, the shards of a stoneware marmalade jar and the curve of a vintage teacup. Most movingly, there is half a pudding bowl, its inside marked with whisking, beating and creaming spoons – though not the softer, folding-ins of flour, crooked between a comforting arm and the curve of a waist. Given the date of the dump (Mum puts it at early 1940s) I wonder whether it was also used as a template for haircuts?

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In sight of Starveall, we walk on to Prosperous, home of 18th Century agriculturalist, Jethro Tull, who invented the seed drill and hoe credited with revolutionising arable farming. I wonder what he’d make of farming today – what starves and what prospers? The sun starts to dip and flushes the upper air with gold as we walk through the old farms of Coldharbour, Anvilles and Totterdown. Flocks of fieldfare and redwing barrel in on the chilly north wind, bolstered by blackbirds, robins and goldcrests from colder lands than ours.

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We are loud through the fallen leaves in the wood, yet a forgotten sound arrests me all the same. I hold back and listen: it comes again, now loud and clear – a guttural bark – a raven? Then the penny drops and with it a fresh shower of leaves and a gathering of senses: the freshly flayed white bark of an elder tree jumps out at me, and above the autumnal scent of leaf must and tar spot fungus comes the strong smell of churned earth, moss, crushed bracken and, crucially, ammonia. The deer are rutting here. I can hear the boar-like, belching grunt and bellow of a fallow buck, close by.

I move carefully, crouching towards it through the thick, tangled understorey until I glimpse a spotted flank and the wobble of a thick neck with its Adam’s apple enlarged by testosterone. There is the sense of a head turned to me. I can’t make out antlers, but I can see part of an elaborate headdress, like a camouflaged soldier’s helmet on Salisbury Plain. The deer has ornamented its wide rack of antlers impressively and I can see a black nose heavily fringed with moor grass and a crown of bracken. I feel I’ve been spotted by an old, old God. Herne the hunter, not the hunted.

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There is a hot flare of musky scent. I wonder what I smell like to him? I’ve not come prepared for fieldwork; I am wearing perfume, and the scent of a fried breakfast cooked in honour of my son’s seventeenth birthday clings to my hair, the smell of baking to my clothes and overall, there is the damp wool smell of my coat. The deer stamps a foot. The wood fills with golden light as the sun goes down and I sensibly back away. As I leave the wood for the open fields, the boar-like grunting starts up again. An ancient, clarion call, it is picked up by a passing raven, echoed back and taken up into the sky.

Nature Notes

Lamplight, Wessex Heights.

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Ours is a literary landscape, like much of Britain. The land has a pull on us and often, the most enduring way to express that is through words, conserving or farming it; planting woods, naming fields, woods and recording it on maps. I spoke recently at The Museum of English Rural Life with Robert McDowall, recently president of The Folklore Society, as part of a series of seminars on Land and Folk. I love The MERL deeply. It houses things I feel inextricably at home with.

We spoke about William Cobbett (1763-1835): Journalist, Politician and Farmer, his Rural Rides has never been out of print. I also read from the book I’m writing. Cobbett knew the villages & country estates here well. Were he riding around now, I like to think he’d interview me and my family. There are things he’d recognise, love & abhor. I think he would still see the aftershocks of agricultural revolution & enclosure. Cobbett was a complicated, contradictory, opinionated man. He hated the ‘game-preserves’ of grand estates and the privations caused by enclosure and land ownership which in effect had made rural labourers slaves, denying them the sustaining traditions of gleaning, commoning, gathering and working for a fair wage. He rode to see for himself the lives of the common man, woman and child, avoiding the detested turnpikes and gentrified smoothed roads. He chronicled, wrote and ‘harangued’ his way around his beloved countryside, acting as a kind of roving representative, rallier and spokesperson of a changing English countryside, often sleeping on the road even into his sixties, and giving away whatever budget he had left after meals – to those who needed it.

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After our talk, The MERL’s Curator, Ollie Douglas, showed me a new exhibit – a glass case containing the clothes worn by Newbury Bypass protestor, Jim Hindle with the book he wrote about the protests, Nine Miles. It is as if he is standing there. His clothes do not look out of place.

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Back home, I’m up on the downs: most afternoons, some evenings, a night. There are small revelations: a tiny grass snake, scooped from the road by a kestrel. A creature that has lived its short life hugging the earth, but, in its last seconds, is dangled 1,000ft above it, below the flared fan of the kestrel’s tail. In strong winds, rain blows up the escarpment like a reverse waterfall, hitting my chin first and running up the sleeves of my coat. Hundreds of jackdaws form a huge, diamond-shaped squadron in it, whilst others rise and fall as a curtained backdrop, through the updraft. The first fieldfare to arrive rise from a puddle, their bullfinch-grey bottoms and cream eyestripes reminding me of the season with a jolt, like a half-forgotten memory emerging. Another day I step up rabbit holes and soil rolls into a blue sky and hear the bellow of a fallow buck, and the clash of mighty antlers.

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I am drawn to the hill one rainy night. The wind rocks the car and I get out. No lights are visible in the valley tonight. No one is here. Yet along the old drove track a light – a mellow, flickering glow – bobs. I follow for a while, wondering what it is. Not a torch. A will- o’the-wisp? An owl light? It bobs rhythmically as if carried by a hand; a lamp swung backwards and forwards before disappearing near the dewpond. The hint of shapes. I hurry back to my car, wondering quite what I’m doing.

On National Poetry Day, I came across (via the wonderful @JanesKintbury on Twitter) a poem written by Thomas Hardy in 1896 that I did not know.

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,                                

I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.

Poems tend to find you when you are most in need of them. I knew our hill, Inkpen Beacon and its gibbet featured in Hardy’s map of Wessex, along with Kennetbridge (either Newbury or Hungerford) and I knew that Jude Fawley’s Marygreen is in fact, Fawley, home to Hardy’s grandmother and Aldbrickham is Reading with its beautiful red-brick buildings, designed by The Natural History Museum’s architect Alfred Waterhouse; one of which now houses The MERL.

But the poem resonated deeply. I felt it up there, where Hardy once felt those things on more than one occasion and wrote about them; haunted and running from the ghosts the poem explores. ‘Mind-chains do not clank when one’s next neighbour is the sky’.
We are tied in to the landscape, though we may come and go like birds.

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We are more weather pattern and environment than we know; the water in our bodies perhaps last March’s snowfall, distilled in the dewpond, vaporised into summer lightning. We are the smell of the earth after rain, the frost on the windscreen, sunshine, grass. The landscape is in us. Another poem: Norman McCaig’s A Man in Assynt speaks of a place far from here as ‘a frieze and a litany’ with the sentiments I feel:

Who owns this landscape?
Has owning anything to do with love?
For it and I have a love-affair, so nearly human
we even have quarrels.

Which takes me, full circle back to William Cobbett. I would’ve liked to have met him. It would have been a squeeze in our Dairyman’s cottage where my children share a room – but we could have housed and fed his horse. I think, even after some 180 years, he would have recognised much. I know Hardy would have done too. I wonder, if we’d met, would we have spoken?

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Nature Notes

The High Places.

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I head for the hills early, while there is still the mist in the valley below. Wheatears bounce from the lookout points of anthill to anthill. On this migratory highway, the round dome of the hill must seem like one giant anthill tump. A hopping place, a stopping place, a historic atchin tan for travellers heading south. Even now, it must look more scorched than when they passed this way in spring. Raised like pimples above thin soil and turf, the green-covered anthill cushions dried out in the heatwave, giving the sunburned down a freckled appearance. Some still are bare, but others are recovering, the mats of low growing, heat-and-exposure tolerant chalk plants coming back. I find the thickening leaves of wild thyme, bedstraws, marjoram and squinancywort returning.

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There is movement in the air above and I realise hundreds of house martins are passing silently overhead, low to the hill, spiralling over, feeding; wings and white bottoms glinting in the sunlight. They are so low, they are almost caught in my hair. I can see up through the slow moving vortex of them, turning and sparking in the light so that they are soon out high over the countryside below, taking a circuitous route inexorably south.

Otherwise, I am above the birds. I look down onto the back of hovering, hunting kestrel, its wings beating the air around an eye that stays pinned to the poster blue sky, grey rump pumping. A raven drops out of the sky, tumbling in a free fall past it, close enough to cause the kestrel to flip in evasive action before righting itself.

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I drop down into the creamy linen folds of chalk fields below. The tilth is fine and pale as apple crumble. I rub it through my fingers and it feels the same. Orange beads that are chemically dressed seeds, fall from my fingers. This field was sprayed with chemicals before the seed went in and afterwards with a ‘pre-emergent’.

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There is a freshening breeze coming up from Wiltshire and its white horses. The ravens, now above me, make soft ‘prruuuk, pruuuk’ calls. A new hedge crosses this field like a pencil line. An attempt to right agricultural wrongs. In the spray line between the drilled field and the buffer strip, heartsease has colonised. Little wild pansies: comfort for a bruised heart.

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The ‘desire path’ of generations of badgers crosses the field and I begin to remake my own, turning my ankles like a Land Girl in the furrows, aware of flints lacerating the soles of my wellies. There is the metallic taste of frost in the air as the soft, warm blue of this Indian Summer crosses the bar into Autumn.

Nature Notes

Notes on Gleaning: The Book Club and the Barley Husk.  

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It is my turn to host our village book club, my choice of title and I’m having a wobble at the thought: my house is small, disorganised, untidy; I have 6 chairs and only three wine glasses. A friend suggests meeting outside, where I am most at home, and it suits our subject, putting us in the scene.

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I seek permission from ‘The Big House’ and we are allowed the use of a grassy glade beyond the ‘park pale’. We are hugged by woods on two sides, and have a view of stubble fields rising to the big sweeping arc of the downs soaring over everything else. I take a brazier down and my son lights it, keeping it going until we arrive. I make flapjacks and a flask of mulled wine.

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We meet just before sunset to walk through the farmyard, past the long barn and the not-long-stilled combine harvester. Golden straw lines every edge and hangs festooned from low branches, even though we can taste frost on the air. Wheat, oat and barley husks whisper and skitter in little rolls over the dry ground. The sky is streaked with pink-and-orange mares’ tails. Beyond is the thin pale paring of a fingernail moon. We walk through the sheep and settle on a circle of chestnut logs. Pheasants cough up the dark in rising, massed crescendo before falling silent, and a robin sings wistfully. The first owls call.

Our book is Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, set over a golden summer in Suffolk, 1933. There are parallels with rural discontent in the 1830’s, with now, in Britain. All is not what it seems. We go through our questions, prompting talk of other rural novels: Reservoir 13, The Horseman, Ulverton, The Go-Between, A Month in the Country, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. We discuss the themes of change, of nostalgia; of a sheltered, pastoral idyll that has never really existed, that is dangerous. We are cautious. Much of it feels very close to home, to the bone. Others join us, phone torches wavering like owl lights across the field.

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We touch upon threads, pull at them. Toast marshmallows. We conjure up place and character: Edie, Elmbourne and Edmund – a rescued landrail (or corncrake) and a ‘familiar’ in the book. I reveal our own ‘Edmund’; a 100 year old taxidermy landrail I’ve been lent and tragically, the last one shot in our village. The downs above us a few weeks ago would still have been alive with their strange, rasping crex-crex calls for a little longer, along with the lonely, haunting wails of stone curlews and nightjar – now isolated to local heathland, but once, very much a ‘shepherd’s bird’.

Wreathed in woodsmoke, lit by firelight, we women discuss how hard life was then, how few choices there were. Coming over the freshly drilled field, we had begun, again, to remake our own desire path across, and felt some indication of the hardships wrought upon a body: twisting ankles and testing cannon bones and calves. The knuckled and knapped flints make their lacerations into the soles of our boots. We tell our own stories. The soft, hushed dark lends an air of close confiding, a careful listening ear, not felt before. We discuss the power or protection of witchery, madness and coercion: nostalgia, change, longing and betrayal; seasonal ritual, dread and comfort. Home.

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Aided by the hiss of a barn owl, the rural past, its lessons and ghosts are tangible, mingling with the woodsmoke. Patterns and stories are repeated, traces remain, indelible stains, the same dust resettling. When it is time to go, I think we walk home through the dark, slightly different people, each one of our hands making its customary 180-degree turn on the time-worn gatepost, before going our separate torchlit ways home, calling out across the fields with the owls under the stars, until our voices fade.

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