Nature Notes

The Moon and the Goshawk.

These are strange and unsettling times for us all. I head for the high tops, to clear my head with a clearing storm. I can see it coming; great grey brush strokes drawn down with a broad sweep over the wet page of a lemon-yellow sky.

I decide to cross the unsheltered expanse of the arable field to the wood. I might just make it, but it is hard going. The surface is layered in rocking, ankle-twisting flints the colour of a storm surge. The soil has washed away from under them by a winter’s worth of persistent rain. There is no discernible earth, only knuckle-bone rubble. And nothing between me and the sky.

I stride out as best I can and the field comes alive. Fifty linnets lift, bob and twinkle in the storm-light. Woodpigeons the colour of the approaching sky, clatter up and are joined by a whir of red-legged partridge and a pheasant, coughing alarm – but the latter have come from behind. It is not me and my shingle-rattling progress, then, that is spooking them. I look up, just before the sun is eclipsed by the towering cumulous, and oh! Slicing through the air, a goshawk! It comes right over my head, perhaps twice the height of the trees we are both heading for and is gloriously, breathtakingly unmistakable, all hip heavy and graphite-barred and large. It draws its gliding wings in, picks up speed and dives over the wood.

I look about as if there might be someone to share my excitement with. But there is only me and the sky. With an approaching hiss, the curtain of rain and hail sweeps me into the wood.

It passes quickly and I watch it walk its downpour to blot out Newbury, leaving lights pricking on in its wake.  The storm leaves an extraordinary light behind it. The big cumulous clouds sail on like wet sheets, their backs gilded by the sunset.

The moon has risen into the gold-infused air above the little hidden valley. It is a magical place at the best of times. But tonight, I could imagine white harts and wild horses.

I clump back over the field, cold, wet and exhilarated. With a whoosh that sounds like another sweep of hail, a flock of golden plover come in to roost on the field, fast, low, crying, spinning me round and dropping in like broadcast seed, finding sanctuary here in all this bleakness.

In the wood, winter thrushes are gathered in large numbers, prematurely leafing the trees in silhouette. They babble and chatter like a rushing stream; a sound that seems transmitted on by the telegraph wires – and the satellite moons of the communication tower, to the moon in the sky they might navigate by.

Later the night is full of them leaving. Tomorrow, I will be planting trees at school. Green, hopeful, for the future.

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Nature Notes

Alleluias and Storms.

Turning the key in the lock before work, the notes of a bird dropped faintly through  the cloud and stopped me in my tracks, the way a much-loved song suddenly connects above the noisy hubbub of a café, when you hadn’t been aware of any music playing.

I froze, head cocked to listen. Then cupped my ears towards the sky and there it was, undeniably, gloriously, bursting through the low mist of a cloud inversion that had us in its grip: Lullula arborea, a woodlark. Right over Home Field, somewhere above the back garden. Instantly recognisable when heard in full, but rare; or at least usually restricted to our heaths and open woodland. Sweeter, more plaintive than the brassy brightness of a skylark, the descending notes can sound like stolen snatches of nightingale song, a nuthatch piping, a mistle thrush or even a robin’s descending notes, when heard in part; pearls and peels refracted through these songs, rather than borrowed. Although that afternoon, a chimney pot starling had already learnt some of its phrases;  its little, spangly, black box recorder repeating them.

The lu, alu, alu, aluias on a descending scale are such a swooning lament. A pre-Raphaelite bird, if ever I heard one. I’ve heard them singing above stubble fields in recent years; and wonder if this is a trend? They are transient, staying, camping out for a few days or a fortnight before moving on. I skip to work, delighted, a little late.

The week was bookended by big storms and high winds. Storm Ciara hurled slices of corrugated iron across the farmyard, flung thick biscuits of roof tiles, rolled tractor tyres, banged barn doors and broke a tall Scots pine in two, like a pencil snapped in anger.

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At three in the afternoon, a sustained, fifteen-minute gust splintered the fir tree in the garden with a hard crack and a soft whumpf of pine needles, that instantly darkened the kitchen window, just missing the house. The girls screamed upstairs as the scent of pine resin reached us inside the house and the telephone wires whipped wild and loose against the glass.

(A neighbouring estate cottage’s near miss.)

A loud crash was followed by another as the old oak in the field next door came down, bringing the power lines with it, in a great violent ploughing of earth with its limbs. The second crash was a big field maple falling across the road by the village hall, blocking our way out. There was a moment of whirling snow and lightning.

In the lemony, grey-wagtail light of intervening days, I heard the woodlark once more; unexpectedly. It fluttered high over my head, whilst I was making repairs to the stable yard with baler twine. Like a chunkier skylark, a little ball of fast-fluttering effort cascading song, a golden snitch or Betjeman’s heart of Thomas Hardy, that flew out of Stinsford Churchyard, rocketing over the ghosts of the elm trees like a little thumping fig. I marvelled that it was still here. Our dozen house sparrows fluffed, bickered and preened between the tangled thorns of the quince hedge beside the last lightbulb fruit, glowing and momentarily mistaken for a yellowhammer’s breast. The red, lipstick blossoms balled tightly in tense defence of what was to come.

We drove down to meet Storm Dennis at Bridport, facing him down the A303, down past the barrows, Stonehenge and the flooded fields, to help launch the new Red Sixty Seven book: a beautiful and heart-wrenching fundraising collaboration curated by the enigmatic ‘YOLO Birder’ (Kit Jewitt) and the British Trust of Ornithology. Sixty seven illustrated ‘love letters’ to our most endangered, red listed birds, it’s a thing of loss and beauty. It was good to meet four other contributors: fellow Guardian Country Diarist, Sara Hudston, writing on the Cirl Bunting; renowned author, journalist and birder, Dominic Couzens, writing on Scaup; John Lloyd who illustrated the lapwing so beautifully and Kerrie Ann Gardner, whose stunning picture of the curlew accompanies Mary Colwill’s writing. I wrote about the Woodcock, atmospherically illustrated by talented artist, James O’Neill.

(James O’Neill for Red Sixty Seven Book)

We drove home through maize-field-stained floods, buffeted by high winds and slept nervously in the dark house as the wind wailed through the gaps in the windows, hollered down the chimney and felled another ash tree close by. I dreamt fitfully about losing birds and birdsong, and wondered if I would hear the lone woodlark again.

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Nature Notes

Weather. Station.

Strange and unsettling to wait so late into Winter before the first hard frost occurs. And in this mild, wet year, it comes as a relief; beautiful and normal in abnormal times. Because, everywhere is sinking into mud: fenceposts rotting, flints rising to the surface to lacerate boot soles and dog paws. The old barn roof is sagging; its estate, green-painted drainpipes, detached. The whole thing looks set to collapse over the museum of this farm’s life: the pony trap, the long hay rack, the enamel sinks, old range stoves & tiles from renovated cottages. I want to rescue it all.

Taking my daughter to work though Hampshire hamlets and estate-owned villages, the winterbournes have risen. A horse’s trough of an old bath tub floats. The cottage and pub thatches are dark with rain, except in light, repaired, spark patches. The signpost to Wildhern and Linkenholt sits upon its ‘godcake’ of a grass triangle, as it always has, and the pollard limes, and tiled, clunch-and-flint wall does another winter.

But for the first time this year, the ground feels hard underfoot, frozen perhaps to an inch below the surface and there is treacherous and unexpected ice on the roads. A hare has made prints in it, down the centre of the road through the village. The ice on the troughs, the birdbath and dog bowl is not thick.

Over the shallow flood pond in the park of The Big House, it isn’t deep enough to take the dog’s weight for long. She skitters across it gingerly, tail up, after her yellow ‘stick’ of hosepipe, enjoying the strangeness and play of it. She races and slides, then trots out towards the middle where it cracks as she lifts each foot. She is just about quick enough to be ahead of it, but the pressure on the wide surface of the saucerful, like a natural dewpond, sends out strange noises – a kind of electronic, synthesised pinging; a deep-sea, deep space sonar. Air pockets form under the ice and wobble out to the middle, moving and shape-shifting like jellyfish. They congregate in the middle, jostling up against each other like empty speech bubbles; like something waiting to be said, an exhalation from the earth.

On top of the hill, the view is as far reaching as it gets, until the landscape becomes geological layers of blue. I can see as far as Coombe Hill in The Chilterns. Frost thick as snow accumulates on our boots. A flock of fieldfare are backlit gloriously as they fly from hawthorn to hawthorn, checking again for missed berries. A mistle thrush sings loudly, a field away. It is a song both achingly bleak & full of the tang of a cold metal gate – yet suffused with determined, celandine warmth.

We come down through the stunted oaks where the first snowdrops have pushed through. In the lea of the wood, their hardened tips find little resistance, their pearls dangling like earrings, brightening the mud.  

Later, after topping up the feeders, I watch the birds come in. The badger-striped head of a coal tit aligns with the striped, mouse-dun of a long-tailed tit & a goldfinch’s chequerboard neatness, conspiring to make me smile. The steam from a mug of tea curls upwards and is matched by the breath purling from a dunnock on the fencepost. I can’t hear him singing, but he is. The nuthatch comes in like an apricot bullet in a navy serge cape; the fierce black eye stripe aligning with his bill to elongate the dagger of it, giving him a serious, military air. There are fewer chaffinches. And no greenfinches this year. 

At 4.30 in the afternoon, the disc of ice I removed from the birdbath in the morning is still intact; it’s knobbly flint ‘stepping stone’ is set in the centre, like the boss on a shield. I hold it up to the stars, like a satellite dish. The defrosted grass crisps up again.

The thrush sings on. Venus & the half-moon hang above the barn, the down & the farm weather station. The instrumental alchemy of weather, time, land, space and use. A poem for the earth we stand alone on.

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Nature Notes

Black Bryony and the Jaggy Creel.

Dawn, and a mist rises from the lake by the big house, and a small cloud inversion hovers over the source of the River Enborne. It lifts and mingles with a plume of smoke from the biomass wood boiler, and all is caught in the most ethereal, golden light as the sun comes up behind the trees.

After work, I climb the hill. The leafless woods now appear thin, but up here above them, a few rolled cigarillos of whitebeam leaves have been wind-speared onto a lone hawthorn tree. They rattle in a gust and as I watch, are let go like handkerchiefs on the wind, from hands waving off someone dear, departed. And all is brown.

But so many shades and varieties of brown – and green. Dunnock and wren browns, woodcock browns, russet fox and fallow deer brown, dogwood reds and blackthorn damson, moss and olive greens. Waterfalls of dried goosegrass lie over the hedges, thatching it thinly, sheeny in the light, like straw-coloured lametta, and bramble and rose briars arc high above; one like a shepherd’s crook, another flicks like a driving whip. There are few berries now.

But still heaped at astonishing bright intervals are lustrous, scarlet berries on clockwise twists of raffia. Great heaves of black bryony drape and festoon the hedges and low trees, like necklaces ransacked from a props department, or Carmen Miranda’s dressing room, and thrown over the hedge like gypsy washing.

As I pass the old, graffitied milking parlour (and former Rave Central) I crunch over the remains of a stolen, burnt out car from the summer. Between the bryony berries, are the cartons, wrappers and cups of a whole takeaway meal for four; up on the hill, a car engine revs and backfires as it is driven along a track not meant for it. I imagine its occupants, pursued by a police car, offloading a stolen bounty of rubied jewellery out the window of a speeding car, along with their rubbish, whooping as they go.

Another car comes belting up the hill and I slip through a gap in the hedge and push through a protective, almost impenetrable thicket of rain-jewelled blackthorn, wanting a bit of peace and solitude. Inaccessible to the hedgecutter, the thicket twinkles with finches, tits and buntings, winter thrushes, blackbirds and wrens. It is a small pocket of a sanctuary, a refuge. What Seamus Heaney called ‘the blackthorn’s jaggy creel.’

When I come out, all is quiet. My coat is velcroed over with burrs and the tiny cones of agrimony seeds, that I take for a brief jolt as a mass of crawling spiders. I am as camouflaged as the wren in the thicket.

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Nature Notes

Helvella crispa and the White Fog.

There are a few surprises down the old holloway. The fog came down this morning after a brief, warming sunrise, thickened and settled. I cannot see the hill. On these barely-gets-light days the earth is a painting. The ground I walk on is a chaotic mandala of leaves in rich, golden colours, a patina of butter, toffee, fudge and caramel.

The holloway is bordered by a deep ditch full of water running off the down and already, I mistake the grey lane I have left behind for trailing smoke or floodwater.

My first surprise is a small stand of pristine and beautiful fungus.

The elegant, strange and sculptural white saddle fungus looks like a candle that might have puttered in the casement of Wuthering Heights, the wax melting in shapes formed by a strong draught from a wild moor; the stem of the fungus is deeply fluted like an elaborate ionic column and the ‘saddle’ on top convoluted. A side-saddle perhaps?

It is more like a wrung handkerchief, or a crumpled white peony. Perfectly formed curls, curlicues and roses arc and project from it as if from a fascinator worn to a wedding. Amongst the slew of brown mud, hoof prints and bright leaf litter, they look as if they are made of white, unsullied marble or porcelain.

I take two just steps forward and a woodcock, that must have been sitting tight, right under my nose, explodes up from the earth, shedding leaves as if it were made of them and jinks off. Had I thought to look, would I have spotted it? Probably not. Not unless I’d seen the bird’s black, buckthorn-berry eye, its dark onyx glinting through its cryptic, brown, leaf-mould camouflage.

When I reach the hill, negotiating the deeply churned mud that the shoot and the tractors have made on the bridlepath, the cloud has lifted slightly. I walk on the open down, below a veil of cloud. The clatter and collective whumpf of wings alert me that a large flock of woodpigeons have taken off just above me, in the fog. Here, on this broad expanse of long, tufty grass, seedheads and the leaves of wild, calcareous plants, a lamplight glow comes up from the hazel wood and the hawthorn and blackthorn scrub and all their mingled leaves on the ground. They emanate a butter-coloured light that diffuses and refracts off the low cloud and everything warms again.

A sheltered, thorny fold in the down is filled with chacking fieldfares and voles run from my feet into the insulated castle sanctuaries of hollowed out anthills. The discovery of the porcelain-white saddle fungus and its elegant, curlicued candles seems to have set a glow in the window of this world.

Nature Notes.

Old Gods & Raven Calls.

These winter days, we become crepuscular. Sometimes it feels that, outside, only the glow from big round hazel leaves, or the gold flare from a little quince tree in the hedge, with its hard, yellow-green fruits, provides the only natural light. Like a stored memory; a facsimile of sunshine, a warmth re-gifted in sight only. Leaves deep-litter the lanes & the first windows are blown through the woods. Holes in the sails of the canopy. New shapes – or old ones – are revealed. The old gods are up & on the move …

On the hill, there is a strange, smoky-mauve, quiet atmosphere. Smoke rises from bonfires, just as chalk dust & chaff plumes did six weeks ago, from the combines. A half-hour’s amble around the top of the hill brings a salve of birds.

Redwings and fieldfare are close by, gobbling through the hedges with soft, contact calls. Golden plover swing by in a rapid shape-shifting flock, to land like poppy seeds broadcast out across the field. Their piping whistles fall to me from a sky they have already left. In the foreground, a handsome-bright stonechat hunts from a hawthorn; his smart white collar and rich chestnut-caramel, striking against the dark red berries. 

Then I have to notice what I’ve been trying to ignore. Patches of a strange substance all over the grass. It looks revolting; like something a dog produces when it’s eaten too much grass.

My own dog looks at me, witheringly. There is too much of it. I steel myself for a closer look. Some patches are like yellow coral on the grass stems. Others are more like white slime, or bile or, in other places, scrambled eggs or snail eggs.

It’s everywhere. A weird ectoplasm that no dog could be responsible for. Of course: Dog’s Vomit Slime Mould Fungus! There is so much of it – I’ve not seen it up here before, or perhaps I overlooked it – but I feel inwardly triumphant with my discovery.

Ravens call from the circular wood. They seem to be utilising it as some kind of amphitheatre. I creep in to listen. One makes the sound of a bell struck softly, whilst another plays around with the sound of a slowly pulled, two-handled saw.

Looking up at it, I trip over a small pile of soft-edged, crumbling bricks.There was once a house up here, that doubled as an occasional pub. It’s a high, lonely road and I wonder if it became a kind of pub from its position. A shelter for the lost or weary, desperate travellers or lonely shepherds.

The dog growls at something I can’t see. I wonder what the ravens are repeating so earnestly; what they’ve heard. I turn for home, towards a squid-ink sky; clouds like ink smudges and brush strokes bleeding into blotting paper, as the dark approaches again.

A handful of dry whitebeam leaves, curled like cigarillos, racket down the road behind me. Unusually up here, there is not a breath of wind.   

Nature Notes

The Falcon and the Gleam.

The rain and wind has flattened the strip of long, uncultivated grass on the awkward corner of an arable field. A vole runs from my feet. Last night, a barn owl hunted here. I only heard it’s urgent ppsshhhht as it quartered the field, but two days earlier, I glimpsed it on a fence post, hocks together and toes turned out, wings folded behind its back and with the evening’s mizzle beading its lightly toasted feathers. It gave me two long second’s worth of eye contact with its unreadable, midnight-dewpond eyes before flying off.

I rescue a one-inch toad heading for the woodpile. We’ll be needing that tonight and rather than unhouse him accidentally, I cup him in my hands and release him near one especially constructed for him. An hour later, my daughter puts on a welly from the boot stand outside the front door and her toes meet with a wood mouse. It leaps away, but must have spent a cosy night on the porch, curled up in the upside-down toe of the boot. We stuff the cracks of the house to prevent them coming indoors.

It continues to rain. There is a gap in the wood like a moon in the sky, that has been there all summer. A hole in the otherwise impenetrable canopy where I can see the white sky and the curved hill beyond. Bigger winds have begun to blow bigger holes through it, but for now, the single hole is still there, drawing my eye. The rain streams down the lane, sluicing leaves and small stones, cross-hatching in long, graphite lines over the tarmac, and soaking through my old and inadequate leggings and coat.

In places where the rain has receded a little, sycamore leaves have kept a chalk patina, their veins outlined in pale relief, where the rain running down the track & over them like spilt milk has left its residue: the surface of an old ocean, re-wetted, re-emulsified, momentarily set free.

Tiny haw berry lanterns glimmer with drops of rain and the bloom is smudged off sloes. Guelder rose fruits gleam like fireworks and the black buttons of purging buckthorn shine. I revel in the sensory joy of sloshing and the fact that even above the swish of my (un)waterproofs and the roar of water raining, pattering and running through the wood, I hear the softest whistling ‘seeip’ of redwings coming in.

The chimney starling has been mimicking a golden plover’s rain-dread whistle a whole fortnight before I see them myself, in a gauzy veil over the fields. I wonder if the starling anticipated their arrival with the season and the wind direction, or if they’ve been passing over the house at night for fourteen days already, when I’ve been shored up and insulated, inside. 

Out on the lower slope of the hill, an unidentified, large falcon seems to come from nowhere, swoops close by, pivots and comes back past me for a closer look. Enthralled, I am baffled by its identification. And then I see jesses dangling from its legs, the leather straps that mark it as a falconer’s bird. It flies off, pursued by jackdaws and a raven.  There is no one about. Not a gauntleted soul in sight. I wonder, if I’d thought to hold my fist out, it was looking to land, to come home? The centre cannot hold, I think. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. The words of Yeats’ poem circle. The falcon has spun off and gone out of reach. We have become unstuck.

We held a climate week at school last month and watched the videos shared by the young conservationists and activists to launch the State of UK Nature Report, 2019. It made such grim reading. But we cannot think there is nothing we can do. The ceremony of innocence is drowning and we cannot wait for some revelation to come to hand. We must all act.  I follow the gleam of the setting sun for a while; there is an apricot bar of light at the last of the day. A heavy, pewter-lidded sun blinks. Goes out over Wiltshire.

Nature Notes

Owls & Flowers.

These last five weeks, I have been seeking solace in the countryside around me. The golden light & air of September so soft, I could wrap it around myself. The rain of October falling relentlessly, like some sort of empathy. Noticing small things and wild things has been a great comfort: a starry, Milky Way scattering of autumn cyclamen under a hedge, a polecat vanishing into a log pile, like a sable stole snatched back from a toppled coat stand, or a rhythmic ‘clopping poem’ made up, riding down the lanes between the hedgerow riches: hips and haws, cobs and sloes, hops and guelder, elder, pear. I was singing it softly to myself a quarter mile later, the horse’s radar ears swivelling to listen. 

Walking the same route days later, up the Bunjum Lane towards Prosperous, there is some puzzling chalk pit graffiti; an old name scrawled on a new fence in an old, old place. Above a storm drain, dug into an old rubbish dump of Shippam’s paste bottles, tin teapots & old earthenware, is the name ‘Oliver Cromwell.’ I wonder if old allegiances die hard out here, just an afternoon’s walk from Civil War battle site of 1643, in this time of political turmoil. Along the ‘pobbel drom’, crab apples bead and perfume the tarmac with a rich seam of golden green. Nuts and berries crack underfoot and, where they have been milled by tyres, hooves and feet, make a pale green flour.

Another day, I go up the hill and disappear in cloud to blot out the world below. A buzzard, its feathers beaded with cloud-mist on the fencepost watching with me from this precipitous place, and a hare on the road, do not move. I walk for a whole day on the big hill, and sit for hours hugging my knees and my dog, with views out to almost all the houses I’ve ever lived in.

Pale, bleached grasses, pewter skies, leaves thin as watery light. This is a spent and exhausted countryside, beginning to put itself to bed, to rest. I take strength from the thin turf & light, gleaning kernels, letting husks blow away. It’s an early attempt at a cure for grief. On this autumn equinox, I try to balance the light & the dark as the last swallows filter through, tilting at kites & ravens & the stillness of hares in their forms.

Within the ramparts of the hill fort, what looks at first to be a giant ant pupae comes into focus. A white grub, the size of a mixing bowl, appears to nestle under an excavated anthill. On closer inspection, this is a cross-section of co-habitation. A badger has clawed at the anthill and pulled it apart to get at a subterranean wasp nest built at the heart of this ant citadel. The white ‘grub’ is half of the paper urn home; the comb has been spilled and the grubs scattered by the badger’s bear claws and licked up, the remains of the paper house crumpling and disintegrating in light rain. It is wonderfully and fascinatingly distracting.

Then a crow calls with a surprisingly strong West Berkshire accent: byre! fyre! Instead of oi, boy! and brings me back into focus. A raven, over the watery farm & watercolour hills calls like a stone gone down a well. Farmer Carter, then Farmer Stokes stop on the road to say ‘we heard along the grapevine & are sorry.’ I thank them. But I think the corvids told. There are no grapevines out here. Only bedwine. Bedwine, woodbine, traveller’s joy, wild clematis, it has so many names, smoking through the hedges like a remnant, gone out wildfire.

Back home, an owl calls outside the house in daytime, as it has outside Mum and Dad’s house everyday for the last 4 weeks. I know what it is supposed to mean and  we don’t need telling. It would’ve happened if I’d listened or not. I am reminded by a Kate Bush lyric ‘Your name is being called by sacred things that are not addressed nor listened too. Sometimes they blow trumpets.’ I still love hearing the owls at night. I bear them no grudge. It is a sound that soothes. Both our houses are filled with flowers now. Owls and flowers. How it’s always been.  

Outside the window, there are walls of gold. Castellated fortresses of straw bales, bigger than our house, to soften floors & stop up the bitter drafts under stable doors & between barn walls, when a gold-threaded memory of warm summer is most needed.

Nature Notes

The Sense of an Ending.

The dew-filled tubes of stubble straws have their own silly surprises. They can hold a lot of water. This is apparent, when walking across harvested fields in bare legs & a favourite old dress.

I love harvest time. We plan a family walk, high on the Pewsey Downs and by the time we get there, the wind in our hair and a romp in our boots, the dew has dried from the stubble and the piled straw lines. These bare chalk hills, their swoops and arcs, folds and combes are where the first farmers first broke the earth, pre-history.

This is Eric Ravilious country: Edward Thomas, Hardy and white horse country: below us, the measured lines, satellite geometry and castellated walls, towers and monoliths of the bale stacks follow ancient curves and patterns. Here too are long barrows, round barrows, gallops and sarsen stones and a broad view of harvest. Each square half-mile has its own plume of chalk dust, billowing up from the header of a combine, whilst in other fields, bales are being carted and flotillas of gulls and kites follow the plough, already beginning the year again in places.

On the other side of Knap Hill, we pause to check the map by an old, dry dewpond. It formed the hub of a cartwheel of at least 8 footpaths, emanating from it like spokes and two more further on; the names are a litany of drovers tracks: Workway and Wansdyke, White Horse and West Way. It is easy, in this remote spot, to imagine the travellers meeting here in this high, dry place, watering themselves and their livestock and finding shade or shelter under the overhanging trees.

A footpath sign like a gibbet leads us off, over the bare hills. It reminds me of a wild chapter in Adam Thorpe’s classic novel, Ulverton. Skirting West Wood, we attempt to follow the old Wansdyke track and stumble across a patch of unfarmed, ungrazed and uneven thistle ground. The wind soughs through heavily haw-laden thorn trees. A check on the map reveals this to be the remnant foundations of the long abandoned, remote village of Shaw. We pass through full of questions and a quiet reverence for what must have been a hard life up here.

Back home, we celebrate our 20th Wedding Anniversary, remembering our country wedding in a little flint church overlooking Watership Down. There was a pony and trap and dancing in the village hall next door. I wore a dress the colour of harvest & we decorated the hall with swags of ivy & plaits & sheaves of corn. But my Dad isn’t well. And isn’t going to get better. Between us, we manage to break him out of hospital, and bring him home.

The harvest here is done and there is a bale stack the size of our house in Home Field. Little flocks of swallows pass over on migration and house martins twinkle through the air, catching the last light. The howl of a chainsaw in the wood harmonises with that of the keeper’s dog. In the farmyard, there is a sad toad squashed in the dust and an owl calls in the day, everyday. I try and squeeze out my latent harbouring of old rural and Romany superstitions. I know, anyway.

Tarpaulin thrown and lashed over the straw flutters anxiously and there is the sense of an ending. Later and still out, the harvest moon comes up like a bonfire behind the trees, then bellies up, whole, minting and blessing the stubble in old gold.

Here lies my heart, I think. Here, with the chalk hill like a loving arm at my back.  Later still, the small white moon is like a seedpod of honesty held to the sky. A lens; a mother of pearl cloud, caught in a tracing-paper eyeglass.

Nature Notes

The Sea & The Gold Drop Roads.

All week, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path had taken us right, or further North; down to the Havens and the beaches. But after a careful night walk across the clifftops, our curiosity had been piqued by a small boat, lit and anchored under the steep, wooded cliffs of the mysteriously named Goultrop Roads, and a lamp that swung through the trees.

With the sea, calm, turquoise and teal below us and so clear we could see the waving fronds of seaweed, we turned south and soon reached the coastal hanging wood, treacherously steep and vanishingly rare, of the Goultrop Roads. The name is evocative enough.  The children misheard it as Ghoul’s Stop, and I, as Gold Drop. There are no roads – and there is no beach.

The coast path runs right along the edge, at tree top height. And the china blue sea can be seen between the branches, below, in a strange reversion; as if it were the sky reflected. As if you were upside down. There are stunted, wiggly, ferny-sprouting oaks, hazel and sycamore, pines, hornbeam, beech and hawthorn, all lashed up together with flowering, scented honeysuckle vines.

You could step straight out into the upraised arms of an oak, and climb all the way down to the sea, walking a final oak-bough-plank out – to dive straight into the sea like a pearl fisher. The only path down is now cut off by a landslip – but there may have been several  tracks hidden under the canopy, where a lamp could be seen and then not – explained away, dismissed as nothing more than imagination. The ‘roads’ were old smuggler’s tracks; routes up from a safe, secret anchorage of a boat tucked in tightly at the bottom.  Nearby inlets and coves are named testaments: Brandy Bay, Dutch Gin, Foxes Holes. 

Now, there are bright butterflies, uncommon blues like sea flakes that join the gatekeepers, the travelling painted ladies and the wall browns, marked like the leaded lights of a coastal church’s stained glass windows. There are vertiginous badger tracks, a peregrine, rumours of otters and an aura of mystery even in the bright day.

Above the coast path, the small medieval church of St Mary’s lies low in a barley field full of salted, rustling corn. Its short bellcote and lone 14th Century bell, squat furtively, as if the church were not meant to be seen from the sea, or by anyone that didn’t already know it was there. Within, is a poignant WWII memorial to the Czech and Polish airman who died flying missions from the airfield of cornfields that now surround it.

Later that afternoon, we head out to the Marloes Peninsula and Wooltack Rock, with its close views of Skomer and Skokholm across the flurry of the Jack Sound. Through my binoculars, hundreds of shearwaters do just that; skimming the troughs and swell of the waves with breathtaking ease. Gannets dive off Pitting Gales Point and there is the higher-pitched jackdaw ‘chack’ of choughs. We spot four of them, flame bills and feet and a jet glossiness making vertical dives down the cliff face. 

And then, if this wasn’t wild Welsh alchemy enough, the singing of seals reaches our ears, echoing up from the cove and sea caves. Three seals float upright, human-like, yawning like bored sirens; their whole dark-dappled bodies, bobbing like bottles, visible through the clear water.

Back at our temporary home, we head out for a last evening swim, all braving the water, with the last of summer’s warmth in it. We swim towards the dark hulk of the Goultrop Roads and a light, perhaps, blinks. I know then that we passed through too quickly. I can still feel  the dappled shade on my skin.