On Freeman’s Marsh, for Hungerford Literary Festival, 14 children have come seeking literary inspiration from nature. We begin by tuning in our senses, discussing the smell of dogs’ paws and listening for the thin, needling call of redwings arriving from the frozen north. And then we are out with our new notebooks, collapsing the weighted clatter stile in the churchyard with glee and walking out onto the marsh.
Not a breath of wind stirs the horses’ mane plumes of phragmite reeds. Yew berries pop underfoot and a guelder rose’s berries shine as if they’ve just been licked (although you wouldn’t). Above the whirlipool, the ‘grandfather’ ash’s rope swing is motionless above the shallow rush of the chalk stream.
We jot down impressions and thoughts, sharing stories and ideas and we talk about the wildlife here. Some of us have seen water voles, round as toffee apples, the wash-white purity of little egrets and hovering kestrels – I talk of how I once saw the tail of an otter, only realising what it was as it was gone, turning like a stick thrown for a Labrador as it disappeared into the flint-sharp, frost-aligned river.
We spot the lemon yellow bobbing of a grey wagtail, sallying out for flies from a raft of watercress. In a grove of hawthorns, tiny leaves muffle the earth and settle on cowpats like a million scattered jigsaw pieces and we breathe in the sweet, appley, bookish smell of ivy flowers and decomposing leaves. Suddenly, the bright shock of a pair of kingfishers blaze through like turquoise and Tizer lazers.
We wade in the river and pause on a bridge, trying to discern trout from shadowy grayling.
In the Croft Hall we warm up with hot chocolate and writing games, describing neighbours with nature metaphors and the colours we’ve seen as something edible: leaves in pumpkin, apricot, rhubarb-and-custard, berries likeboiled sweets, underwater roots like damp and dirty burger buns – colours more imaginative and precise than a Farrow and Ball paint chart. Then, laden with images, connections, stories, the children write: you could hear a pine needle drop.
They come with an impressive alumni, these children; winners and runner-ups in national and local writing competitions. This has been such a pleasure. When they read I am absorbed in listening to their words, but, suddenly conscious that I mustn’t let them slip away, scribble snatches of a ‘glisty’ marsh, mud that hides and reveals footprints, of trees supported only by barbed wire and fingers dragging through nibbled leaves, the smell of cinnamon; of burdock plants clinging desperately to walkers like beggars on a street, of mother nature trapped, reborn and dying again in a hawthorn glade, a scampering fox, unable to bear the sorrow of the marsh and kingfishers jubilant in electric bubble-gum and carrot. And then we’re saying goodbye to these future authors, future conservationists, wishing regretfully that we’d considered a way to copy down their work, to show, recall and reread it. We walk out into the rich autumn fire of the croft trees, feeling feted, catching at leaves.