A Tender Key of Place.
We walk into the drying, sheep-scented wind and down the sheltered hollow lane. Light puddles on the dust and passing tractors mill the chalky mud-crust into a gritty flour. A pink, white and blue tangle of campion, stitchwort, bugle and speedwell thicken banks more than twice my height – something any gardener at Chelsea would be proud of. But I can’t help thinking that a mower will come to fell it all, oblivious. And it being full of fledgling birds from the trees above.
The colours, sounds and scents make for strong, sensory mnemonics: childhood’s sunlit lanes, allotments, jam jar fishes, tadpoles in the tiny paddling pools of cattle hoof marks by the river’s edge. A patch of ramsons takes me back just a few springs, when I watched a badger roll in the thick flowers, then scrumple up bundles in its forepaws, to hump backwards, pressed to its belly, all the way back to its sett for flea repellent bedding. The smell of wild garlic has become that memory.
Out in the wind, the lambs are bedded down in the dusty, raised stalls between the root-toes of a big oak, or are lying sheltered, on the woolly leaward side of their warm mothers. We turn up the hill, my husband walking backwards, recklessly eating a sherbet dibdab. The wind polishes the newly toughened and lacquered beech leaves to a racing green gloss, bows the bridal remnants of cow parsley and lowers nettle spears like weapons at my bare shins.
A deep-wine, blackcurrent-cordial light filters through the leaves of a copper beech, turning my dress and walking boots sepia. Beechnut mast hangs like grapes; or fat, prickly bullace-plums. I wonder at the colour of the plush, velvet lining inside, cushioning the three-corned nuts within.
Walking horizontally along the broad, steep stretch of the open down, my right boot catches on my heel, so I pull them both off and walk barefoot, wary of thistles, relishing the softness of the wild herbs and catching spent cowslip keys between my toes. We come across a hare’s empty form in the grass and spot its shape hurtling uphill like a cloud shadow. I put my foot into the impression it has left in the grass. It’s too big for a perfect fit, but it’s still warm.
The following morning the jackdaws fledge their chimney pot nest. I wake with them at five and am out the house by 5.30. Woodpigeons call in a continuous round of many voices from the wood and I listen hard, thinking I can pick out a turtle dove’s turr, turr purring from their massed choir. But I can’t be sure. It is a bird I so want to hear, I think my senses are too primed.
The barn owl is sat on the edge of its nesthole, biscuit backed, the sunrise warming its white-blossom breast to an apricot apron. His night of hunting done, he watches me from his wide plate of a face, spreckled in dandelion clock seed around its rim. He seems mythic. I glance down briefly and he is gone; into the lacy garden next door, and up over the washing line.
I walk out into the blinding brightness of things, aware of such a tender key to this place.