Blooming, poised

30th March 2021

In a muddy field some time last week, R. and I passed the 100km mark of our walk for charity. The challenge runs until the end of March, so now we’ve decided to get to 150km by tomorrow. The challenge has changed us. R. feels it has helped her cope with the loss of her mother: she has had a reason to get out of the house and do something, when she felt tempted to stay inside with the curtains drawn.

For me, I’ve felt stronger by being a witness to the changing year. Much of my life, at this time of year I’ve felt a background dissatisfaction and unease that Spring is passing me by (which is to say, time is passing me by). That I’m not in contact with the changing earth the way I was when I was young, maybe 9 or 10, and had time to spend outdoors and notice what was new.

By making notes after each walk of what we saw and experienced – simply acknowledging the natural world – I’ve had the sensation that time has slowed down to a more manageable pace.

So today the sun is shining and we’re putting in the kilometres. New flowers are opening up. Wood anemones with their seven white petals. Their Latin name is the mellifluous anemone nemorosa – nemorosa meaning ‘well wooded’ and anemone coming from the Greek anemos, meaning wind (linking through to the Latin animus, meaning breeze, air, as well as breath, spirit, soul). Windflower is another English name for them. The flower head is on a thin stem and trembles in the breeze.

The wood anemones seem to have come out of nowhere: a week ago this patch of woodland floor was dead brown leaves. The chiff-chaffs, now calling nineteen to the dozen in the trees, also seem to have come out of nowhere. We don’t see the migratory birds fly in and land, exhausted, on an English tree. But one day their call is added to the layer of birdsong all around, and they are there.

Some things just appear. Others form, and bide their time. Other elements of Spring are still poised, awaiting the right moment. I know that soon the blackthorn blossom will fill the hedgerows and lift the heart, but for now the buds are formed, but closed, sitting like white beads on the dark twigs.

In the woods near Stapleford, the bluebells are poised too, the spikes emerging, waiting to bloom.

Beside the Beane at Heath Mount is a lush clump of kingcups/marsh marigolds (caltha palustris), glowing gold.

Another flower of wet places, lady’s smock/cuckoo flower (how many plants have multiple names! Hence the need for the Latin, cardamine pratensis) is not that common round here but I spot a solitary plant clinging to the riverbank on Waterford Marsh. Most of the ground is not damp enough for lady’s smock to flourish. But the kingcups love to be right in the mud on the edge of the water.

Above us, red kites swoop and tumble in the clear air, seemingly for the fun of flying.

Spring now is more than a few indicators – the sense of profusion is growing. We can see it and hear it. In Row Wood we approach a loud buzzing and there is a goat willow, bursting with yellow catkins which are alive with bees of all different sizes and colourings, busy making the most of the plentiful pollen.

We’re now seeing the occasional butterfly too: pale yellow brimstones, speckled orange ones which I think are fritillaries and, most impressive of all, a splendid peacock which obligingly settles on the earth in front of us, allowing R. to snatch a photo of it while we admire its wonderful colours. Peacock butterflies hibernate in the winter in hollow trees, so this must be one of its first outings in the Spring sunshine.

At some point, we stop by an oak tree and I have a sensation of the whole wild life of this point in the day, at this particular place: the buds opening, the birds singing, the sun warming the trees. It is all poised and perfect in its way and we’re there to witness it.

Coppice

19th March 2021

I find myself rather obsessed with the woodlands of coppiced hornbeam trees which we encounter on all our walks. Most of these are not really woods, more fragments of woods. There are larger areas nearby, like Bramfield woods where we go today, but these are part of a managed estate. The rest are strips, squares and triangles left over from the ancient forest that once covered this part of southern England.

Yet although these are remnants – surviving on land that is perhaps too steep to plough, or is deliberately left by the owner, they are rich with the life of the original forest. That irreplaceable heritage is there in the earth, in the mycorrhizal web linking tree to tree, and in the green carpet, full of the plants that grow lush in old woods and not so well elsewhere: bluebells, wood anemones, ramsons (wild garlic, allium ursinum), yellow archangel (lamiastrum galeobdolon), dog’s mercury.

The biggest trees in these woods are oak and hornbeam, with birches and then, around the edge, the smaller trees like sallow and hazel. It’s the hornbeams (carpinus betulus) which really characterise the east Hertfordshire woods. For centuries they were coppiced by local people – that is, the main trunk would be cut down almost to the ground, so that the tree grew as a collection of slim shoots rising out of one stump. These were then easy to harvest regularly and sustainably for firewood and produced a major source of fuel for London, before the arrival of cheap coal.

Gnarled, grey, contorted, but very much alive, the hornbeam stumps give the woods an eerie character. They make me think of the Arthur Rackham illustrations I loved – but also feared – in books of fairy stories I read as a child. In Rackham’s pictures the trees are alive: wood spirits in their own right.

I’ve walked among the redwoods in Northern California and that is a true forest. Those towering giants, with their soft bark and bases filled with ferns, gave me a feeling of peace. Threatened as they are, they still exude a gentle stability.

Coppiced woods are nothing like that. There’s nothing solid about them. The multiplicity of slender trunks, still leafless right now, creates a shifting pattern of light and shade. There’s movement, change, a kind of restlessness. The cut-down hornbeams are big trees that are not big; old trees that look young. This is a magical wood, but not dense and dark like the forest in a Grimm’s fairy tale, in which Hansel and Gretel might get lost. More the magic of what is very old and always new.

Hornbeams are shapeshifter trees. Related to hazels, they have been growing in England since the end of the ice age. Their name means tree (beam) like horn, because the densely grained wood is hard to saw. In the spring they have small catkins and in the autumn, seeds ‘held in stacks of papery wings, like small pagodas,’ as Richard Mabey writes in ‘Flora Britannica’. The bark is smooth, grey and curiously twisted, as if the tree spiralled as it grew.

Hornbeams can be utterly suburban. In ‘The Subtle Knife’, the second book in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, the opening chapter is called ‘The cat and the hornbeam trees’. Will, the main character, running from danger, finds himself in north Oxford: ‘Planted along the grass at the road’s edge were two lines of hornbeam trees, odd-looking things with perfectly symmetrical close-leafed crowns, more like children’s drawings than real trees.’ If you’re ever driving on the northern ring road round Oxford, you will see the rows of these too-good-to-be-true trees, which, in Pullman’s story, hold between them the portal to another world.

In contrast, in Hatfield Forest, on the Hertfordshire/Essex border, (a National Trust property), the hornbeams are 400 year old giants. Some of them ‘walk’ – left untrimmed, the branches grow outwards and then dip down to the ground; where they touch, new suckers spring up to form new trees.

Bluebells love coppiced hornbeam woods because at this time of year the sunlight reaches them and feeds them. Once the leaf canopy is full, in the summer, keeping off sun and rain, the plants on the woodland floor have finished flowering and die back; they’ve done their work for the year. The shade and dryness mean that the floor is generally not invaded by other plants. Falling leaves feed the soil and the cycle starts again.

Today, we also see primroses, while the hedgerow verges are becoming more and more green with nettles and goosegrass (sticky weed) creating a tangle of growth.

In Bramfield woods it is still winter. No green showed through the carpet of fallen leaves and bracken; dead, brown foliage still trembled on the branches. But on one path there was a glorious burst of yellow where the catkins of a sallow, or goat willow (salix caprea) had burst out of their soft, silvery ‘pussy willow’ form into full golden life, zinging with pollen.

And from somewhere in the trees a bird was making an insistent, two-note call – a chiff-chaff, newly arrived from the warm south.

Fleeting

12th March 2021

A windy day, the sun very bright as it gathers its strength, approaching the equinox. While the backdrop is still the desiccated grey-brown of winter, colours are becoming intense: the sky very blue, silver-birch catkins a yellow the shade of Chinese silk.

On Waterford Marsh we are greeted by birds: a heron flying low, its great legs dangling; an egret standing tall and slim in the river, white against the vividly green weed which streams in the water like mermaid hair. Then a cormorant flies over, its straight wings making a distinctive cross-shaped silhouette against the sky. We are not near the sea, but the cormorants like to hang out on the river Lea, four or five miles from here.

R. and I have now had our first vaccinations and we’re feeling the after-effects, in the form of fatigue and sore left arms, but we manage to find our strength as we walk. Today we’re trying a new route, which takes us past the edge of the town towards Panshanger Park.

There are few people around but it’s hardly ‘quiet’ – in fact it’s noisy as we walk through woodland. A strong west wind makes the leafless trees creak and rattle and scrape against each other.

We emerge at a spot called Archers Spring, which is a weird landscape, situated between a housing estate and a main road, but out of sight of both. Presumably a former small quarry, the land has been scooped out in a long crater, with on one side a grove of brooding, dark pines, on another an old coppiced woodland, pitted with hollows. The earth is nothing but gravel covered with a threadbare layer of turf, large clumps of hostile brambles the only other vegetation. Walking on the sandy ground, with the wind whipping in our faces, it is like being on a cliff top by the sea.

At the weekend, this place is a playground for bikers of all kinds and it must be great fun to zoom up and down the steep inclines. At one time there was a plan to build a leisure centre here, but the plan failed, and in the end, people have made their own leisure. It is a totally man-made environment, but has its own, unsettling, wildness.

Later, as we are out on a path that skirts field margins, my head swimming a little in the brightness of the sun, R. says ‘Look!’ and stops in her tracks.

Out of nowhere, it seems, deer come leaping through a gap in the hedge a couple of metres in front of us and stream across the field. They are fallow deer, eight or ten of them, slim and elegant, racing along with heads held high. None have antlers: I presume they are all females, or perhaps they are all just young.

Their speed, their poise, is breathtaking. I don’t think we startled them – they are simply going where they want to go and we happen to be bystanders.

Stupidly, I fumble for my phone but by the time I can take a photo they are nothing more than beige dots on the horizon. Why did I bother? There is this urge to capture the moment, to have evidence of the experience (but proving what? to whom?). To show off, really.

I should have just watched and enjoyed the fleeting gift of their presence.

There are always fallow deer around in this area, but it is rare to be so close to them. Normally they are glimpsed grazing at the edge of woodland. On a lane near this particular field I once had to stop the car while a herd of deer crossed the road, leaping effortlessly over the hedges. Deer have their age-old routes and their inability to change these routes when roads are built has caused tragic accidents. But it is not the fault of the deer. They are our county symbol. The name of Hertford itself – from the Anglo-Saxon meaning, quite simply, ‘harts’ ford’ – refers to a deer crossing.

We walk on, feeling excited and privileged and slightly giddy from an encounter which lasted no more than a few seconds.

My eye is struck by the intense hue of a clump of violets in the grass. I take a photo, thankful to them for not moving.

Diagonal paths

5th March 2021

This is normally the time of year for looking ahead, when I feel that the year is opening up before me with the lengthening days. But the pandemic has eaten away at my sense of the future. I plan nothing; I’ve lost confidence that any thinking ahead will bear fruit.

Fortunately, Spring is carrying on regardless.

The signs are still small, but they are there at our feet as we walk: sweet new grass, a rich green, among the worn-out brown; dead-nettles adding more colours to join the speedwell – the magenta of red dead-nettles (lamium purpureum) and the white of their cousins (lamium album). Dead-nettle is such a dreary name for these valuable flowers, food for insects. They’re not related to the ‘live’ nettles, the sort that sting. Dead-nettles are exactly the sort of roadside plants considered weeds, but I feel a kind of gratitude on seeing them. It’s like greeting old friends you haven’t seen for ages. And that’s a nice feeling when you haven’t seen your actual friends for ages.

I’ve noticed on our walks that a surprising number of paths strike out across a field, with great boldness and confidence. Surprising because, of course, one of the ground rules about walking in the countryside is that you don’t march across land where a crop is growing. But frequently, the public footpaths we are following take a diagonal line across a field of wheat or barley. The farmers have even sprayed the route of the path with herbicide so we can now see a line of yellow, dying leaves among the green.

The power of the foot. After our walks, I like to trace the route on the 1:25000 OS map. Patterns emerge. Round here, the main roads spread out like a star from the old towns of Hertford and Ware, the most ancient route being the north-south axis of Ermine Street which goes through Ware. Country lanes, joining up villages, are very respectful of property boundaries, often taking a violent 90 degree turn to go round a field.

But the footpaths follow their own, perhaps older ways. I can see on the map that often, where a road takes a turn, a public footpath carries straight on, taking walkers on the shortest way between two points. I suppose that 100 or more years ago, someone had to choose which of the many tracks criss-crossing the countryside were to be paved for traffic. The landowners would have had their say, especially the owners of large estates.

But the footpaths persisted.

There’s currently a campaign, organised by The Ramblers, to find and ‘save’ footpaths, because the government has set a deadline of 1 January 2026 for all historic paths to be registered for inclusion on official maps, or else to be no longer rights of way. While England seems to be rich in public footpaths, they are a precious and fragile thing: there’s only 8% of the English countryside you can walk on without being a trespasser. Not all paths are a right of way. Many of those we’ve been taking round here are ‘permissive’ and that’s not as fun as it sounds: it’s that the landowner allows walkers and riders on them but could withdraw that permission.

During the pandemic, with more people walking, I’ve noticed that paths have become clearer, wider, more noticeable, as they’ve been beaten out by feet. People have been claiming – creating – their path.

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that I’m actively acknowledging what I see, identifying what I can and wondering about what I can’t. Near Chapmore End we passed a tree and noticed that the twigs were sprouting pretty, fluffy pink flowers. There were branches at face height and lower, so we could get a good look and take this (not very good) photo. What sort of tree was it? We didn’t know: the bark looked like oak but these were not oak flowers.

Looking it up in my faithful Collins guide, ‘The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe’ (which includes trees) I discovered the flowers were those of a wych elm (ulmus glabra). It felt very pleasing to have identified a tree which I couldn’t say I’d ever noticed before, or at least, I’d never distinguished it before from all the other trees. I’d never acknowledged its identity, its difference. Its personal wildness.

There’s nothing witchy about wych elms by the way: the ‘wych’ comes from the Old English, meaning supple, bendable (as in ‘wicker’).

When I was a child, Dutch elm disease started killing off the English elm (ulmus procera) and I have a memory of the horror of seeing whole hedgerows of big trees turning from green to brown in that countryside pandemic.

Wych elm is also susceptible to the disease and is fairly uncommon now. The one we saw was big, probably quite old, but perhaps isolated from other elms and so had never been invaded by the beetles which carry the deadly fungus. It was a survivor, growing confidently.

A mist of change

26th February 2021

The land is easing into spring. There’s no explosion of growth, but a subtle, continuing change. In the same way that at some point you realise it’s no longer dark at 5pm (we’re less than a month away from the equinox now) and that all your worries and sadness have not stopped the days getting longer, today I looked at the trees and bushes and realised something new had happened.

Branches look as bare and brown as ever; the stark lines of winter that we get accustomed to every year. But a mist of change has settled over them. I had to get close to see what’s different: tiny buds are visible on the twigs. They’re more pink than green, and they have a sheen on them. Singly, they’re nothing, but all together these little points of shine and colour create an aura around the hedges – there’s a presence in the landscape that wasn’t there before.

Even an oak tree, that always looks so un-susceptible to change, is forming buds.

It is a perfect day for walking: cool and bright, the sky an intense blue. In the fields and woods between Bramfield and Stapleford we see no-one and hear nothing but the endless song of skylarks and the drumming of pied woodpeckers, plus a medley of birdsong from unseen creatures marking their breeding season. We’ve been hearing skylarks for weeks, even in the coldest winter sky, but the woodpecker drumming is new and perhaps it is also intended to attract a mate or proclaim territory.

I stand and look at a small ash tree, rattling its dry keys against a blue sky, and for the first time in a long while, I feel a sense of peace.

At Stapleford, by the church, the snowdrops are old news. We’ve moved on to the yellow now: daffodils are out and celandines spangle the ground.

We walk beside the Beane to the constant accompaniment of birdsong. The river, running fast, is delightfully noisy too. From somewhere comes the laugh of a green woodpecker.

I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by the nature writer Melissa Harrison (www.melissaharrison.co.uk). Last year she charted the coming of spring and summer in Suffolk, as we went into lockdown. The podcasts create marvellous audio experiences. I’m impressed by her ability to identify birds’ songs – she set out to teach herself and I feel I should do the same. At the moment, unless the bird is sitting on a branch in front of my nose, the only songs I can identify with confidence are those of wrens and skylarks, maybe robins at a push. Song thrushes too, which seem to sing in the evening in my garden, because I remember the lines from Robert Browning’s poem ‘Home Thoughts, From Abroad’:

…the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over.

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!  

In episode 4 of her podcast, Melissa Harrison manages to record a nightingale singing in a wood near her home. It’s pure magic. But the daytime birds have their magic too.

Stony Fields

25th February 2021

About 200,000 years ago, give or take a few ten thousand years, a glacier covered this part of the world, and the evidence is all around us underfoot.

Whatever happens in the changing seasons, even in the changing climate, a place will always be shaped by its geology. In his book ‘A New History of Ware’, poet and local historian David Perman gives a useful summary of how the landscape round here was formed and how that has influenced the way humans have lived and worked. A hundred million years ago, in the warm sea covering what is now Europe, the heavy clay called ‘gault’ was laid down; on top of this the skeletons of tiny sea creatures created the layer of chalk which characterises the hills of southern England. Because gault is impermeable to water, the highly permeable chalk above it stores rainwater. The Beane, and other rivers and streams round here, are chalk streams, rising from springs out of the chalk aquifer and, when they run clear and clean, providing ideal conditions for wildlife. In the world, only 210 rivers are classified as chalk streams and 160 of those are in England. They are precious things, constantly under threat from pollution and too much water extraction. Our drinking water also comes from the chalk aquifers, as I know very well from how quickly the kettle furs up.

Of all the minerals under our feet, the most significant round here are flint and gravel. I’ve wondered why flint and chalk go together and the Geological Society website explains: flint is made of silica ‘which replaces the original chalk carbonate grain by grain’ when the carbonate is dissolved in acidic conditions. The silica comes from the skeletons of the microscopic sea creatures. So flint is a kind of rendering of those creatures down to their purest, hardest form. For millennia, flints were people’s most reliable tools, so we have a lot to thank the little organisms for.

When the glacier retreated after the last ice age, it left behind frost-shattered flints on the surface, and it doesn’t take much to see how someone picking up these sharp-edged stones would think of putting them to use. Even in their natural form, before they have been knapped into shape, they are intriguing and useful.

We are walking on them today. The ploughed fields are so thick with flints and pebbles that it amazes me that crops can grow here, but the farmers manage it.

We’re above Stapleford, at Stony Hills (which does what it says on the tin). Earlier, we walked in a cold wind over some strange terrain: a field that feels like moorland, odd in this arable landscape. I wonder what creates this feeling and realise it’s the vegetation: thin grass that is more moss than grass, reeds standing in marshy patches, stubby thorns the only bushes, all indicating poor, infertile soil. Some sheep are making the most of the sparse greenery and a dozen rooks are walking about, probing the ground for insects.

Gas outlets at the edge of the field provide the explanation: this is a landfill field, dug out for gravel at some point in the past.

Some counties have coal, tin, salt or gold: Hertfordshire has gravel.

Gravel on the bed of the chalk streams provides a perfect home for fish spawn and insects. Gravel in the fields feeds the endless hunger of the construction industry.

We come back through Rickneys quarry, which was being dug until a few years ago when its planning permission ran out. Gravel quarrying has been a massive industry in the area for more than 50 years, literally changing the environment. It is a hugely contentious issue and local residents are fiercely against the owners of Rickneys opening it up again. (https://stopbengeoquarry.org.uk/)

For the moment it remains empty and fenced off, apart from a few paths. This hasn’t stopped the local graffiti artists making their mark on the abandoned concrete structures: one remarkably civic-minded graffiti-ist has painted a huge green NHS. Otherwise, in winter the place feels barren and hostile, a setting for Tom Baker as Dr Who to fight off some alien monsters. Today, its harsh edges are softened by catkins are appearing on the birch trees.

At Waterford Heath and Panshanger, worked-out quarries have been turned into nature reserves and country parks, both now managed by the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and both now wonderful environments. Other areas nearby have not been so fortunate and gravel pits have been turned into landfill sites, taking our endless household waste.

Gravel extraction seems to me the ultimate in 20th century thinking. Dig up the ground in one area, destroying that environment, so you can take the gravel to another part of the country, where the environment is being destroyed to build a road, adding to air pollution. Then fill in the first hole with the rubbish we can’t be bothered to deal with. It’s all extraction, taking from residents – human, animal and plant – at every stage, and giving little back, apart from the occasional park or nature reserve.

It’s a cycle we surely can’t sustain any longer.

The green carpet

24th February 2021

There’s a difference around us on our walk today and the difference is colour. But now loss has also made a change in our lives.

Colour has been there for weeks, even on the muddiest of grey sky days. Some bare branches in the hedgerows have been lit up by a yellow lichen of almost fluorescent intensity, while a vivid green moss on dead stumps has the same startling glow. In the fields, the leaves of wheat or barley (I can’t tell which at this stage) are coming up strongly.

Now though, on verges and field margins, there are tiny spots of real colour: the yellow of star-like celandines and the blue of speedwells.

And in the woods and under the hedges, the first tufts of the green carpet are beginning to show above the brown dead leaves. Bluebell leaves are prominent, and now we are making a mental note of which woods are looking promising for a display of bluebells. The leaves are a lovely, shiny, healthy, rich green. Small, but bold.

Not every patch of woodland has bluebells – they need particular conditions – but other elements of the green base layer are common everywhere. The leaves of cuckoo pint sprout in clusters, each a fountain of green. This plant, arum maculatum, is also called lords and ladies, though I think that name refers rather to the bright red berries. According to ‘Flora Britannica’, Richard Mabey’s treasure trove of information and folklore about Britain’s wild plants and trees, cuckoo pint has about 95 local nicknames. Most of them are rude (‘pint’ is an old word for penis).

In some particular patches, there are modest shoots of leaves which are going to be wild garlic. Everywhere – by far the most common plant in the green carpet – is dog’s mercury (mercurialis perennis).

I imagine not many people ever notice, or could name, dog’s mercury. It just looks like ‘green’. Here it is, with the bigger arum leaves growing amongst it. Dog’s mercury does have flowers, but they are, guess what, green. Perhaps not many people know either that it is one of the most poisonous plants in Britain, as well. You really, really shouldn’t eat it (foragers beware). Needless to say, the lords and ladies berries in summer are poisonous too, though at least their red colour gives warning. Nature has provided us with a wealth of toxic plants; death is always nearby.

I’m intrigued as to what role these green plants play in the ecology of the woodland. Without colourful flowers, they appear to make no effort to attract pollinators. But perhaps the tiny, yellowy-green flowers of the dog’s mercury, appearing when there few other flowers around, are enough to attract the first insects that are now venturing out after winter.

Like hundreds of thousands of people in this past year, today we walk with grief and confusion. R.’s elderly mother, carefully shielded by her family for months and recently vaccinated, needed hospital treatment and rehab after a fall; she caught Covid and died four days ago.

Death is always nearby, we know that. But the losses are hard to take when so much effort has been put into keeping vulnerable people safe. R.’s mother was frail, losing her sight and hated being confined. R. wonders if she was ‘ready to go’. But, as with so many people in this pandemic, it is the manner of death which is upsetting, the family unable to see her at the last.

And death at the beginning of spring, when colour is returning, the light is growing, the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel vaccine is with us, feels wrong, unseasonal.

We talk, trying to make sense of it all, trying to find some ‘rightness’. We keep walking.

Water and snowdrops

19th February 2021

After a thaw and much rain, the land at Goldings is back to being water meadow. The Beane has filled all the channels with water the colour of strong, milky tea and the birds now rule. Canada geese, mallards, coots and moorhens are out in force, seagulls wheeling above them. There are some brown-headed ducks among the geese that I can tell, even without binoculars, are not mallards. Distant memories of birdwatching as a child with my father, a keen birder, suggest ‘wigeon’. A check with my Collins guide when I get home confirms: ‘flocks will graze in fields’, which is exactly what they were doing.

In the field with the highland cattle are white egrets. These beautiful, elegant birds seemed so exotic to me when they first began to arrive, ten years ago perhaps. But now they are a familiar sight here and on Waterford Marsh and, particularly, in a local field with horses. The well-trodden, well-manured pastures must be full of juicy worms. Here, the birds mingle with the highland cattle, like some northern version of an African scene of egrets among the wildebeest.

The rushing water is exciting. On the path beside the Beane there are further signs of a shift in the season: snowdrops are out. These are not exactly wild, because snowdrops are not native to Britain, but they have established themselves in the woods. I don’t know how – in the garden they have to be planted as bulbs, but left to their own devices they can evidently spread themselves by seed, to places that suit them.

The snowdrops are a joy to see. A wintry joy: their modest white heads and grey-green leaves harmonise with the grey-green river, the grey-brown mud, branches and dead grass. Bright yellow daffodils would be too garish, but snowdrops ease us gently into hopeful thoughts of spring. It is too early for hope really, so we can enjoy the snowdrops for themselves.

In places they have colonised a large patch of woodland and look wonderful. At Stapleford, where the path goes past the lovely, plain little church of St Mary’s, they spill out from the graveyard and on to the river bank. Some are fancy double-flowered ones – outer petals splayed wide around a complex rosette of green and white inner petals. They’ve been bred for complexity, as if nature were not complex enough for us.

Round here, graveyards are always the first places to show snowdrops: I assume people planted them because they are signs of hope, of life re-emerging. They remind me of my youngest brother, who died one February, snowdrop time. He is buried, with my father, in a beautiful place in the Cotswolds. We gave up planting flowers on the graves because rabbits ate them. We don’t really mind about the rabbits.

R. and I are lengthening our walks because we’re taking up a challenge to walk 100km by the end of March, to raise funds for a local charity, CHIPS, which does marvellous work with children with special needs and their families. It means we have to be more committed to our walks but walking gets us outside and helps our minds disengage from the hamster-wheel of anxiety about the health of family members and the sense of powerlessness at not being able to see them or help them.

We stand on a small hill and face the sun, soaking up some vitamin D, and try not to worry.

Variegated and monochrome

12th February 2021

Coming down from the fields and on to the path beside the Beane, woods on one side, lively river on the other, pale winter sun coming through the trees, everything is various and variegated.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of my favourite poets and lines of his come frequently to mind – perhaps because I studied him for A level (aeons ago) and learnt so much off by heart, but more because his vision of the world was both imaginative and piercingly accurate. So I’m surrounded by ‘dappled things’ as his poem Pied Beauty puts it, praising:

‘All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled, (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim’

The sun flickering through the trees is adazzle/dim. Boots crunch on white ice covering dark brown mud, patches of dirty white snow lie where there is shade from a hedge or a tree. The landscape is parti-coloured and the sky too is a jumble of cloud and pale blue.

There’s a wonderful painting by Camille Pissaro, ‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’ (https://art-landscape.blogspot.com/2010/12/winter-landscape-fox-hill-upper-norwood.html) which captures perfectly the slushy, muddy, not-really-snow nature of the typical southern English winter. Claude Monet too painted many marvellous landscapes of snow, especially dirty, thawing snow and I can see the appeal for the Impressionists. It’s a challenge for the eye to grasp the patchy scene, full of hidden colours, and there’s mastery in finding beauty in this broken-up world.

In Britain though, with its changeable weather, broken sunshine, patchwork fields and urban/rural mix, you have to find beauty in the patchy and various.

Opposite this is the pull of the monochrome. In southern England, snow is a novelty, not a whole season, and my sense of wonder at the transformed landscape after a snowfall has never dimmed. We say it is ‘magical’ and reach for the word ‘fairytale’. Why? Perhaps because pure, white snow renders beautiful our normal winter scene of murky grey and brown. But there’s more to the fascination than that. Snowfall casts a spell on the world, because spells are all about transformation. Spells can also freeze us, hold us suspended in a glamour.

There’s something pitilessly hypnotic about monochrome – the uncompromising landscapes of snow or sand or mudflats or ocean. They make you feel small and insignificant, but they also give that exciting feeling of being in touch with something bigger than yourself, in touch with the the sublime. You can lose yourself in these landscapes. In the clean sweep of their single colour, they lift you away from the messy business of being human.

My country of the nearby will never be sweeping and sublime, will always be mixed and messy, and I’m glad of that. Epic landscapes are also landscapes that kill.

In Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves, one of GM Hopkins’ powerful poems in which he struggles with the terrible doubts and fears which gave him mental torture, he imagines an end of life, a day of judgment, in which there is no more ‘fickle, freckled’ but only ‘black, white; right, wrong.’ Where ‘thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.’

Walking today, the variegated colours and flickering light give movement, but really everything is paused and frozen. In these sub-zero nights, plants which had begun to stir a couple of weeks ago have stopped. Waiting for lockdown to be lifted.

Over the past year, it seems to me the freeze of lockdowns has fixed into place some harsh polarities in society that went unseen, or at least, could be ignored, when everyone was so busy busy. Security/insecurity. Comfortable houses with gardens/cramped rented flats. Salaried work/gig economy. Internet/no internet. Health/vulnerability.

Black/white, right/wrong polarities that can’t meet in the middle in some pleasant compromise or be fixed with a cheerful smile and a positive attitude. You have or you have not.

Winter’s bare bones

9th February 2021

The walk starts, as always, at the river. The River Beane is flowing freely under the bridge at the bottom of my road but wherever there is standing water, it is frozen.

At Goldings, a large estate where the river was channeled and fashioned in the 19th century to create an idyllic view for the big house, the water meadows are ice meadows which gleam in the clouded light. One of the fields is home to some impressively horned highland cattle, whose shaggy coats are the envy of the lighter-clad sheep and goats. But the sheep are a hardy, heritage breed and are content, like the cattle, to graze on snow-beaten brown grass. The goats have been given a Christmas tree, which they are tucking into enthusiastically.

From the river valley, this walk takes us up on to higher ground, through Rickneys quarry, one of the many worked-out gravel pits to be found in this area, now left to return to the wild. This they are slowly doing. I wonder what it feels like to return to the wild? They were dug 40 years ago and before that were probably farmland. Can they remember what the wild is like? How would it feel for the digging to stop, the machines to leave and realisation to dawn that they are not coming back. That you’re free. You can breathe.

At Chapmore End, the picturesque pond is frozen over but the village ducks are not fazed. They march confidently over the ice, hopeful that we have not read the sign saying, ‘Do not feed the ducks.’

Frozen ground is easier to walk on than winter mud. Snow remains on the ground where the sun hasn’t reached. One paddock is peppered with molehills, each with a little cap of snow on the north side. A slight variation in temperature makes the difference.

There are no heavy clouds and patches of blue sky are even appearing, but crumbs of snow are blowing in the air from nowhere and stinging my face, as if the Snow Queen has passed unseen, leaving glitter in her wake.

There’s something exciting about the bareness of the countryside in winter. I’ve been rereading The Wind in the Willows, for the first time in years, and have been struck by what a fine piece nature writer Kenneth Grahame was (as well a creator of ‘animal’ characters who are far more real and psychologically accurate than many authors manage to make their human characters).

The Rat (who is a water vole of course) goes out on a winter’s day.

‘The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off…

He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it and they were fine and strong and simple.’

A couple of weeks ago snowdrops started to flower and the word ‘spring’ began to form, even though we were really only half way through winter. In my garden they looked strong and confident, their three-petalled bells releasing open when the sun warmed the middle of the day.

Then snow fell – real snow – and flattened the plants.

Right now, the virus is still in control, flattening on our ill-formed thoughts of getting back to ‘normal’.

But I’m not worried about the snowdrops. Winter is what they do, after all. And the snow is not the last word here. The sun has the last word and it says the days are getting longer.