From the vaults: A summer’s day in March (23/03/2011)

A summer’s day in March

It had been forecast: the clear skies and steep climb in temperatures; but the thing about forecasts is that there’s generally only two sorts: lucky and wrong! So we dressed for March and hoped for April. In the end, what we got was more like May going on June.

From the car park, deserted at our relatively early start time, we descended quickly through coniferous woodland; mature natural woodland, not densely-packed plantation; the trees sufficiently spaced to allow light to reach the forest floor and for walkers to move comfortably between them. A path took us down to a crossing point on the Severn Valley Railway and then to the bank of the river beyond; the sun was just clearing the trees as we emerged onto open ground and immediately the effect was noticeable. Within a few hundred yards a layer had been shed and wouldn’t be needed again.

Slightly removed from the water’s edge runs a secondary path; the earth soft enough to register a print, firm enough to retain its definition. We picked up deer tracks, followed them quietly for some distance, but the visitors had apparently arrived and departed before us. There were clear impressions of badger tracks, their droppings and those of probably a number of foxes. Evidence of things unseen (to use yet another of those resonant phrases borrowed unashamedly from elsewhere).

We were treated to one of those occasional sequences which are, I suppose, among the many rewards for simply being out and about. It began by following the movement of a pair of dippers working the shallows around an area of partly-submerged gravel: our attention was diverted first by a great crested grebe then quickly again by a tiny diving duck, impossible to identify against the glittering background of the river, before finally being interrupted by the momentary, electric blue flare of a turning kingfisher.

The river level was low enough for genuine rapids to tumble and race in places where, in times of spate, there would be little more than a slight disruption in the water’s surface; if even that. We switched to the opposite bank for the return trip, using the footbridge at Arley, which always puts me in mind of the one spanning the Tummel at Pitlochry, being painted green and with a tendency to bounce as you cross; although the Arley bridge is supported rather than suspended. And the Severn rarely, if ever, runs as clear as the Tummel.

There was a brief moment of guilt as we inadvertently disturbed a large crow about to swallow a succulent-looking freshwater mussel. Hopefully the bird remembered where the meal had been abandoned and could return to enjoy it in peace. Climbing away from the river and back towards the car park the path was alive with the activity of wood ants, moving with great purpose across the warm ground.


From the vaults: The gift of words (10/03/2011)

The ability to express, in elegant prose, those sentiments which many of us might share but would struggle to adequately articulate; that is a precious talent. There are those sentences, sometimes longer passages, which simply require you to return to the opening words and read them again; and then, on future occasions, revisit the book or article and comb until they have been found afresh.

Barry Lopez, in his essay A short passage in northern Hokkaido*, wrote this: “So much of (it) seems to stand quiet at the edge of human endeavour. Nowhere here is the scale of human enterprise large. It meshes easily with the land” It seemed utterly pertinent to so many issues which concern apparently so few of us.
We have places like that, even within the confines of these small, crowded islands: standing quiet at the edge of human endeavour, the scale of human enterprise unobtrusive. But they are dwindling in number and the assault on those too few that remain seems to gather pace at an almost exponential rate.
I suspect that between that group, relatively small in number (but not so in terms of influence) who stand to accumulate wealth from systematic acquisition and development, and who care for little else, and those of us in the opposing corner, fighting what seems to be a perpetual rearguard action, there is an unknowing and unsuspecting majority, unaware of what is being done to their country, not necessarily in their name.
For my own part, grateful though I am for having had the opportunity to see so much of it before it was thoroughly ruined, I’d like to think there would be places for future generations to have their timestanding quietly at the edge.
* The essay in its entirety can be found, along with a host of other excellent pieces, in the collection:About this life: Journeys on the threshold of memory.

From the vaults: Hooching around (02/03/2011)

It’s a Iolo Williams word: Hooching; so it really needs to be imagined with a Welsh lilt, rather than the enunciation of my native black country, which is generally one of skepticism tinged with mild exasperation. Today has been a day for – if I have understood the meaning correctly – hooching around: wandering, meandering without much of a pre-conceived plan.

We set off in that particular cold which all walkers will recognise; a cold which defies all reason: not particularly low on the thermometer reading; no layer of ice covering pools or surface water; a light breeze, nothing more, so negligible windchill. But there is a cold, a certain peculiar cold with the ability to penetrate down through the layers and seep its way into the bones. At least it helped to clarify our thinking on the first part of the route – a couple of steep uphill pulls with the twin objectives of generating a little heat from the core and, possibly more importantly, getting them under our belts while we were reasonably fresh.
An hour into the walk and we both agreed that just a couple of weeks away from the hills – walking mostly on level or gently undulating ground – had had a noticeable effect on fitness; all a bit depressing really. Still, at least we were warm by now; apart from finger ends which remained obstinately raw for a while longer.

Walking in what amounted to a cloverleaf pattern we re-crossed a few parts of the route. It’s something we do from time to time and one of the things it highlights is the extent to which some of the mixed flocks of woodland birds move around, changing their groupings as they go; not just from day to day but within the course of a few hours. Coming around a sharp bend in the path we happened upon a cluster of long-tailed tits and nuthatches, working the same few branches in apparent harmony. That particular combination was one we hadn’t come across before.

It’s a time of change at ground level too. The woodland snowdrops, which seem able to colonise the most unpromising of spots, are showing signs of fading, and are being replaced by the many varieties and colours of crocus. They, in turn, will give way to the bluebells which will bring great tracts of the hills to life throughout April and May, when the temptation is often to sit and reflect rather than press on with the exploration.
The enduring image of the day, though, was probably a raven, sat at the apex of a derelict, ivy-laden outbuilding and making his presence very much known. The bird, the decaying structure in the process of being reclaimed by the land, the unkempt and uncultivated vegetation all around: it could scarcely have been more wild and, unlike Mr Trump, we saw that as something to be appreciated rather than manicured.