they say

July 23, 2017 § 17 Comments

 

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I sleep deeply the night before I go to the wood. The final dream tantalizes, staying only for an instant as I wake before it vanishes like a slippery brown trout in the muddy depths of the river.

With the dreams staining my mood, I climb the padlocked gate into one of the oldest woodlands in England. I am now in another world. A place of ancient oaks, a vast thicket where animists and Druids still chant peacefully in celebration, and I am free to dream whatever I want. The wood feels alive with something I can’t quite articulate. Some may call it magic, a place where shape shifting happens, others will say they are simply unnerved to be walking in something so like the primeval forest that once covered our crowded island. The past is written on the bark of these trees like a pristine memory, and I feel as if I am being watched.

The trees are packed close together, their branches entangled. They say there are over four thousand oaks in this medieval deer park, and many are over four hundred years old. There are many legends of wrong doings and murders, but the one I like best I want to believe is true. Monks once owned the land, and when they were evicted in the sixteenth century they were allowed to plant one more crop: they chose acorns.

But the wood is more famous for its holly trees. They are the largest I have ever seen, and bear little resemblance to those grown in suburbia. It is the holly that takes away the light. It seems to suck it out of the air and swallow it. Thick, tangled bracken grows in these dark places underneath their evergreen canopy, and impenetrable bramble reaches out with its long, spiny tentacles to tear at my skin. But the wood is kinder underfoot, made soft and spongy from hundreds of years of leaf mould and so-called neglect. But I still have to watch where I put my feet, as the ground beneath the leaves hides wandering tree roots waiting to trip me up.

It’s hard to walk upright. I must crouch and creep as if I am in an unfamiliar cave. It would be easier if I were child-size as there is a distinct line above where the deer cannot reach to graze the leaves, the bark, and the young shoots. The holly and oak live close together. Some even appear to be growing out of the same root. I do not understand why this should be so, but I doubt human hands are responsible for this strange coupling.

There is death here, as well as life. Many of the oaks are hollow, their heartwood long dead. I choose one and wriggle inside. Full of cobwebs, it is pinpricked with hundreds of holes where insects have lived and will live again. It smells of damp and fungi. Each tree is an entire city, an ecosystem that I would have missed if I had not crawled inside.

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The oaks are neglected pollards. The upper branches were removed every few years and harvested as a vital crop for house and barn building, for tools, for virtually anything. This makes the oaks grow into strange shapes, squat and wide, with thick curled limbs like mythical serpents for branches. They are giants with faces. I see the head and trunk of an elephant, a wolf howling at the moon, a creature, almost human with eyes and mouth, and one large ear of bracket fungus.

A fox calls, but there is no echo and no reply. Someone has draped a yellow glass necklace on a branch, pigeon and crow feathers have been sewn together in the shape of a cross and hooked over a low branch with a piece of red ribbon turning yellow with moss.

I am in a green cathedral, and somehow I expect to see a Green Man. Perhaps it is him watching me while his giants sleep. I flush a pheasant from beneath my feet and it flutters noisily away with the clacking noise that makes my heart race. The spell is broken. Something shifts in my head, so I turn and quickly retrace my steps.

~

They say

January 24, 2016 § 17 Comments

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I sleep deeply the night before I go to the wood. The final dream tantalizes, staying only for an instant as I wake before it vanishes like a slippery brown trout in the muddy depths of a river.

With the dreams staining my mood, I climb the padlocked gate into one of the oldest woodlands in England. I am now in another world. A place of ancient oaks, a vast thicket where animists and Druids still chant peacefully in celebration, and I am free to dream whatever I want. The wood feels alive with something I cannot quite articulate. Some may call it magic, a place where shape shifting happens, others will say they are simply unnerved to be walking in something so like the primeval forest that once covered our crowded island. The past is written on the bark of these trees like a pristine memory, and I feel as if I am being watched.

The trees are packed close together, their branches entangled. They say there are over four thousand oaks in this medieval deer park, and many are over four hundred years old. There are many legends of wrong doings and murders, but the one I like best may well be true. Monks once owned the land, and when they were evicted in the sixteenth century they were allowed to plant one more crop: they chose acorns. But the wood is more famous for its holly trees. They are the largest I have ever seen, and bear little resemblance to those grown in suburbia.

It is the holly that takes away the light. It seems to suck it out of the air, then swallow it. Thick, tangled bracken grows in these dark places underneath their evergreen canopy, and impenetrable bramble reaches out with its long, spiny tentacles to tear at my skin. But the wood is kinder underfoot, made soft and spongy from hundreds of years of leaf mould and so-called neglect. But I still have to watch where I put my feet, as the ground beneath the leaves hides wandering tree roots waiting to trip me up.

 It’s hard to walk upright. I must crouch and creep as if I am in an unfamiliar cave. It would be easier if I were child-size as there is a distinct line above where the deer cannot reach to graze the leaves, the bark, and the young shoots. The holly and oak live close together. Some even appear to be growing out of the same root. I do not understand why this should be so, but I doubt human hands are responsible for this strange coupling.

There is death here, as well as life. Many of the oaks are hollow, their heartwood long dead. I choose one and wriggle inside. Full of cobwebs, it is pinpricked with hundreds of holes where insects have lived and will live again. It smells of damp and fungi. Each tree is an entire city, an ecosystem that I would have missed if I had not crawled inside.

staverton 2 018

The oaks are neglected pollards. The upper branches were removed every few years and harvested as a vital crop for house and barn building, for tools, for virtually anything. This makes the oaks grow into strange shapes, squat and wide, with thick curled limbs like mythical serpents for branches. They are giants with faces. I see the head and trunk of an elephant, a wolf howling at the moon, a creature, almost human with eyes and mouth, and one large ear of bracket fungus.

A fox calls, but there is no echo and no reply. Someone has draped a yellow glass necklace on a branch, pigeon and crow feathers have been sewn together in the shape of a cross and hooked over a low branch with a piece of red ribbon turning yellow with moss.

I am in a green cathedral, and somehow I expect to see a Green Man. Perhaps it is him watching me while his giants sleep. I flush a pheasant from beneath my feet and it flutters noisily away with the clacking noise that makes my heart race. The spell is broken. Something shifts in my head, I turn and quickly retrace my steps.

~

rook

November 11, 2015 § 19 Comments

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A soft thud. A muffled squawk. The riffling of frightened feathers. A bird has fallen three storeys down the chimney and cannot get out.

Anything that flies terrifies me. I have no idea why. It is something primal, a visceral response I have no control over. The longer I leave the bird in there the more likely I am to panic. I fetch gloves, an old towel. Lifting the cast iron inspection hatch of the old fireplace I feel my way in with one gloved hand. I touch tail feathers. Moving my fingers up the body I feel a backbone, wing joints. Keeping my hand still, I reach in with the other. Then suddenly I grab the bird, afraid it will flutter away, afraid I will injure it. I feel its lightness beneath my hands, feel its bones full of air. I remember the heron skeleton among the reeds on the marshes; each bone like a brittle sponge, full of air pockets, weighing nothing.

Now the bird is still. I cannot read it. It’s holding its breath. Perhaps defeated, perhaps waiting for its moment to escape. I bring it into the sunlight, and in a violent rush of energy it pecks me. My hands shake. I hear my heart. I put the bird firmly on the towel beside me and cover it. Wrapping it tight as if it’s a dangerous animal. It cannot escape.

It is one of this year’s rooks. Its plumage is not black but the darkest iridescent green or blue depending on how the light catches it. Its adolescent beak not much bigger than a blackbird’s. Rooks are clever birds; although this one, probably due to its youth, was not clever enough not to fall down my chimney. They are not aggressive – I know it will not mean to hurt me. I had a friend at university who kept one in his room, and it seemed utterly benign. But like jackdaws and humans, they are thieves. They will steal twigs from one another’s nests, but never put up much of a fight. There are always other twigs to be had. I like to call the male chivalrous at courting time. After choosing his mate, or reuniting with her from the previous spring, he will follow her around with a small gift in his beak.  If she accepts, she is his.

And they like to play with the wind. Reminding me of aerobatic pilots in biplanes, they take pleasure is barrel rolls, flicks, tight turns, and dive bombing – pulling up at the last minute and stalling above their nest, tail feathers splayed like air brakes.

I wriggle through the broken fence into the wood. It is not my wood, but no one ever goes there except the odd muntjac. It has not been managed for many years. Dead trees have been left where they fell, the coppiced hazel gone wild and spindly. There is much debris underfoot – a soft and nutritious mulch from years of leaf fall. The few dead elms still standing are home to many insects, but the rooks, usually preferring this species to nest in, will not make their homes in the brittle, leafless branches.

I head towards the rookery. There are maybe twenty nests. Some say rooks sing, but I would not call this music. They chatter, they squeal, taunt and complain. They remind me of the end of a children’s birthday party when too many games and e-numbers have got the better of them. My rook squirms inside the towel. I hold it tighter and walk into the glade beneath the rookery. All that remains of the bluebells are spiky withered leaves. There is plenty of dog’s mercury and red dead nettle. The birds raise the alarm and cackle, scattering into the sky in all directions as if I were a predator.

I unwrap the bird. It seems to be half asleep. Its eyes stare blankly and it doesn’t move. Setting it on the ground, I walk backwards and sit, leaning against a tree. Minutes later the birds return to their nests, making sounds that seem to signal the danger is past. My rook makes a small noise. Like a chirrup, it’s a baby sound. It’s saying, I am back, come and get me.

It calls for what seems like a long time. Venus is shining through the thick canopy, and the sky is turning to ink. The youngsters request becomes more insistent. A rook glides silently down and hops from side to side. There is more talk, and the baby half hops, half limps towards it. The adult splays its tail feathers. Something has been decided. There is yet more conversation and the rookery joins in. Then both birds flap noisily, and the adult leads the way back home.

The rookery is quieter now. It’s nearly dark, and still they talk. But their sounds are becoming quieter, more hesitant, as if they know the others are trying to sleep. A tawny owl hoots, another replies, and I pick up a stray feather and put it in my pocket.

~

Image courtesy Nat Morley

This piece is a revised version blogged spring 2014

faith

November 6, 2014 § 16 Comments

 

 

all

day

it

rains…

yet

golden

leaves

still

fall –

from my poetry book

~

Nature’s ordinary artistry

April 28, 2014 § 25 Comments

It’s nothing special within the grand scheme of things: an old path sandwiched between two large fields. Gaudy, scentless commercial roses grow in long, straight rows to the north, acres of insipid yellow rape that makes a poor honey, to the south. Probably ancient, although there are no obvious signs of this – the path was shrouded in tarmac maybe a hundred years ago and turned into a single track road. It links the small market town with a tiny hamlet two miles away where there was once a railway station. After the Beeching axe fell on the rail network in the mid sixties, the station was closed and the lane became largely redundant. Eventually it was blocked off at either end and became a pathway again.

Each year more and more wild flowers push like small miracles through the cracks in the bleached tarmac, and the rich verges become thicker and deeper, overflowing onto what becomes an increasingly narrower track. Nature is silently and gracefully taking back what is hers.

The current hedgerow is not so old if one goes by the rule of one species for every hundred years. Most of it is hawthorn; the remainder blackthorn, the berries of which produce a heady drink when steeped in gin. There are a few specimen oaks, which may be up to two hundred years old. They are beautiful and healthy, and grow in stature and presence each year, in the way that trees do. Today I found remnants of an older hedge the other side of the northerly ditch – the only evidence I have found so far that the path could be much older than it seems.

I cycle here nearly every day, except when the snow is too thick:

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But today it is not:

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The verges are full of rustling creatures, of yarrow, stitchwort, garlic mustard, dead and stinging nettle,

dock, and masses of frothing cow parsley. Nothing rare or unusual, but enough

to give anyone pleasure who can still their mind for an hour or so in this haven that has escaped the brutality of monoculture.

Soon the lane will look like this:

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And this:

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Why is this ordinary place so special to me? Partly because I regard it as a benign familiar. A wren may flitter on the edge of my vision like a ghost of a moth as it hunts for insects, a weasel may cross my path intent on some business I would prefer not to witness: all appear mindless of my spinning wheels. The trees, hedges and the fecundity of the place, silences the movement of traffic less than a mile away.

I know the spots where the garlic mustard will soon be ready to pick for salads, where the cow parsley gets the most sun from the gaps in the hedges and grows bigger than the rest, and I know where I can reach the best blackberries without getting scratched.

It is a place I trust, and it is always generous in its giving. As I cycle along this small insignificant track, I immediately feel a sense of belonging. I feel calmed and cleansed and cradled. And it is here when the ideas often come for the day’s writing; and if my mind still races, I’ll find a gap in the hedge and sit in the meadow until I can breathe deep and long.

~

The Day The Rains Came

February 17, 2014 § 9 Comments

First the seagulls arrived. Mewling and shrieking, tracing steep turns around my chimney pots – their wings stiff and wide as if they were aerobatic planes. They seemed to be arguing, undecided. In the late afternoon as the clouds scudded thick and grey from the north west, the sunset hidden, they glided into the meadow close to the house, spreading out to sleep in loose circles like fairy rings.

The barn owl stayed silent that night, and the blackbird that had been waking me for a week with her hopeful song, was gone. Before the rains came, the wind grasped the few leaves still on the trees and hurled them to the ground, and the gusts rattled the old casement windows so violently I stuffed bits of cardboard in the cracks to quieten them.

In the morning I went to the old mill. I always go there when I’m disturbed. The river was rising. Water heaved itself under the bridge making whirlpools in the mill pond, it’s character suddenly vigorous, aggressive, uncompromising. The branching tips of the leaning willows swirled above the broken surface of the water in the river’s turbulent wind.

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Later the wood upriver of the mill would flood, and the top heavy willows

would lean as their roots lost their grasp in the sodden ground.

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But the snowdrops would survive.

Emerging from their submersion, muddy, no less worse for wear…

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After four weeks of rain, the stretch of river where the otters live slipped over into the glacial valley.

It became a lake. Fences hidden, swans everywhere.

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And for now it remains, in all its beauty.

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But today the sky brightens. The animals know,  and the blackbird returns to sing.

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The Being Of Nothing

January 17, 2014 § 10 Comments

An irresistibly beautiful paragraph from ‘Watt’, Samuel Beckett (Grove Press, 1959).

Courtesy Wikiquote

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        The long blue days, for his head, for his side, and the little paths for his feet, and all the brightness to touch and gather. Through the grass the little mosspaths, bony with old roots, and the trees sticking up, and the flowers sticking up, and the fruit hanging down, and the white exhausted butterflies, and the birds never the same darting all day long into hiding. And all the sounds, meaning nothing. Then at night rest in the quiet house, there are no roads, no streets any more, you lie down by a window opening on refuge, the little sounds come that demand nothing, ordain nothing, explain nothing, propound nothing, and the short necessary night is soon ended, and the sky blue again all over the secret places where nobody ever comes, the secret places never the same, but always simple and indifferent, always mere places, sites of a stirring beyond coming and going, of a being so light and free that it is as the being of nothing.

Media courtesy of shimmeringways.wordpress.com

Instinct

January 15, 2014 § 17 Comments

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          It stirred between the folds of the curtains the day I left the central heating on. The Red Admiral flew circles around the orb of my Japanese lantern – but it was not the sun. It settled on the painting of red and blue and green – but it was not a nectar garden. It flew again and again at the window – but it was not seeing the light of spring.

          It would have stayed forever on that cold pane. I couldn’t wait. The butterfly flew towards the full moon rising over the oaks – already rimed with frost.

Fisherman’s Deep

January 8, 2014 § 9 Comments

Another attempt at nature writing.

Again set by my local river, but this time closer to its source.

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            It’s muddy on the old cart track leading down to the river, and I’m happy to be outside. Faint wisps of cumuli sit peacefully beneath an otherwise clear sky, and there is no trace of a wind to pummel me, even though I am on top of a long, low ridge known rather strangely as High Suffolk. It’s a fine day for a winter walk, but, as usual, I have not left enough time. It will be dark in less than two hours.

It is three weeks since the shortest day, and this confuses me. It’s getting lighter as the seasons nudge us closer to springtime, yet the bitter cold that keeps me indoors is still to come. Part of me will crave to be out in this stark, bare landscape feeling the earth beneath my feet, while the rest of me will demand I hibernate close to a spitting log fire – feet toasting, pen and paper on my lap – making time for pauses of nothingness that always quieten my mind.

But today I take the track that leads to the river. It is concave – worn down by the passing of many boots and hooves over the centuries – and, with the overhanging oaks and horse chestnuts either side, forms a natural tunnel. But it’s difficult to enjoy the view as I have to watch where I put my feet, picking my way through the ancient roots, which, like thick varicose veins, spread over its surface.

To the north, a stand of winter wheat pokes itself out of the soil. It is planted in the chalky boulder clay, grown sodden and claggy after all the rain. Autumn sown crops often yellow and wilt as if they will suffocate and drown, but they rarely do. Instead, the seedlings put down deep, fibrous roots in preparation for their magical growth in the spring.

Last year’s sugar beet thrives to the south of the track, and will be harvested over the next few weeks after the cross-bred Suffolk ewes have been let in to graze off the green foliage. It’s not a pretty sight. The ewes are not yet heavy with their lambs, but I still think they deserve better care. They go into the field clean, and will be herded into a cattle truck a month later, their belly fleece caked with dried mud, their delicate hooves and lower legs encased in thick layers of the stuff. It seems cruel to me.

I come to the bottom of the hill where a rusty barbed wire fence bars my way. The track clearly continues – although much overgrown – onto the Saxon church at the far side of the valley. A sign says, ‘Private Fishing. Keep Out.‘  I continue along a narrower track that follows the fence to the north. Blackening comfrey leaves rot in large clumps either side. I cannot guess why there is so much growing here – there is no evidence of a house ever being this close to the river. Perhaps they’re the consequence of bird droppings and subsequent self-seeding. Bending over the comfrey are the spiny seed heads of the bush-like burdock plant. My mother, brought up in the country, would make us a cooling cordial of dandelion and burdock, but I have no memory of whether I liked it or not.

A bridge large enough for a small tractor, with a modern kissing gate alongside for walkers, leads onto the marsh meadow. A large stream passes under the bridge through a small sluice gate draped in water mint. It seems to be jammed half open with debris, letting little more than a trickle of water pass. The stream leads to the disused watermill, and the water between here and the mill moves very slowly. It is perfect for the nervous or novice canoeist, and there are always dozens of dragonflies here in July. But the water is stagnant, and algae and pondweed appear overnight on its surface turning the water a slimy dark green.

Cattle are kept on this marsh all year round, and they are blocking my way as I swing the kissing gate open. They are a motley crew – no pedigrees here. Long legged bullocks and heifers bunch close together raising their tails at me. They are skittish, nervous – curious, yet ready to run. Rarely handled and never confined, they will be taken off the marsh in the summer and sent straight to market. I shout at them unkindly: ‘beef burgers, fillet steak, roast beef and Yorkshire pud’ – and they scatter and let me pass.

The river this side of the sluice spills over onto a neglected willow coppice on the far bank. A few trees still stand straight, but many, now with multiple trunks, lean at drunken angles. Some have fallen into the water. A cuckoo lives here in the summer, and it is a favourite habitat of the water rat.

I follow the river upstream round a sharp bend, and it becomes suddenly wider. This section is called Fisherman’s Deep. I have no idea what was fished here; it is not a popular place these days. I know there are river trout, which are still eaten even though it is said they leave a muddy taste; and I expect there are many pike in this deep, dark water; but few people eat them these days.

A concrete weir divides the river a little further upstream. The water passing over it continues on its normal river route, while the rest is siphoned through the sluice to the watermill before it rejoins the river. A mill has been on the site for at least two hundred years. Corn, flax and linen have all been processed there. It was also a good place to catch eels – many being sent, presumably still alive, to Billingsgate market.

The soft ground is uneven from the deep hoof prints the cattle have made when coming to drink. I am in ankle breaking territory. Nothing makes a sound today, and I am grateful for the peace. The cattle are gone to the far side of the marsh, no birds warn of my intrusion, no fish rise, no heron glides overhead. My eye follows the line of the river further upstream to the site of an abandoned mixed wood. It is maybe a quarter of a mile away – and there they are – a family of swans. Both parents float as if suspended above the water; their adolescent offspring between them. It is almost the size of its parents, yet still with the pale pinky brown plumage. They are like apparitions – they do not move. I watch them as the mist forms over the water as the temperature drops for the night. I turn away briefly, then look back – but they are gone. Were they really there?

A cripple of a crack willow leans into the river. Most of its branches are gone. A rope with an old car tyre tied to it dangles from a thick, dead branch. The village boys come in the summer because they know this stretch is deep.

The weir has only one function for me, and it is for playing Pooh sticks. It is also the place where my husband proposed. I collect a handful of seedless teasel stalks and throw them upriver. They hesitate, begin to spin, then are sucked over the ledge into the shallow sandy water downstream. River trout hide in the reeds where the water is still. They make their own light, flicking gently to stay stationery in the current, their bellies sparkling. The teasels have separated into single stems, and all but one has caught in the reeds in the far bank. I watch the single stem float downstream until I can’t see it anymore.

Marsh

January 3, 2014 § 23 Comments

A first attempt at this ‘nature writing’ lark! Feels very different to writing stories. Any feedback would be lovely – but I don’t feel I quite know what I’m doing yet!

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            It’s about ten minutes on my bike to the shallow glacial valley, and downhill for most of it. I let the wheels take me as fast as they want, then chicken out half way down under the concrete flyover. The brakes squeal too loudly and the frame judders, reminding me the bike’s overdue for a service.

The river cuts East Anglia in two, forming the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s been a symbolic divide for hundreds of years. The north is flatter and exposed to the icy winds; its flint houses, like its people, standing square and sure of themselves. Suffolk is softer. It undulates, its light is gentler on the eye, and many of its inhabitants still live in the houses made of wattle and daub built four hundred years ago.  Roofs are still covered with a thick layer of straw, each topped by a decorative ridge unique to its thatcher; or if the house is close to the river, the thatch is made of the longer lasting, more expensive reeds. Suffolk is closer to London, and it shows: people, cars, and life in general, seem to move faster.

This river – which draws me to its banks when my mind refuses to be still – begins about twenty miles west as a spring surrounded by a sedge marsh. It’s the home of the rare fen raft spider. Like many arachnids, it has strange habits I prefer not to think about. This elusive creature, which favours life in the old peat diggings, injects its prey with digestive enzymes and sucks out the victim’s insides that are transformed by some primeval alchemy into a nutritious soup. I have never seen this happen nor seen the emptied skins that result, and I remain quite content just to read about it.

            The valley is full of cattle now, as it always is in summer. Mostly owned by one family who, according to modern folklore, fetched up one day in a gypsy wagon and finding it suited them, stayed. This was forty or fifty years ago. I sometimes wonder why so few sheep graze this wide flat marsh, as they would do far less damage to the soft ground than the heavy hooves of cattle in a wet summer. But few farmers here seem to favour sheep, except perhaps the incomers from the cities – the so called hobby farmers – who often keep a handful of rare breeds that look pretty in a paddock next to the house.

            The road is flat as it follows the river’s path. I stop often to look at something that catches my eye, parking my bike in the hawthorn and alder hedge, or against a stubby oak or bowed crack willow. I learned early on in my cycling career that it made more sense to dismount and watch the heron cruising silently overhead, rather than careering into a ditch with a buckled front wheel.

Part of the marsh has been fenced off into a small holding pen. A young cow stands passively, her head lowered, shoulders slumped, as she watches over what is probably her first calf. It is dead. She has guarded it now for three days, and it pains me to look. Her water bucket is nearly empty. There is plenty of grass, but she does not chew the cud. She has clearly stopped eating. Why does the farmer not come? Should I knock on a few doors? I know I won’t because I don’t want her grief disturbed.

            There are dozens of strange webs at the entrance to the meadow. They appear in a long line, as if by design, on the banks of a dry ditch leading down to the riverbank. They’re always there, even in the winter, but I have never seen the spiders. Their webs are funnel shaped. There are many species that weave this type of web that carry a painful or even dangerous bite, but a quick look on the internet the first time I discovered them told me they were common residents here, and quite harmless to man or woman.

                        I come to a small hamlet and turn down a lane towards the river, stopping by the old millhouse and its line of terraced cottages. The brick bridge, heavily discoloured by yellow and orange lichen, has two arches: one to take the weir water, the other, much bigger, is fed by water passing through an open sluice. Some of the stories I write begin their lives here. Some need the silence of a hot, dry spell to be born; others demand a violence, that disturbing energy that comes from the overwhelming river as it bursts through the arch bringing farmers’ rubbish, whole limbs of trees, and once, a bloated black and white cow. These stories always come too quickly – they bombard me and demand to be written down then and there. But unless I hold some overriding image in my head, I can’t retrieve them – even after cycling home as fast as I can and sinking into my thinking chair with a mug of tea.

Where Am I?

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