Walking in the countryside is not normally regarded as a hazardous pastime; this week my rambles have led to encounters which I would sooner forget. My first adventure took place on the footpath that skirts Bramblehurst Farm and leads to the Ockley Road. I was with Jackie and my daughter Beth, when Beth ahead of me exclaimed, ‘I’m not going in there!’ At first I thought she didn’t want to go through the stinging nettles that have encroached onto the path but then I saw that there were two bullocks standing by the stile. I felt sure that dangerous animals wouldn’t be in a field crossed by a path and so I got over the stile and tried to coax the young bullocks away from the fence. During this both Jackie and Beth were far from happy: nor were the animals, who began scraping their hoofs and lowering their heads. Before I knew it, one of them head butted me into the fence and I beat a hasty, ignominious retreat. Needless to say I didn’t hear the last of it for a while. This encounter reminded me of Stanley Holloway’s famous broadcast of Marriott Edgar’s ‘The Lion and Albert.’ Albert is taken to the zoo, brandishing his stick with its ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle’, after finding, ‘notin’ to laugh at all’ at the seaside. Albert pokes Wallace the lion in his ear:
You could see that lion didn’t like it,Marriott Edgar
For giving a kind of a roll,
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im,
And swallowed the little lad ‘ole.’
The moral is to read the signs when an animal is irritated.
The next day I walked through the churchyard, which still has a range of plant species, despite being recently cut. I saw Black or Common Knapweed, Ragwort, Kidney Vetch, Hogweed, Sorrel, Wood Avens, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Betony and a large stand of Bracken spreading over grave stones. I then visited the pond, which is sadly dry and will need a lot of conservation work in the autumn as Great Hairy Willow-Herb and Purple Loosestrife have taken over the margins. Both of these plants have attractive pink flowers which bring colour to the damp area where they thrive but they do tend to take over; indeed Loosestrife is an invasive plant. Another plant, which loves damp meadow, Common Fleabane has also established itself on the banks of our pond.
Taking the footpath to Sayer’s Croft Farm there were many butterflies on the wing and I could hear the chirping of field grasshoppers, which are most frequently heard in the months of July and August. I stopped to watch a Song Thrush picking about in the farm’s lawn and reflected that these birds have become an infrequent sight, when once they were a common garden bird. Falling numbers of this bird have been attributed to increased nest predation by crows and jackdaws, whose populations have increased in recent years and changes in farm practices having a impact on food sources. There may also be a link with the use by gardeners of slug pellets, which have now been banned and hopefully will help a return of the thrush to our gardens.
I decided to walk to the far side of the field beyond the farm, as this has not been cut for silage. Again, insect activity was high and the presence of Black Knapweed was attracting countless Meadow Browns and lots of Skippers. I continued on the woodland margin, hoping to see some birds or Speckled Wood butterflies when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my arm. At first I thought it was a horse fly, which has a nasty bite but then I realised I was under attack from angry honey bees. It was impossible to see where they were coming from; within seconds they were on my bare arms and as I fended them off they got more vicious and went for my face. I started to run and they still pursued, getting under my tee-shirt and stinging me several more times. It was quite scary and I was very relieved when they eventually gave up. Luckily I do not experience extreme reactions to stings and so lived to tell the tale, although the irritation lasted for over two days. Apparently bees do become angry at certain times, particularly when the queen dies or is replaced, when there is over-population of a nest or when there is a nectar dearth. Keeping to the music hall comedy theme it seems appropriate to quote Arthur Askey’s very funny bee song:
Bzz-bzz-bzz-bzz, honey bee, honey beeArthur Askey
Bzz if you like but don’t sting me
Bzz-bzz-bzz-bzz, honey bee, honey bee
Bzz if you like but if you sting me I’ll wack ye
With this dirty great newspaper!
You can hear both this song and Stanley Holloway reading ‘The Lion and Albert’ on U Tube. You have to laugh or else you’d cry. Beth, being a London girl is very dubious about the virtues of the countryside after a week staying with her parents!
We tend to take visitors and family on the Holmbury Hill walk as it offers such a variety of scenery and has the advantage of a good half-way point to eat a picnic and admire the view. I find there is always something new to see and I will share some of the highlights of our walk this week. Even in Mapledrakes Road I see the benefits of conservation as Eddie and Alice’s wildflower verge has a fantastic range of plant species, including some flowers that have become rare in recent years. Hopefully Alice will give us a list of these, as she did last year. What is also interesting is that a wildlife corridor is developing, as I noticed that Corn Cockle is growing at the base of a neighbour’s wall, having seeded from the original verge. The Corn Cockle has a pink-purple flower and was once common in cornfields; it became almost extinct due to the use of herbicides but has been re-introduced as part of wildflower mixes in recent years. Back in 2014 there was a minor dispute, which made the national papers, over the plant: one side claimed it was irresponsible to sow a plant that was known to be poisonous, whilst the other dismissed this argument, pointing out that the plant was so rare that it needed protection and besides, as poisonous plants expert John Robertson put it, ‘It is only poisonous if you eat it and there’s absolutely nothing about the corn cockle that’s going to encourage you to eat it.’ The misgivings rumbled on a bit but in the end the plant has made a welcome addition to our countryside and nobody seems to have been hurt.
The fields near Bramblehurst Farm have been cut but a margin has been left in which we saw lots of Scentless Mayweed, a daisy-like plant that grows on depleted soils on waste ground and fields. Further on, where the ditch borders the field I found Purging Flax, a delicate white flowered plant which is found in meadows and heaths. As its name suggests, it was used as a laxative in the past.
Going into woods in high summer is a mysterious experience, as one enters a realm of darkness with the interspersed moments of light in the glades. This wood is where the badger sett is, it is home to tawny owls and you can hear the call of birds in day-time, though it is hard to locate them in the dense leafage. Roe deers break out of cover as we disturb them and there is evidence of rabbits at the wood’s edge.
I was drawn to Wendell Berry’s poem ‘How long does it take to make woods?’ before I knew anything about him. Here are a few lines of the poem:
How long does it take to make woods?Wendell Berry
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made,the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and the beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.
There is a veneration for the spirit of nature in these lines; he is part of the long line of transcendental American writers, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, who see us as part of a spiritual experience that embodies all of the natural world. One feels, in the biblical cadence of these lines, that we are drawn up into the heart of something which is both ourselves and something much greater. And it is the trees which connect us to this archetypal being.
I have found out that Wendell Berry, who is still with us at eighty-four, has led a rich and fruitful life as a writer, farmer and environmentalist. He proposed a radical approach to responsible small-scale farming in his 1977 book, ‘The Unsettling of America’, which has been described as ‘absurdly prescient’.
Coming out of the woods to Path Four Acres we see something poking above the grass; after a few moments of adjusting the binoculars we realise that five Canada Geese have cosied into the field. They feed on grass, roots and seeds, so we imagine they were just stopping for a lunch-time picnic.
Apart from the high pitched call of buzzards our walk along Sherbourne Lane is uneventful. We do find that parts of the path have become a bit boggy, since some rain has fallen in the week but, for the most part, the ground is still very hard and fissured with the drought.
Sunken Lanes or Holloways are a characteristic feature of this area of Surrey and the Radnor Lane, which we cross before ascending towards Holmbury House is a good example of one. It is very narrow and is deeply incised into the landscape. There is some debate about the origin of holloways but it is generally agreed that they are ancient. They may be formed by water courses or could be man-made and they often formed routeways in the past. Modern forms of transport are clearly not suitable for them and there have been a few unfortunate episodes when SAT NAVS have directed HGVs up them, as a short cut and ended up blocking the road. Just as we cross this road we see how two great sweet chestnuts trees are growing on the very bank, their roots clawing the slope to get purchase. It is remarkable how enormous trees manage to sustain themselves in such precarious circumstances. As we stand under this great tree, enclosed on this ancient track by the marks of century’s passage, it is impossible not to feel some of the awe Wendell Berry conjured in his poem. Hermann Hesse, the great German writer and mystic who became so popular with the hippies in the sixties, writes in his, ‘Trees: Reflections and Poems’:
‘Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient view of life.’
After the final scramble up the steep slope that I hope will keep me fit into old age, we then again come face to face with the ancient. This time I stumble upon the ditch and rampart of the hill-fort, hidden now in undergrowth, it remains an impressive edifice. It is still possible to imagine what this ring around the area enclosed would have been like and also to wonder at the amount of labour that must have gone into such an enterprise. As in the holloway, there is a quietness here, even though noisy cyclists circle the viewpoint no more than a 100 metres away. It is the silence that cocoons history, makes the past a different country.