They say “third time lucky” and this was the case with our third attempt at the walk to Vachery Pond, which we had failed to navigate on two previous times in February. Taking a slightly different route we found the footpath which goes east from Old House, passing just south of Bowles Farm and then onto Cranleigh. A strangely marked sign had deterred us from taking this path on previous occasions but we decided to carry on this time. The path passes near marshy open land on the border of Great Copse and Bowles Rough and there are several places where ancient woodland remains as spinneys along the track. The line of trees is thin, so a lot of light still gets in, especially at this time of the year and there are signs of Bluebells and other spring flowers emerging.
I love the way the local countryside changes from woodland to meadow, making a quick succession of different habitats. Coming out of the trees onto a hilly meadow I heard the first Skylark of this year and then saw the bird soaring high in the air. They should be common round here, as there are lots of open fields, which they love but I have not seen very many. The lyrical song of the Skylark has inspired poets, most famously Shelley’s To a Skylark with its unforgettable line, ‘As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.’ Shelley was born in the nearby village of Broadbridge Heath: another writer moved by the lark, George Meredith (1828-1909), also lived locally in the latter years of his life, at Boxhill. His poem, The Lark Ascending stimulated Vaughan Williams, yet another local man, to write his rhapsody of the same name, scored for violin and orchestra (there is a version for solo piano and violin which has a translucency that almost surpasses the more well-known one): the violin soars high as a bird and the melody strives to capture the ineffable song, taking the listener to other worlds. This in itself is pertinent as Vaughan Williams composed the piece in 1914, in the first week of hostilities, shortly before he went to war as a stretcher-bearer. On the battle fields the Skylark was a familiar presence, possibly reminding the soldiers of home and more peaceful times. Some historians have suggested that the music may have come to represent a world forever lost after the trauma of the First World War; a tranquil pastoral time that perhaps, even today, we struggle to reclaim. Meredith’s original poem was written at the height of the Victorian Age in 1881 and it is impossible that the Skylarks common over the chalk downs of his home didn’t profoundly influence his verse:
He rises and begins to round,George Meredith
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolved and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
The span of this verse is suggested by way the end of the sentences is delayed and delayed, giving a feeling of breathlessness and of struggle to reach the unreachable bird.
Continuing along narrow paths skirting woodland, we came to Galley Wood, a strip of dense trees which was filled with the song of birds celebrating the warmer weather. It is interesting that this part of the walk is very close to Cranleigh and yet there is no sense of being in a suburb, instead we both remarked how we could be in the middle of nowhere. The demarcations between built up areas and countryside can still be quite abrupt, although I must add that the encroachment of new buildings on the outskirts of Cranleigh in other parts, threaten this.
Soon we reached the Horsham Road and there was the footpath we’d hoped for, leading onto Vachery Lane. This is a popular place for dog walkers and runners, I suppose the hard, flat surface is an attraction, together with pleasant parkland scenery. I think it is a pity that you cannot see the pond from the path, but it is screened off by a bank of trees and hills. As we got near to Vachery House and Farm woodland replaces the fields and it is here that Cobbler’s Brook flows into the pond. Since the stream meanders at this point there is quite a lot of marshland under the trees: this damp, shady area has been colonised by beautiful Wild Daffodils. These plants are also indicators of ancient woodland and the moss covered branches dipping into the water remind me of reconstructions of prehistoric swamps in school text books. I think many people will also remember being taught the lines of Wordsworth’s eulogy to daffodils:
I wandered lonely as a cloudWilliam Wordsworth
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
The poem brings home the writer’s sense of wonder and surprise, as if witnessing an unexpected vision. In a characteristic turn, Wordsworth, later in the poem, meditates on the way in which he has internalised this moment in time, recalling in his ‘inward eye’ his past experience of nature and repeating it.
Less well known and more melancholy in tenor is To Daffodils by Robert Herrick (1591-1674):
Faire Daffodils, we weep to seeRobert Herrick
You haste away so soone:
As yet the early-rising Sun
Has not attain’d his Noone.
As with many poems of this period it is a lament to the brevity of life and the transience of beauty:
We have short time to stay, as you,Robert Herrick
We have as short a Spring;
It does seem as if the spring flowers and blossom, which we wait for so eagerly, are over in a flash. Still, it is wonderful while they are here and I feel it is almost as if we are invited to bathe sensuously in their colour.
Our path ascended quite steeply through deeply incised banks, which are at one point covered in Hart’s Tongue Ferns; presumable here rainwater has percolated through the soil, saturating it and providing the ideal habitat for the ferns. This is the turning point of our walk and we cross big fields which belong to the estate; the main house is hardly visible among the trees being in a very private space. I am ashamed to confess that I was oblivious to the fact that one of Surrey’s finest examples of a medieval moated site occupied the area near the daffodils; I will have to take a closer look when I revisit Vachery. A manor has been traced back as far as 1296; clearly this estate has antecedents from long ago, it is even possible that some of the ancient oak trees could be dated back to the Middle Ages.
Stepping back into our own time we see a Blackthorn in full bloom, a happy reminder that spring is well on its way. There has been a lot of avian activity in the hedgerows during our walk and it is a sign that the birds are getting ready for the breeding season. It has been a long walk and we join the path leading through Bowles Rough and Great Copse which is still heavy-going, despite some drying out of the clay. At least this time we have managed to find our way without getting lost.