Thursday, 19 February 2015

A Downland Walk

For one of the first times this year, the sun shone with noticeable warmth, making it a pleasure to stretch, breath deeply and stroll grassy paths, and gaze upwards into the blue. I climbed high above the village onto the side of the downs, and higher, bisecting a line of thorn and ash and onto the bare open tops. My legs ached with the uphill pull, the chalky mud beneath my feet was slippery, held together by only a threadbare net of grass, but it felt good to be out. 

The village houses huddled together around their square towered church, a plume of smoke drifted up from a distant bonfire; someone tidying the winter's damage from their garden. On the opposite hillside, pylons strode across the rolling field. 

But it was the birds that caught my eye. 

From where I stood near the hill top I was close to the birds as they rose on the updraft of wind that pushed up the hillside, soaring out over the blue ceiling of the valley. 
The buzzards were first, circling, stacked one above the other like planes waiting to land. 
As the morning warmed further, a red kite joined them, russet tail ever twisting, wings shifting to manoeuvre on the invisible wind. 

Through a kissing gate and along the side of the hill, the path narrows, splits and rejoined, trodden more often by the sheep that watch my progress with wary eyes. The short turf is wiry and coarse, but I know that later in the year it will be studded with violets and orchids. 
An ancient sound calls for my attention, and I pause and turn to watch a pair of raven, heavy set with wedge shaped tails, tumble from the blue sky and rise and pass and twist and fall, with an agility unexpected from broad black wings. 
In the quiet after their passing, a lark leaps forth from the meadowland, climbing ever skywards and pouring sweet song from the heavens. 

The skylark is not perturbed when pale clouds began to move in from the west, he continued to sing, so I knew the chill wind and shading clouds would not last long. 

In the hedgerows, lambs-tail catkins dangled and together with the fluffy masses of old man's beard from the wild clematis, they matched the colours of the sky in it's soft greys and sunlight yellows. 

It was time for me to turn back and take the path that leads down the field, through the line of thorn and ash. 

I looked and gazed and took my fill of the view one last time, noting the red kite had been joined by another and my own heart echoed their calls as I found my feet back in the village. 

I know when I next walk out on these hills, it will be Spring and the fields will echo with the bleating of lambs and dainty flowers will nod under the hedgerows that will be fresh with new leaf. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Old woman of the heath

The sun lured me out today. It was an early spring sun; still low enough in the sky to flicker through the roadside tree trunks and send long shadows across the path. But for a few long minutes after noon, it gathered strength, as if it's confidence was boosted by the welcome it received from faces too long shaded and winter-wind buffeted. It soon lost it's nerve as the henchmen of evening loomed at its shoulder, and faded into a pale lemonade sky, but it was there and it was warmer than it has been for weeks, for an hour or two. 

Lowland heaths always have a captivating quality, and Iping Common today was beautiful in the yellow light. At this time of year the wind can whip the branches of the trees against the clouds, and the open swathes of landscape can be barren and unforgiving. Today it seemed that the wind, and winter with it, had been lulled into a gentle sigh, suitable for a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Dog-walkers and families strolled along the sandy paths, commenting on the glorious day as if every time they mentioned it, the act of speaking the words aloud would tease a little more warmth from the sun, for just a little longer and help them ignore the fact that the afternoon was already growing cooler. 

Gorse bushes sprawl beside the paths, sunlight reflecting off a thousand gossamer spiders' threads spun from needle to needle, and yellow blooms glowing. Above them clouds of pook-flies shift in golden swarms. Slender birch trees gather in clusters like young ladies whispering together at the edges of the room. And in the dips and hollows and across the sandy stretches in between, grows the old woman of the heath. Come late summer when the heat haze warms her old branches, she will wear a gown of purple and be courted by butterflies and bees and romantic poets, but gnarled and bent, and greyed by winter, the heather leaves the dancing to the younger birches and the pook-flies.