little low heavens

Three walks I’ve taken in as many days. Previously unexplored spots, in and around the city.

And in none of them is there much in the way of graspable, narrative history on which to hang. The fictions and stories are possibly too broad, too vast or ephemeral to pluck at or re-work.

I don’t let it bother me. I find, if I go somewhere that has a strong and identifiable link to the past or to people who have trod the same paths, who have worked and altered the landscape or who have let the landscape work and alter them, then, yes, my mind is engaged, of course it is; but it often works a little too hard – distractingly so – to make connections and associations. I am happier without that sometimes.

It is often more rewarding.

All three spots were beech woods. One overwhelmingly so, the others a mix of deciduous trees, but still predominately beech. The spring is late and the trees are coming to leaf in stuttering out-of-step waves. There is a marked lack of accord. Some, with May just days away, have their leaf buds wrapped up tight. Even deep into the quiet calm, there are bare branches rubbing up against fully uncovered displays.

Always, I head to the centre of the wood. I like to lose the lighter sides, forget the borders, the traffic noise absorbed. Baker hated his human-ness when he strode out into the natural world. He wanted “to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence.” I cannot fault that, it is why I move into the middle of the wood and, once there, sit quietly. I can wait.

If you’re lucky the forest will fall back into place; gradually, it may reassert itself.

Above, a Sparrowhawk circles and then flies off. I catch it through the branches of the canopy like a zoetropic image, fragmented and brisk. It will not be back until I have long gone. But there are more forgiving and amenable attendants to the scene. Great Tits and Blue Tits percolate through the bushes and lower branches of the trees. Blackbirds and Thrushes hop through the fresh green of the woodland floor, garden birds, familiar birds, adding another layer to the wilder palimpsest. In the background, a Chiffchaff calls an insistent two-tone. Woodpigeons murmur and rumble.

Dancing, dipping through the trunks, speckled jewels bounce in the evening air and stick to the sides of trees. Treecreepers, fabulous mottled birds adept at clinging to the bark and hunting among the niches for ants and mites, prying with their long curved beaks. They skitter busily up and down, left and right, and then swoop off, to stick with dainty aplomb to another spot. Repeat to fade.

Dappled and displayed, a veil of white and yellow and purple flowers, their cycles forced into an overlapping, imbricating pattern of rich growth along the floor. Wood anemones, primroses, celandine and wood sorrel, they invade each others’ space for the best patches of sunlight. New growth folding over old.

But the wider territories of a bare Winter are slowly encroached upon. The woods fill in, and the shadows beneath a stronger sun are merge into a fertile musk. Another pattern lays over this.

The light is turning into amber, that almost tangible, thickened light that searches inquisitively into every fold and groove, each gather and socket, all the holes and layers and crinkles and creases. The evening light that lasts for minutes and is gone, not brash or bold, but golden and searching and magical. A story isn’t needed when the drama is as engaging as this.

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gone fishing

In his poem, In Praise of Ely, Brother Gregory,  who was a monk there in the 12th Century, describes the bounty that surrounds him on the little isle floating in the great sea of marsh. He is rather taken with the natural delights and ripe fecundity. There is one aspect he particularly enjoys, “fish, springs and ponds abound; no stream flows but with fish.” I imagine it probably did. If you had stood on the highest point of Ely a thousand years ago you would have seen plenty of water. The drained lands and neat waterways were some generations off. A distant horizon of land to the South and West, but around you and for miles everywhere else, water and marshes. Hills, barely that, banks really, break the surface here and there. There are communities growing on them, waterfaring communities exploiting the reeds and the wildlife, the birds, the eels. There are moments now, driving along the A10, the main road that links Ely to the North and the South when you can imagine a level of water and guess where the land would have punctured it.

The biggest island was the Isle of Ely, of course, and even in the current landscape, surrounded by the greens and browns of farmland it is an obvious rise. Breaching the hills at Stretham or Stuntney forces your gaze front and centre as the cathedral glides into view. Stuntney in particular, a bump in the fabric itself, hides the prize until the last moment and reveals it spectacularly, a neat dramatic quirk I cannot imagine being indifferent toward. Oh, well, the point is made, at least, put it that way. In a flat landscape, covered either by water or fields, the city and its acolytes push up through the flat.

At the far end of the Isle, just as the rise begins to dip and slide back down the hill, Wilburton village sends out a long drove road, the Twenty Pence, across the fen. On weekdays it is busy with commuters avoiding the A10. A more circuitous route South, but usually flowing rather than stuttering. The village starts on the hill, with St Peter’s church and the impressive Manor House along the High Street, and then tumbles down the shallow gradient toward the thick black soil, shedding houses as it goes until the speed restriction signs where it levels out, when the ground begins to stretch far away.

Back up now, and head half way up the hill. Tucked in before the modest Garden Centre is a lane, barely noticed from the car, certainly not during the morning rush to work. A secluded little track, taken today by dogwalkers as they head across the fields to Haddenham and Aldreth beyond. As they go through the distant five-bar gate and away a small sign indicates, with almost apologetic calm, a further diversion. Through a bank of trees and the lane is forgotten. This is Doghouse Grove, a tiny nature reserve, a brief rectangular walk through alders, and elm, and hawthorn. The road noise, what little there is on a Sunday, vanishes into the leaf cover, and I am all at once aware of the breeze as it tickles the tree tops, making them creak and twist. Somewhere, a woodpecker is hammering. Woodpigeons clatter through the branches and head away across the fields. The hammering gets louder and louder. I am trying my best, but I can’t see him and I doubt he’ll be so engrossed in his task as to allow me the time and space to find the source of such a brilliant racket. Inevitably, it stops and somewhere he’ll be off, dipping through the trees in alarm. St Peter’s bells call the village, Plain Bob and Royals nudging and intervening into the natural.

At the centre of the wood, two ponds, hidden even from the lane I’ve just left. They are straight-edged, man-made. They have been here since the 7th Century. 500 years before Brother Gregory, even, but put there for the sake of his distant brethren, fish stocked from the inland sea around them, specifically for the monks of Ely to enjoy. It is odd to think that then, this area was probably cleared and free of trees, but the surrounding land might have been heavily wooded, and now the opposite is true, with the grove thick with trees and the farmland shorn and prepped for crops.

Eight hundred years after Gregory the area was planted with Ash for hurdle making; for handling livestock, as decorative fencing, or as the bases for horse racing jumps. The ponds stayed. It is green here, wonderfully thick and fertile. I follow the lines of the trees and above, a circling, a Sparrowhawk turns. He is jittering the nerves of the Rooks that sit in the toppermost branches and one by one they rise, unsettled and belligerent. Walking the boundaries of the reserve I find white and grey feathers everywhere.

A large female Sparrowhawk killed a feral pigeon outside my office last week and kept her plucking within a very small area. This is different, the feathers are scattered with no real consensus on a centre. I look up. The carcass is sat in the branches 10 feet above my head. I wonder if this might not be the kill of a bigger bird, and the hawk is just scavenging.

I don’t think there are fish in the ponds any longer. The surfaces are still, unbroken. Frogs and newts, maybe, but no fish. But it is still a larder.