Category: Wanderings

In Grovely Wood

In Grovely Wood

The avenue of tall winter beeches takes your eye on to a vanishing point. The stony track runs straight and empty through the tired russet and moss colours of the February wood. On either side, the trees step back into gloom beneath close-planted conifers.

The sky is low and grey. There is no wind. The trees stand motionless and silent, patient, waiting. You can feel a veil of quietness hanging from sky to tree to muddy ground. Scatters of birdsong tumble from high branches, twitching the veil.

This track remembers footfalls, cart wheels, the clump of hooves, the tread of legions. This a long memory. Before the work-gangs of the legions broke stone for foundations, raised the camber, this track was already ancient beyond the count of men. The distant ancestors of these trees would have watched impassively as bands of hunters with their flint-tipped spears moved warily along the ridgeway, looking for food, for shelter.

Just inside the treeline are three old, spreading beech trees, their limbs winter-dark and bare. The largest one has offerings hanging from its branches and wedged into cracks in the bark of its thick trunk. There are coloured ribbons, Brighid’s crosses, mobiles made of woven twigs, pieces of jewellery. These may be from recent celebrations of Imbolc, or memories of a darker story.

Almost 300 years ago, it is said, four Danish sisters came to live in Wilton, in the river valley below the eastern end of the ridge. Shortly after, an outbreak of smallpox devastated the town. The sisters, being foreign, were blamed, accused of witchcraft and murdered in the woods by the old track. They were buried separately, so that they could no longer conspire together, and trees grew from their graves. One has since fallen.

We stand on the trackway in the tangible hush of the wood, talking quietly, taking photographs. There is a sudden noise, a sharp, almost metallic, bang. It seems to come from high in the trees, not more than a hundred feet away; not the flat bang of a shotgun, nor the sharp crack of a rifle. Too loud, too brief to be a woodpecker. We turn towards the noise, peer into the denser woods beyond the old beeches. Nothing. Silence.

We turn away. Then, a burst of muffled speech, like a snatch of conversation heard in passing through a crowd. It seems both nearby and distant, none of the words distinct. It appears so close to me that I instinctively turn and step back towards the edge of the track, thinking that it must be cyclists moving fast towards us as no walkers could have approached without being seen. There is no-one. The track is empty, the woods are still and silent.

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal for the Improvement of the Chain Ferry at Poole Harbour.

* That the noisome Internal Combustion Engine, so injurious to the Environment, be replaced forthwith with a superior Method of Propulsion, viz: 3 banks of Oars to either Side of the Vessel.

* That there should also be provided several Pedalo-like Machines connected, via Drive Shafts through the Bulwarks, to small Paddle Wheels. This for the use of Passengers of diminished Stature, or Children.

* That the Chains, whose clanking does greatly disturb the Fishes, be replaced with silken Ropes, running over well-greased pulleys.

*That the current System of Fares be revised as follows:

– Firstly, those Passengers able and willing to ply the Oars or work the Pedalos should be permitted to travel Gratis.

– Secondly, those precluded from the above by Reason of advanced Age, Ill Health, or Terminal Laziness, should be charged an appropriate Fare for the Crossing.

– Thirdly, those desirous of acting as Oar-Captains or Overseers should be required to pay a Fee for the Privilege, supply their own Cat O’Nine Tails, and undergo a brief Period of Health and Safety Training.

The Benefits of this Proposal are clear and obvious, viz:

* There would soon be apparent a marked Increase in Profits, due to the Removal of the Need for expensive and polluting Diesel Fuel.

* Passengers would soon recognise the multifarious Benefits to their Well-Being, viz: increased Physical Fitness and Blooming Health for regular Participants.

* Such a Scheme would self-evidently lead to marked Improvements in the Gaiety of Nations.

I propose, therefore, the immediate Creation of a Limited Liability Company to be called “The Sandbanks Trireme Company” with an Issue of Stock at Ten Guineas per Share.

I trust that I may count upon your enthusiastic Support.

Recurring Dream

Yesterday, I spent several hours in Lewes. It is the town I lived in between the ages of 6 and 16. I wandered about, exploring places I hadn’t visited for, in some cases, over 50 years. I walked up Chapel Hill onto the downs (my favourite boyhood playground) for the view over the town. Strong memories of many years of adventures up here with friends, with my dog, on my own.

This is an account of one particular memory, a recurring dream that I remember vividly from my childhood.

This was the origin of the dream: once, or perhaps a few times, when I was about 8 years old, I think, I crawled with a couple of friends under the fence that was supposed to keep you away from the edge of the chalk pit whose sheer face hangs over South Street. We dared each other to edge as close as possible to the drop to look over into the abyss. The photo below was taken from about the same spot on Cliffe Hill. I didn’t crawl under the fence this time though.

Recurring Dream

After the panic, after the sick sweat, after the feet-first frantic slide towards the edge with heels that would not grip, fingers useless in the grass, the wide air opens.

And there you are. Against all hope, against all expectation. Not falling, but floating.

Looking down, all fear dissolves. In the sudden, silent calm you drift out, away from the white cliff, cushioned on an eiderdown of air.

In your eyes there is a hawk’s vision.

Here is the river between its muddy banks. The tide is ebbing past the rotting hulk at the old cement works quay, past water meadows hemmed with irises, past the whale-back downs beyond.

There, across the river, the town climbs its hill – a map of roofs and gardens. There is the humped bridge, the streets and twittens, the castle keep. And you are gliding, descending slowly, over all these rooftops to where, in the railway yard, steam rises straight up in silent, boiling pillars.

Waking suddenly, you rise from bed and stand in pyjamas at the tall window at the top of the house. Beyond the garden wall, shunting engines clank and hiss.

Far off, in moonlight, you see the chalk pit’s white wall and the sheep-cropped downland dark above.