Retrospective Spring Words

Sunday. Nearly lunch time. April 19th 2020 – spring.

I’m writing this at my desk, somewhere which, despite being off work for the past week and not going out and about due to the corona virus restrictions, I have barely sat at for any length of time for weeks. I had to clear a pile of books and discarded items from the surface before I had space to get here. Even now, I find my typing has stalled and I’m staring out the window to my right. The glass needs cleaning again. A row of spiny cactus stand lined up on the windowsill; one is about to flower for the first time so I must’ve done something right with them. Beyond the window the bird table leans slightly, the fat ball feeder that hangs underneath it still swinging from the attentions of the local rooks. The estate hasn’t mowed The Green this spring, and I’m glad. The lush grass glistens in the spring sun, an extensive halo of golden dandelions encircling the ancient cherry tree. The cherry casts a heavier shadow day by day as the canopy fills out, but the blossom has browned already and falling petals season the grass. The apples will be the next to blossom, the plum’s already out.

I’m not sure what to say about ‘these times’. I could carry on and describe the view outside; the warmth of the sun on the garden, the goldfinches that come to feed on the seeds in the dandelion clocks, how outside the back door on the other side of the flat the chiffchaff hasn’t been singing much today, despite being in good voice since the day the clocks changed at the end of march. Maybe he’s worn out.

But I think instead, for now, I’ll leave you to look out the window and see what is happening there yourself. Whilst you’re gone I’ll have a rummage in my archives and see if I can find some interesting pieces, written around this season on previous years, for you to read when you get back.

. . . . . . . .

Most of these extracts come from earlier incarnations of this blog.

Saturday, 28 March 2015 – Field Walking

The week had been a long one, filled with more than five days should have any right to be, and it was good to shut the car door and walk in the open air. 
I took the field edge path. 
The ground was hard beneath my boots, no soft loam this but chalk. After rain it forms a slick lamination, but under this warm spring sunshine it was powder dry, and grey mottled with white like extinguished ashes. 
The field stretched away towards the rolling edge of the hill, and beyond other fields juxtaposed it; some running this way, others ranging this way, and the still-bare trees reaching up towards my view. In the distance, the city glinted beside Tennyson’s “one grey glimpse of sea”, its cathedral spire propping up the sky. I revelled in the view and its dry-brush-stokes and ink-runs of colour. 
On a closer scale, where the chalk dust was disturbed by the soles of my boots, were tiny blue eyes of speedwell flowers. Crooked swollen roots, beets or turnips that had evaded the nipping sheep who had so recently left the field, grew quietly yet unapologetically, forcing their way between chunks of flint. 

These chalk-suffused rocks rise through the hill with every rain, and peppered the field. Here and there, where a ploughshare had shattered one, it revealed its dark soul; an inky steel-grey the colour of a cold deep sea. Once the flint was prized by those peoples long gone who carved the encampment out of the hilltop and who mined these hills for the sake of the flints’ cutting edge.
The suns warmth had absent-mindedly departed, and the strengthening wind was blowing skylark song away to the east. With my pockets weighed by treasured things, collected child-like; a feather, a shard of flint with a quartz inclusion that retained the day’s heat longer than I (it now acts as a convenient, if unusual, paperweight on my desk), and a tuft of sheep’s wool extracted from a fence barb as though I were a bird lining my nest, and my eyes aching from squinting through the shimmer haze that hangs above the chalk when the sun heats it, it was time to leave and shut the car door on the open air. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014 – Lunch Break

Beneath the rising hum of passing plane, hazy clouds drift, blotting the perfect sky.
Bees and insects buzz busily around the yellow fluffy buds on the willow tree and from the branches chiffchaff calls and pigeon coos.
A murmer in the rushes, soft breeze brushes skin and moves the waters of the lake. A ripple; fish rising. 
Eyes close. Sun warms. Sounds lull. 
Distant rooks, and further, far away sheep. Strains of robin song to the right, and blackbird to the left. And Chiffchaff, Chiffchaff, Chiffchaff.
Watch ticks. Insects dance over dark waters whilst butterflies bask, wings painted with unseeing eyes. Thoughts drift. 
A shiver in the breeze, a pheasant calls. 
The chaffinch now, sings for rain. And still above it all is the rising hum of passing plane.

Welcoming Committee – 11 April 2016

I formed my own small, very small, welcoming committee this afternoon. It was an impromptu event, the result of a late afternoon walk. I had spent most of the day completing some paperwork and with my eyes zoned into the time-distorting bright lights of the computer screen I hardly noticed that outside the rain had slowed, then stopped, and the clouds were breaking up. Once I did surface and break free of the cyber-net, the urge to get outside was irresistible.

The sky was pale and insipid, washed-out by the deluges of the morning and the sun already too low to have significant impact on the cloud cover. My boots knew their route, the old familiar way, down through the factories, between the houses and gardens of the estate, and onto the track. Pick your way between the puddles and ruts beside the coach depot, noting the first bluebells emerging there on the bank cradled by the roots of the oaks and holly, and out into the open, into the sleepy gaze of the distant, ever-present downs. Sunlight illuminated the new bursting of the oak where blue tits fizzed and flitted. Cattle lazed, chewing the cud, spread out like a confused dot-to-dot drawing across the field, seeming as relieved as I was that the rain had stopped. The grass if not quite yet beginning to grow had at least taken on a subtle shade-change, one hue greener.

In the patchy hedgerow, house sparrows flocked along with grey-headed linnets. The sparrows are always here, a remnant of a population in the remnant of a hedge. ‘House’ sparrows may be the name we give them, the box we allocate them in our organised view of the world, but these noisy birds, although they share the garb and language of the city urchin ‘spadger’, prefer the rural life of tractor shed and silage barn and cattle dung flies and impenetrable bramble thorn.

The track bends beside the barns, wrapping around a small copse where once a sandpit would’ve been busy with both men and martins. The sand martins do not come any more and the pit itself has become almost lost under sapling sycamores and scrub. A storage place for discarded water troughs or machinery parts. I wasn’t expecting the honesty. Beneath the budding maples, barging their way unapologetically between tractor tyre and trunk and gate post, the violet-purple flowers spread through the faded-beige stems of last year’s growth. Somewhere in the branches beyond a chiffchaff was singing. I was distracted for a moment tracking down the source of a buzzing sound to my left, it turned out to be a hairy-footed flower bee, like a speeded up, black velvet, small bumblebee. The bight yellow pollen sacks on her back legs suggested a successful foraging foray, possibly thanks to the honesty.

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I was about to turn for home when they arrived. Or perhaps I arrived as they turned for home, it is hard to tell exactly. I had reached the apex of my walk, the last few hundred yards that lead past the ‘manor house’ and its barn with the always broken window. Appearing as if from nowhere, but as if they had always been there, the paradoxical swallow, or in this case a pair. The quintessential bird of the English farm yard and the summer countryside-sky, which conversely is actually more absent than present, only spending a short few months with us. Each year, at barns and stables across the country, people pause, a brief insignificant moment of their day suddenly weighted and given a new clarity, as a distinctive familiar twitter and swooping twisted flight breaks the monochrome sky. Each year we welcome them back as old friends.

They were smart birds, with cream underparts and crimson bib below a blue back. One bird had long tail streamers, the other shorter, a male and a female. It is hard not to transpose human emotions onto the two individuals; they were back home, they’d made it, and they were together.

As I stood watching this first pair it was as though I could feel the the earth turning beneath my feet; after a slow start, spring has suddenly remembered itself and is now almost tripping over its own feet in its hurry to move the season along. I was pleased that I was there, to note this moment, to record it, to be the welcoming committee.

Bedham Bluebells – 24 April 2017

For the first day in ages we got out and about for a walk today. Not far, just explored somewhere new (or old depending how you look at it…) and took in some seasonal delights at the same time.

I had often heard mention online of Bedham Church ruins, and seen many a photo of this mysterious place; a ruined church in the woods, in a remote and peaceful spot deep in the West Sussex countryside. Having eventually tracked down its approximate location (just north of Fittleworth, tucked in the edge of The Mens nature reserve), and having heard rumour of bluebells and other spring woodland joys, it was decided that this weekend we would make it our mission to find Bedham church.

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Bedham itself appears as quite a vague location on the map a long way off the main road; a scattered hamlet someway down winding, narrow, deep cut lanes, between Petworth, Fittleworth and Wisborough Green. Here the geology is sandstone, much of the land wooded, and the ground rises to form a ridge above the wider landscape of the weald. The hamlet’s history is interesting; in the 20th century it gained a reputation as a bolt holt from ‘modern’ life for those artists whose finances wouldn’t stretch to more fashionable locations. Perhaps one of the more famous residents was composer Sir Edward Elgar who lived nearby for some time. During the Second World War, Canadian soldiers were posted nearby and used the woodlands for firing ranges and training grounds ahead of D-Day.

The surrounding woodlands were largely in cultivation as coppice, with woodlanders and charcoal burners making up a significant portion of the local population.

The sounds of woodland work and the smell of charcoal smoke are largely lost from Bedham of today, and the 20th century £100 price-tag of a remote cottage in the hamlet is certainly a thing of the past. Bridleways and footpaths follow the historic rights of way, taking the intrepid for a journey in the footsteps of those woodlanders and artists, but for many visitors the main attraction is the ruins of Bedham Church.

A shell of a building, Bedham Church sits ambiguously in a clearing, below the road. If you weren’t looking for it it would be easy to miss, or else, appear surprising and out of place in its remoteness. On closer inspection, the manmade structure feels particularly grounded and in tune with its surroundings, as if the bricks, although reformed and constricted, actually grow quite naturally out of the sandstone from which they were made. There is however, a certain feeling of this building having been imposed on the woodland, intruding and yet over time, welcomed, accepted and reclaimed. A couple of houses in close proximity speak of the community that this building must have once served; it is clearly a shared building for a congregation, a coming together, rather than an individual personal indulgence.

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Built in 1880, St Michael and All Angels Mission Church was a dual purpose building: a school house for local children during the week, and a church on Sundays. It consisted of a single room which would be separated by a curtain to provide teaching space for senior and infant pupils, and built in the style of a chapel, would be attended by the rest of the community for Sunday worship. Victorian society considered worship and religion a foundation of good morals, and education and ‘improvement’ as goodly values. So many such mission churches were built by the Church of England and wealthier landowners to reach out and minister to rural people. Bedham church was finally abandoned in the 1950’s and soon fell into disrepair. The hurricane of the late 1980’s removed the roof and cause serious structural damage. Now only the walls remain, shored up with a heavy iron prop.

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The woodland has become a tapestry of greens and blues, grey gnarled trunks and straight sun-seeking growth. It is bluebell time, and for a few short weeks a sea of blue of a shade rarely seen in nature at other times, fills the snippets of local woodlands glimpsed from car windows or explored by walking boots and cameras.

After we had had our fill of exploring the ruins of Bedham church, we set off on a meander through the woodland, heading at first downhill, before turning left along the line of the pylons and rejoining the lane which then winds back up to our original starting point and the car. Shallow rooted beech trees gave way to pines, an historic boundary bank delineated the edge of hazel coppice studded with a few veteran oaks.

The coppice stools had not seen a woodman’s billhook for decades, the acute angle of a lost fence was obscured by bramble. The woods are undeniably vibrant and animate, and yet once you notice the echoes of times and people past, the whole woodland seems a little less living, less dynamic, on an intangible level which tinges the experience with a curious sadness that raises the hairs on your neck. Perhaps the silent emptiness of the ruins of a building which had once been a central focus of life around this place had simply made our story-minds more susceptible to the shadows and visions of the imagined people of this lost community.

. . . . . . . .

The rooks are back, attacking the fat balls again. I cant get too annoyed with them, even if they did break the flowering stem off one of my few columbines. I’ve popped the snapped piece in the vase with some of the Spanish bluebells and euphorbia I picked yesterday, in the hope the buds might open. The dandelions are still beaming brightly – they, and us, get two minuets extra daylight each day now.

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