I’m out with the spaniel as the sky begins to brighten. To the East across what was Thakeham playing field a wide, luminous deep pink band over the thinnest gold streak shines behind the treetops. The pink sky might warn shepherds to beware storms later, but for now it reveals a clear sky and we enjoy the moment.
The trees stand clear against the skyline. In early winter ash, beech and birch have lost nearly all their leaves, their silhouettes are sharp, jagged skeletons against the pale sky. Oaks still hold much of their foliage, their shapes are massive: solid looming shapes punctuating the branching outlines around them. The rustling quiet is interrupted as a ragged swirl of rooks rise cawing from their overnight perches. The spaniel pays close attention.
We turn right behind the old mushroom farm to climb onto the ridge. The path passes through dead seed heads of teasels and umbellifers. Earlier in the year (and later in the day) clouds of finches would rise from them as we walked, swirling and settling to feed behind us. Now the seed heads are plundered, sere and stark. Willowherb still stands, dry and pink in the early light. Onto the ridge and past the simple stone seat contributed in memory of Ben Richardson. To the South, the Downs are a grey-blue margin to the landscape, with deeper blue cloud resting on them, obscuring their heights. Maybe the shepherds’ storm will arrive sooner than we wish?
Down the other side of the ridge the maize field on the left has been cleared, no chance today of deer or rabbits bursting from its cover. If spaniels had better memories the dog might be disappointed, but as it is nothing seems to mar her joy as she hunts through the stubble rows, nose to the brown earth, looping to find and follow the scent of previous passers-by.
Through the cottages and left along the track, then North as we join Strawberry Lane. This is an ancient way. Thirty years ago, when we moved here, we were told it was an old coaching road, haunted (of course) by a headless coachman driving his horses along the muddy track. But this road was formed long before coach routes were thought of. It is a drovers’ track. Certainly dating back a thousand years, from when Anglo-Saxons drove their pigs from the Downlands Northwards into the oak forests of the Weald to feed on acorns. Very probably far older even than that, the practice was established before the Romans arrived. We tread a path written deep into the landscape by its users’ feet, re-written and reinforced over millennia.
The Lane is memorialised in song. The words and tune of the folksong can be found online in a collection made by Miriam Berg. It was recorded by the Copper family for the BBC and seems to be a variant of ‘Scarborough Fair’:
As I was walking up Strawberry Lane,
Oh, ev’ry rose grows merry and fine,
I chanced to meet with a pretty fair maid,
Who wanted to be a true lover of mine.
And on for many more verses.
The spaniel and I climb through fallen leaves, between high banks and tall trees. The patches on the spaniel’s coat echo the colours of the leaves through which she pushes. Whenever we walk in deciduous woodland I marvel that, even where oak trees are in the minority, underfoot fallen oak leaves predominate, outnumbering and swamping beech, birch, hazel and hawthorn. The leaves maintain their structure while those of other species rot and decay. Their tenacity reflects that of the oak tree itself. We salute an impressive upstanding specimen in our path, four feet in diameter. It’s a giant standing sturdy among the birches around it, who stretch seeming spindly in comparison, in competition to reach the light. Then we see a fallen companion, almost wrenched from the ground some years past, and still from the end of the oak tree’s horizontal body a few leaves have sprung and still cling to its branches’ tips. ‘Hearts of oak’ and stamina to match seem to be worthy aspirations, beyond jingoistic boasting. Gabriel Oak springs to mind, felled by circumstance but resurgent through patient tenacity.
Gabriel Oak’s disaster reminds me of impulsive dogs. The spaniel is delirious between rabbit holes, which perforate the banks, and blackbirds, who fly scolding from the brush and scrub as she plunges between them. She swings like a pendulum bob. First up through bracken and briars to the rim of the lane’s declivity on one side, then the dog dives headlong back down through the scrub to bounce at the path and surge up the opposite slope. A startled blackbird leads her along the track ahead of me and out of sight round the bend. After a moment I whistle, and after two or three more she returns; seeming more greyhound than spaniel as she races, apart from the butterfly ears that spread wide on each side of her head.
At the top of Strawberry Lane, just before the old route has been detoured so it no longer goes through the farmyard, there’s a quagmire. A small wash of water over deep mud. It is possible to walk round it, but not if you are a thirsty spaniel. Lapping and gulping the clean(ish) water in front of her the dog wades through the morass, leaving a wake of mirk and mud suspension. She emerges with sticky black legs and belly.
We choose to walk back along the shorter field paths to the playing fields, rather than through the village. Breakfast is calling. If spaniels lack some long term recall, they also miss long term foreboding. I know I’ll be cleaning dog, shower room and then myself before I’ll taste that breakfast coffee. Later, if the shepherds’ storm holds off, I’ll tackle some of the fallen oak leaves that threaten to bury our garden.
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