20 Jul Escaping
Someone said to me yesterday: ‘I haven’t seen a blog for a while’. I had been thinking the same thing myself, the internal conversation renewed each week or two: ‘I must get down to a blogpost’. I never know how long it will take for the seed of a new piece to flit into my mind and take root. Sometimes, it feels as if it will never happen again. In the past it was easy – I just had to write about what was in front of me, on a walk, in a cafe, pottering in the garden, going on a trip to Scotland or further afield, seeing a play. But these days it’s more difficult not just because some of those things are no longer possible. It’s hard to avoid the sense that I have to write about something to do with COVID or lockdown. To ignore it would be ridiculous, or thoughtless, or weak-willed says the spool in my head running on repeat. Yet such a big part of me doesn’t want to. It’s inescapable but escaping its grip on our internal and external worlds seems such an inviting and possibly important thing to do.
So, here’s an experiment.
Last week I went out quite a bit. Three modestly substantial walks: 9 miles on Monday, 6 on Wednesday and 5 on Friday. Picnic lunch, picnic lunch, picnic breakfast respectively. Sunny, cloudy, sunny. Daughter, Husband, Chum.
Monday was deep Surrey villages, woods, meadows, commons, farmland mostly grazed by horses, fair Englishwomen walking dogs, and Lovelace bridges. Quaintly ancient structures (the bridges, not the women), they look as if they’ve been astride these paths since the Normans roamed these parts or could possibly be so ancient that the landscape formed around them. I was amazed to find out they were built only in the 1860s by a Lord Lovelace (who else?) to move felled timber from his forests to his timber yards. Horseshoe-shaped, the bridges crossed the deeper gullies where horses pulling the timber on carts would have struggled with the gradient. Old Lovelace clearly had a thing about horses. And pebbles. These strange bridges are pebble-dashed with proper fist-sized pebbles carefully stuck on, all rounded, regular and just asking to be stroked. Works of a conscientious man, functional yet ornate. Also slightly weird. And I suppose the landscape has formed around them, embracing them so that they seem to belong in nature. On the edge of a meadow beyond one of these bridges we stopped for a picnic lunch. Carefully prepared to allow some sharing – separate tubs of salad wrapped and sealed to avoid fingertip contact, sitting apart … Oops! I’m not going there.
Surrey is the most wooded county in England with trees covering about 40% of its land area. We rummaged deep in a few of them enjoying the fairy-tale names: Great Ridings Wood (hoof prints and horse barriers), Parrot Copse (no parrots), Angel Clump (angels unexpectedly and inconsiderately on a day off). The trees are tall but well-spaced so that sunlight filters down to the floor this time of year and my daughter could take this picture of the light and shade. It felt like a metaphor for these days… Oops, that was close – not going there either!
Wednesday was Cobham and the Mole river. Dark, slow-moving and emerging from shady overgrown banks overhung with trees, it’s sometimes unpretty and often out of sight, which is maybe just as well. More glorious woods (Surrey again), three astonishing 300-year-old oaks pollarded according to some medieval practice so that they now have immense trunks but the canopy remains unusually squat. Meadows with teasels poised between soft mauve flower and spiky brown seed head. They reminded me of another place and another time. On a visit to the restored mill at Knockando in the Highlands a few years ago a piece of old machinery caught my eye. Hundreds of teasels stacked side by side on narrow shafts and mounted onto a cylinder through which the cloth is rolled. These strange contraptions are used in the weaving industry to raise the nap on woven cloth, making the smooth, flat woven surface softer and fluffier. All that sense of antiquity with the medieval pollarding and the teasel nap-raising and all the while the inescapable hum of the M25 that we crossed a couple of times. Walking is always some kind of time travel. Back in time feels suddenly more manageable than forward…
Friday was Home Park, a park near home, ironically, where Henry VIII took time off from affairs of state and bedchamber to hunt. An early start and spirited walking with a friend who sets a brisk pace in walking and talking! We passed this pond looking like an illustration for a Jane Austen novel…
… and stopped at the next much smaller one where a willow dips romantically over the dark water and tiny fluffy moorchicks hide in the rushes or swim out desperately paddling to keep close to their mother. I could feel the thought hiding in the corner of my mind that the moorhen and her brood are oblivious to anything else going on in the world – just in time I pulled back from it. It was hot. We chatted more. A sand-coloured terrier bounded up to us and sniffed around for crumbs from our breakfast – the croissants hermetically wrapped and homemade marmalade aseptically shared. Separate flasks, plates and cutlery…
I found myself ruminating on how much it was possible to shed COVID thoughts. It’s not. It creeps in. You can go out for walks like this into worlds that seems hardly touched by this pernicious disease. Walkers don’t wear masks; they’re careful even in the best of times. In the worst of times, perhaps more so, giving each other space. And I notice that and thank them but it brings it all back to mind. I find I can adapt to some of it. All the picnic precautions and the walking a few metres apart, once I stopped feeling resentful, stopped seeing these things as inconveniences it became easy to see past them. I just had to take a bigger rucksack, shout more loudly on the narrow trails and try and remember not to touch any gates or stiles! And definitely to go out and do it anyway. Treasure the small things while the sunshine and summer’s warmth make them possible. Live in the moment. Try not to think about the bigger things, like the future.
Or even the next blogpost!