Sunday, November 27, 2005

Ancient and modern

Every time I walk this route, I find myself, at some point, trying to imagine how this place would have felt and smelt when the railway was active. Hulking, steaming, groaning, steam engines forged their way up and down this single track at regular intervals. Some passenger trains taking kids to and from school, some impossibly long goods trains, and some steaming cattle trucks. The space is now a refuge from modern life; it is my escape to guaranteed peace, away from technology and rush. The railway was built in the late nineteenth century and the last train ran through in the early 1960s. It was active for less than 100 years and now it is rapidly being subsumed back into the landscape. It is difficult to break that peace and visualise the noise and steam now. This picture shows one of the last passenger trains to run through this village.The railway angles away from the village, so about a third of my walk back is along footpaths and across fields. Now that the mature elm trees have gone (see previous post), the dominant trees on this landscape are mature oaks scattered at intervals. These trees were planted almost certainly as boundary markers and are about 150-200 years old. At that time, a number of acts of parliament enabled major landowners to take full control of large areas of land removing control from individual local farmers. This process was called enclosure and it changed the English landscape forever. The many communal fields, unfenced pastures and meadows were enclosed by hedges and fences and oak trees were often planted to create long-lasting visual markers. Many of the boundaries created then have remained largely unchanged, although in some cases modern farming has combined two smaller fields into one and stranded large oaks, like the one pictured here.The field that I cross last of all before home is very special to me and I love walking across it. The day before yesterday, I stood for perhaps 10 minutes watching a kestrel hovering 20-30 feet up, its head motionless, watching and waiting for some small rodent to stray an extra few inches from safety. This has been grazing pasture for as long as anyone can remember around here. Until just a few days ago, a small herd of cattle were grazing it. It slopes up away from the road and it undulates with perfect regularity, the broad ridges running up the slope. This is a perfect and beautiful example of 'ridge and furrow'. In medieval times (700-1000 years ago) this field would have been ploughed each year by a team of oxen. The field may well have been divided up between a number of poor tenant farmers, who would have shared the costs of the plough team. The cumbersome plough would have been slow to turn and so the ridges are all about 6-7 metres apart. In other parts of the country, intensive farming has destroyed many examples of this wonderful visual reminder of our ancient rural history. This picture shows some of the ridges and furrows.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Giveth and taketh away

This morning was bitter. Yesterday, the wind swung round to the north and biting arctic winds swept Britain. In Scotland and the north of England, snow has arrived. Here it is still bright and frosty but now with a cold, cold wind. This morning I took the little camera again, a pair of binoculars ...and a hat.

The last week of ice and cold has brought us into full winter with a jolt. October was warm - my kids swum in the English channel in late October. Animals and plants were active much later than normal. In some parts of
Britain, blossom erupted on fruit trees in hopeful expectation that winter had never come and spring was due. Now the late warmth has finished and the long period of winter rest has truly begun.

The plants beside the railway donated much to me en route. Burrs - the hooked seed cases of the Burdock gripped my fleece tenaciously. Many other sticky grass seeds also clung to me as I passed. I did my duty and dispersed their genes a mile further along as a picked them off and flung them into the hedge. In return, early in the walk, a bramble managed to snag the dangling cord on my camera and slip it out of my pocket as gently and quietly as a pickpocket. I had to backtrack half a mile to find it hanging forlornly by the track.

Walking the track today, I made an effort to be fully observant. This meant treading lightly and using my ears and eyes to their fullest extent. My natural tendency is to focus on particular things when I walk - my own footsteps, the view, perhaps those birds at eye-level. So, it took a conscious effort to use my peripheral vision to see the smallest movements, and to use my ears to hear all the small sounds around me. Only when you really move your head, can you appreciate the vertically-layered world that the birds move in. I saw belligerent little wrens with insistent chirping alarm calls rarely straying more than a few feet from the ground. Angry, territorial blackbirds are difficult to miss but as I looked a little higher, a flash of peachy red plumage revealed an exotic male Bullfinch at the top of the elders. Higher still and I saw a flock of maybe 20 Redwings fly in and perch for a short time in the higher branches of an Ash tree. Up high in the clear blue sky, the occasional cruising gull, like a silent, streamlined jet.

A lot of the hedgerows around here are broken at intervals by dead Elm trees. These spring up from a living rootstock, but at a certain height or age, the Bark Beetle that carries Dutch Elm disease gets in, takes hold and the tree dies back again. Most of the mature Elms in this country were lost when Dutch Elm disease came first in the 60s and 70s. In many places, including this village, the landscape was changed forever. (For more info, click here.)

(Birds seen: Great Tit, Wren, Blackbird, Redwing, Black-headed gull (?), Bullfinch, Rook, Kestrel, Wood Pigeon).

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Good morning campers

This morning looked so beautiful that I decided to get out and take some photographs (see previous post) as soon as the early morning fog lifted. I chose not to walk the whole route, but to spend time around the old warehouse to take photographs and soak up the solitude, if only for half an hour before domestic duties took priority. The frost on the grass was deep and the sun was still burning off the last of the haze when I set out. A dog-walker had crossed the field before me, but the pair of mismatched footprints simply skirted the perimeter rather than continue through and onto the railway. The peace enveloped me and magnified ten-fold the sound of my crunching footsteps. As I looked up through the tangle of growth across the track, two rabbits made their way deftly from one side to the other, obviously aware of me, but not unduly perturbed. Papery leaves were falling from the trees around me as the thaw began.

I was pacing along the front of the large redbrick warehouse building when something caught my eye - A small movement across the surface of the vast wall - a rash of dark flies were sunbathing in the morning light and they moved as one when my shadow fell across them. On closer inspection, I realised that they were blowflies just emerging from behind a triangular metal sign that clung by a couple of rusty nails to the red brick. The blowfly was given the wonderfully evocative name of Calliphora vomitoria by that master taxonomer Carl Linnaeus in 1758. As the name might suggest, it has the unappealing habit of feeding on carrion. The adults have an unerring ability to find a body within hours of death, so much so that pathologists are able to estimate with some accuracy the time of death. All they need to note is the ambient temperature, and the size and number of the maggots present (for more info, click here).

These flies, however, were not actively seeking corpses but merely preparing for hibernation. They were emerging from their communal bed like festival campers emerging from beneath their flysheets, the 'morning after the night before'. Ablutions were the priority with each fly delicately brushing their feet together (fore- and hind-) and then sweeping over their big compound eyes. The temperature during the night had dropped well below freezing point, so now they relied on the sun to raise the temperature of their cold blood and make their muscles work. As I moved away from them to head home, about twenty took to the wing briefly while the remainder were still emerging, stiff-legged and sleepy.

Frosty morning photography

November 19th, 2005

I awoke to a beautiful frost, so I ventured out with my son's very cheap digital camera to capture the essence of my chosen location.

Frost on the field next to the railway.

An old cattle trough, frozen.

Sunlight on frosty grass

The overgrown track

Old railway sheds

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Initial thoughts in the autumn sun

16 November, 2005

I live in a small and very rural village in the centre of England. I have recently started working from home, partly to be there for my children whilst my wife works full-time, and partly to escape the insanities of office life which I suffered for too many years.

About a quarter of a mile from my house is a disused railway line. I am told that until the 1960s it was fully-functioning and that a small station once stood just where the track crossed the main road through. The route of the railway is still there, a grassy path lined with brambles, burdocks and hawthorn and populated by a selection of small birds and mammals.

The old railway line was, until quite recently, a regular route for dog-walkers and Sunday afternoon strollers. In February 2001, Foot and Mouth disease struck this country and suddenly country walks were forbidden. The ban lasted through the summer of that year and gave nature just enough time to reclaim the railway sufficiently to discourage all but the most intrepid. Brambles crept across the path and hung loosely from overhanging blackthorn. Fewer now braved these prickly assaults and parts of the route became impassable surprisingly quickly.

Today was a perfect autumn day. The air was still and cold, the sunlight bright and clear. I decided to use an hour to walk up the railway path as far as I could. I spent much of my childhood with my nose in undergrowth, looking for bugs, and an appreciation of nature is cut deep into my soul. Modern, grown-up life seems to conspire against me satisfying that need as often as I should. So, as I stride out in the autumn sunshine, my eyes blinking against the low sun, I feel my heart open and peacefulness suffuse my mind.

At the entrance to the path is a large old oak tree, maybe two or three hundred years old. To the left, a derelict old red brick railway warehouse. I start up the grassy track. Steely sloes still cling to the dark blackthorn bushes and are in stark contrast to the vivid red fruit of the hawthorns. The blackbirds, woodpigeons crashed noisily through the hedges, wrens and finches skittered along more secretively.

The walk was therapy, it took about forty-five minutes punctuated by several long pauses, leaning over gates, breathing in the day. As I walked back to the warmth of my house, I committed myself to chronicle one year in the life of the disused railway, record what I see and how life changes week-by-week. It will do me good and I hope that someone else will appreciate it too. Watch this space.