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.


Towcesters railway history said...

I like old railways, I have a website about one in particular
My blog is at

Brian of Baringhup said...

Your photograph of the train hauled by two ex GWR tank engines is fascinating. I don't know the extent to which you realize, but you have chosen an atypical and very interesting photograph.
Your tone reminds me of a book published in the US in the late 1980s or early 1990s, 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' by Annie someone or other. She chose to live in the mountains to the west of Washington DC (in Virginia if I recall) for a year just to experience the seasons and the micro observations (my boring term, not hers) one may make. Cheers from Ankara.

Steve said...

I'm more of a bird spotter than a train spotter, so thanks for the input. The author is Annie Dillard and I am honoured indeed to be in any way compared.