by Alice West, June 6th 2020
Blue skies at 6am. Skip breakfast, where did I leave the car? Humming south, out of town along the Causeway, internally blessing Matthew, the ornithologist, as I pass his house. Round about, motorway bridge, sudden deep darkness in the tunnel of trees over the lane, negotiate the entrance to the track and gate 1, further unruly stretch of track and gate 2, focus to keep wheels either side of the ruts, park in dappled sunshine. It’s cold. I wasn’t expecting that. Put an extra layer on and dither about what to take, penknife, hat, glasses, phone, apple, optimistic plastic pot for strawberries – how to fit these into pockets? This process takes several minutes, then I carry the pot and tuck my glasses into the neck of my shirt. This still seems like the best option at the start of every walk, despite there being many pairs scattered across the wood as a result of this practice.
The first few hundred yards are steep, a buzzard is circling lazily in the thermal above this little valley, pale underside with black edged wings gradually blurring as he ascends and all but disappears. Eyes down now to look for wild strawberries on the sunny edges of the track amidst a myriad of wild flowers, the recent rain has given everything a boost, so many greens, so many textures. At last I am rewarded by a tiny red jewel. I am sure that if there is one, there will be more, so I eat it; a sweet, a tiny shot of summer.
It is, it seems, the only ripe one. There are others on the way, green-gold, round and waiting, I spend several minutes kneeling on the gravel getting just the right picture of these but it is not on my phone when I look later. My daughter would laugh at my photography skills, but at least this time it hasn’t resulted in several unflattering pictures of my own face. A little further on the “central reservation”, spectacular blue spikes march up the hill, as the light promotes some individuals to a superior rank. I have forgotten what they are called, and as always, missing my walking encyclopaedia of plant knowledge, I realise I only ever half listened to the content of what he said, being too busy wondering how he retained it all, and enjoying the discourse.
A barked message is delivered from either side of me, and as I look round a slim brown shape vanishes down the hill amongst the trees. A Roe deer warning, I want to see more but would be too obvious if I stay where I am so scramble up the bank and though the undergrowth to the high seat against
the wych elm. Annoying plastic pot in hand I go up the ladder, the seat gives some increase in view and moves me out of suspicion, it tilts forward slightly alarmingly, and after a few minutes I find I am transfixed by the big leaves against the sky rather than the possibility of further deer sightings. I try to get down quietly, carefully, but am startled by a loud “tok” from the plastic seat as I take my weight off it.
The deer have definitely gone now, so I work my way from strawberry plant to strawberry plant, no spots of red to be seen. At the top the bare earth between the three trees on the island has sprouted several small, thirsty orchids. They return each year to this inhospitable patch under the hammocks, where nothing else grows. They seem too delicate too tolerate these dry conditions, but every year they return. This was the best of them, lying titled but determined. Poor things. At the barn I collect the dog bed to lay over the barbed wire so that I can climb out onto the hilltop, I push it back over the fence into the dog’s mercury but not so far that I won’t be able to retrieve it later. Then pick my way cautiously across the tussocky grass where there is occasionally an adder basking on a bald tussock top. Unlikely now as there have been cattle grazing, the grass is short and the earth poached and but I am still careful.
The wind is cold and whips my lockdown hair into my eyes blurring the view of Petersfield and the patchwork of fields to the west of the town, yellow oil rape reminds me I must do something about the bees. The sun isn’t far enough round to reach the valley side yet so I choose the zigzag path, which has the advantage of taking me through the Banded Galloway bullocks. Grubby but beautiful little beasts, who watch me with long-lashed curiosity when I stop to take their picture. The disadvantage of this route is the rank smell of wild garlic (ramsons) all the way down the hill, now past its prime, and the angst of the wind in the ash trees. Sure enough there is a big branch across the path, with two very small grey squirrels on it. They skitter away as I approach. The branch has a crack along the uphill edge which I avoid as it is newly down and might not have finished splitting. Having thumped it and tried to rock it, it seems stable enough and I creep underneath.The path is greasy with last night’s rain leading to the usual dilemma, which is most slippery, the chalk or the mud? Both, either, it depends how you put your foot down, one jerk- and- almost-slide but I reach the bottom in the vertical plane. The birdsong is wonderful now that I am below the rush of the wind, how do such tiny creatures make such sounds. I wish I knew all their names.
Over the metal gate, being very conscious of touching it – will wash hands thoroughly later – into the butterfly orchid field, crosswort, buttercups and other difficult to photograph yellow flowers in abundance. No butterfly orchids, perhaps it is too early, or too late, or I can’t see for looking. The wind is fierce here and as I walk butterflies fling themselves away from me, frantically fighting to maintain their balance as they are buffeted, wings like little orange sails. None of them go far before seeking refuge in the flowers and long grasses again.
I could waste hours in this small corner of meadow.
On past the water trough with sheep, or dog, booster steps made of sleepers, through a kissing gate where the latch no longer matches up, into a dark corridor of gnarled trees, one across the path so twisted and wrinkled it’s hard to tell which end it fell from, roots and branches indistinguishable. The smell of nettles, ivy and ancient earth, steep ground leading upwards, then easing into green and light as the gate on to the Downs appears. The path here is threatened by brambles on both sides, dog rose elegant, carefree, delicate pink petals unscathed by ferocious prickles rampaging about them. And as the path opens up, here are the deliciously crazy daisies dancing like wild things in the wind.
Having played with the daisies for too long there is no time to go round the hill and up the valley, so I head straight up to the hill top. It is a sharp climb past purple topped ant hills, the tiny flowers look like heather and I vaguely remember an experiment years ago to reintroduce heather on Butser in the pockets of acid soil left on top of the chalk after the last ice age. How lovely it would be if the heather had dribbled down the hill via the ant acid, but I think this is some other purple tiny.
I am glad of the wind as I climb, and glad of my extra layer as the ground evens out. Over a stile, through a gate, the little group of ponies, brought in for their selective grazing – all lying down, five backs to the breeze, one looks round over its thick neck and watches me, stockily disinterested. The view again, a “pleasant land of counterpane” I never tire of it. Along, and round and down, back to the woodland edge, tiptoe across to the fence, eyes down just in case, retrieve the dog bed and get safely over the fence. Half way down the track I turn off down towards the primrose slope to look at the latest planting, little trees flourishing in their shelters I am delighted to see. Happy memories of the last amazing work party. I am less delighted to find a small hazel dragged down, bent out of true by old man’s beard. Loathsome Triffid plant, I cut the sinuous strings and pull them away from the bottom of the tree, turning and twisting it in on itself and stomping on it. The little tree springs back, I can almost see it stretching its cramped branches, shivering its leaves with relief.
June is a time of growth, nature doing its thing. Wilding as fast and furiously as it can. We’ve messed it about so much, heating up the planet, spreading disease through poor biosecurity – no track and trace for plant pandemics. No lockdown. No headlines. Reparations are slow, and restoration has to be subtle, careful, well informed, managed. A helping hand offered, gently, not withdrawn. As I walk back to the car I am so grateful for the support and unstinting generosity of all the wonderful people who give up their time to help us here, to do our bit in this small Hampshire woodland on the edge of the Downs.