Today I took a walk up to my favourite spot on the Ridgeway. It’s been a little while since I have been there, and I wanted to see how it had changed, what magic nature had worked, how it would feel like a different place since I last saw it, overcast and grey and covered in the white, milky puddles that ancient chalk footpaths make.
The sky was blue but the air cool when I arrived at the top of Chain Hill. Instantly, the instinctive expansion of lungs and stomach to draw in the light, windswept air, and the dropping of shoulders. I don’t get up here enough. A short walk this morning, a couple of hours wrestled from the week to refuel, slow down, see what I am missing – to really look.
I should know it already, of course, but in my absence the world has changed immeasurably, in a way that every time, though I should know better, takes me by surprise. There are, I could easily believe, a thousand shades of green. Unreal, neon-lit grasses, deep emerald leaves, the nearly-black of shaded undertrees, the lime newness of unfurling buds, the changing dusty yellow-sage and winter-brown of fields as clouds race over them. Enough variety to make life below this high old pathway retreat and curl up, distant.
Verges which I know busied themselves with snowdrops against a bare, black and white background are now shoulder-high with shoots and violet flowers. The grass that runs down the middle of the track is dotted with white and yellow buds and thistle-shaped heads. The sky above is the kind that seems put together to amaze us, to force us to recognise how large the world is, how ridiculous our arguments, our problems: cobalt blue, with faint lines drawn long before smaller white circles. There’s something about being surrounded by all this colour, above and below, that fills the mind and leaves no room for negative emotions.
I read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, about the benefits of simply being surrounded by nature and away from the devices that we use to fill our senses at home – that the bright colours and movement and noise of our televisions, computers and mobile phones cannot compete with the way in which all our senses are needed when we’re outside – the noise, the movement, the detail, the scents, the feel of grassheads on your palm. This makes absolute sense to me. I don’t hate modern life – it’s wonderful that we can share information in a way that has never been done before. I just hope that we don’t forget what else there is, outside. That we remember that pictures of nature are inspiring, but they aren’t the same as being there, and breathing it in; the sound of wind whistling through treetops, and the playful changing light.
As I walked from Chain Hill to the iron age fort, the sun grew warmer and the light brighter, so that I feel, now, a couple of hours later, that a light and warmth is still held behind my eyelids. Soon I realised how much I had missed – that sense that you can walk the same path every day, and it will never be quite the same. Different things will happen, different details will appear under different lights, impossible as it is to see without filtering everything through your own mind. Such walks fill me with a sense of peace, but also with an underlying sadness that I can’t be there everyday. I’m missing things. Things so important and unfeasible in their simplicity. That somewhere, while I sit in traffic, kites are circling and flowers are unfurling. There’s something comforting, though, in knowing that whatever else happens, this goes on. The green sap pushing through the world as it turns, producing tidal waves of growth as the seasons wash from one continent to another.
What things did I see, and not miss, this time? Butterflies, tiny and violet blue, like jewels on a Victorian dressing table, looking as if they would taste of dust and sugar; brown, with bright orange circles, sunning themselves on flowers that tilted with the wind; pearl, and quick to flutter away into the white cloud above. Their cousin, a long, furred caterpillar with an armour of small spikes that wriggled across the pebbles and which I paused for, to make sure that it reached the grass on the other side, safe from the tracks of cyclists’ wheels, and which thereby shrank and wonderfully paused my world for a few minutes.
Passing underneath trees so thick with leaves that delightfully spooky-looking shadows covered the path beneath me, a cloud of buttercups glowed like gold coins. Above the branches, a crow burst across the sky in a shocking black cross, like a warning, like a shout. Back in the sun, a chaffinch warbled proudly from a branch end, showing off his salmon breast. All these seemed suitable, when after an hour I arrived at the iron age hill fort which I had last climbed up on a windswept day, hands tucked in pockets.
Grass which had seemed sparse and bare underfoot now swept past my knees, leaving small circles of dew damp. From the top of the fort’s ridge, I saw that what had been bare grass, impressive in its stillness and plainness, was now a waving field of yellow and white, tiny flowers and paper-like grassheads. Truly, I had missed the arrival of a new world. I could be in another country. I kneeled in the damp grass to see things from its level, as the sky grew immense overhead and insects fizzed around my head. No wonder the birds and bright colours had been trying to prepare me for this.
There is something immensely comfortable in the thought that you can stand on ground that was moulded by human hands hundreds of thousands of years ago, and yet be amazed to see it change from season to season. Its permanence, and flexibility. Its continuity, despite all odds, and the way it can burst forth with life from days of ice chill and bare soil. In changing times, I feel invigorated by the reminder that such earth does not care for current political changes, for what I have to achieve this week, for tarmac roads and busy offices. It will be there, even while I am away, preparing another surprise, a new show, a shift of details that will prove so rewarding when found. It is possible, there, to feel both tiny and young, and older than the years, part of the sky and soil that surrounds you. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. It’s just free, and alive.
As I turned to head back to the rest of my day, I saw from the corner of my eye a dark shape drifting through a field of emerald green crops to my right. A deer, solitary, and moving slower and more gently than I have seen before, as if swimming through the plants, enjoying the view, as if floating. Hands raised over my eyes, I stopped to watch – she was so close, but unaware of my existence. Time paused. Then, she lifted her head and looked directly at me. I froze, unwilling to break the moment that had snared us both in it, a tightrope drawn between us. A shallow breath later, she gently swung her head round, and carried on her slow, sedate way, parting the green waves. Knowing that neither of us mattered, really, just the parts we were playing in this life, this time, this round, as the sun travelled overhead.
Photos by Adam Edwards