First countryside walk

This is an attempt to try and capture the sights and feelings I experienced on my first countryside walk with my father which took me across a particular meadow and through a large wood which I had never been before. I was under five years old at that time, so it’s not really a story as such.

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Beyond the wooden foot bridge crossing the brook, the footpath continued through a rough pasture where a herd of cattle of mixed heritage grazed peacefully, slowly, making their way from one end of the field to the other, their tails swishing back and forth making a full arc across their hind quarters, keeping the worrying flies at bay, their heads down as they sought the more edible grasses amongst the dense clumps of soft rush, which was anything other than soft, with its multiple blades of stiff, dark green, upright cylindrical stems which was the dominant plant in the field. The cows as well as swishing their tails also shook their heads in a pivotal way to dislodge the multitude of flies from around their eyes which were only momentarily dislodged before landing again; their paddle shaped ears were also engaged as fly deterrents and used as swats.

Apart from the movement of the cows, everything else was on the move from the fluffy white clouds, to the multitude of flying insects of bees and flies of different types, with the taller grasses answering the puffs of wind as they waved  back and forth, equally nothing was silent, the bees and flies buzzed, the grass whispered and the cows snorted and mooed whilst high above us, so high as to be almost out a sight, skylarks sang their songs, rooks and crows at one end of the field added their own voices whilst at the other and in the next meadow, pewits, lapwings or plovers being other names, with their black and white plumage, wheeled and dived whilst making their own distinctive call. 

We three children were also on the move as we followed our father who being profoundly deaf walked silently ahead whilst we played, laughing, chattering and arguing as we ran about jumping over the tuffs of reeds or using them as stepping stones, or picking a buttercup and placing under each others chins to see if we liked butter, if its yellow colour reflected on our skin, apparently we liked it. We also picked one or other of the many types of larger daisy like flowers, growing in abundance amongst the reeds, pulling off its petals, one by one, accompanied with the old rhyme ‘she loves me,’ as you removed the first petal and ‘she loves me not’ as you removed the next and so on until all the petals were removed, the last one being either ‘she loves me’ or sadly ‘she loves me not’ 

There was some distance between the brook across the meadow to the woods beyond, the grassy path unlike most of the field was devoid of the soft rush with much of its it’s length covered instead with rich yellow meadow butter cups which to a young child had a special smell which quickly becomes blunted with age. Each step along the path disturbed grasshoppers which would jump and flit ahead of our feet, only to be disturbed again and again as we advanced, small brown and meadow brown butterflies flitted beside us and seemed to keep company, as did a following of flies with the intent of landing on us and kept at bay by using our hands and arms much like the cows swishing their tails. Every cow pat and there was plenty of them to be avoided, had its own group of orange coloured soldier beetles collecting moisture from the newly deposited dung. In contrast to the clumps of olive coloured rushes were tall spikes of ragwort dotted throughout the pasture with bright green leaves with more soldier beetles foraging amongst the heads of ragged yellow flowers and where later the plants would be the food source of masses caterpillars of the cinnabar moth, hairless, brightly banded in orange and black which would strip the leaves down to a skeleton of veins.

The herd of some twenty cows were straddling the path by the time we were a quarter of the distance to the wood and walking through a herd of cows would be a new experience for me as an under five year old, but it was the path we were about to take, although it became a regular route in the future.  My father who was well versed in the ways of the countryside lead my brother, sister and myself along the footpath, as we approached the cattle, which loomed bigger and bigger as we got nearer and nearer.  The cows back then all had horns and with this particular mixed herd every type and shape was present, as was their colouring. The cattle, which had to this point ignored our approach now raised their heads from the grass and whilst still chewing their last bite, turned their heads to stare at us, with tails swishing, heads shaking, ears batting and flanks twitching. We children stopped our play and fell in ‘line astern’ and in ‘close order’ behind Dad as we approached them, without a change in his  pace, ‘head on’ so to speak, at which point these giant horned beasts stopped chewing and turned not only their heads but bodies so that they all faced us ‘head on’ with a look which seemed to say, ‘one more step and we will charge’ but still my father kept walking towards them with an unaltered, unfalteringly pace, to almost touching the nearest cow, which suddenly moved backwards and sideways to get out of the his way as did each cow that had straddled the path, almost forming a guard of honour  with their horns pointing towards us, so we passed through their ranks with each cow turning its head to stare at our passing, I looked back to see that almost immediately that we had passed they were back to grazing as if we had never been. Was I scared and afraid? yes I was, although I tried not show it, as they were almost twice my height with their heads being almost as big as me but the lesson learnt was they we just as scared and afraid of me as I was of them  and as I grew older I would approach cattle in the same way as my father.

Beyond the cows the path led to a stepped stile into the woods, predominately of oak trees, known as Knightwood, an extensive woodland which bordered the pasture and arable fields which flanked it. At my age and at that time I thought it was ‘Night’ wood so named because it was dark inside. Although I was familiar with being in woods, usually they held no fear for me but the name alone made Knightwood different, The trees were bigger, older and closer together, the branches of those on the edge projected some thirty feet out above the pasture, bowing down to a point that the cows at full stretch had cropped the growth to an even height along the whole length of the field. The soft rushes were absent in the deep shade cast by the trees dense foliage. A barbed wire fence supported on timber posts topped a low embankment often with the wires stapled into the trunks of the mature trees, with between them, hedge plants such as hazel and hawthorn, struggling to compete with the mature trees forming the border between field and wood.

The field we had almost crossed was full of warm bright sunlight but our following of annoying flies immediately deserted us as did the warmth of the sun as we moved into the shadow of the trees and reached the stile. Before clambering over the stile my father stressed that we were to keep strictly to the foot path, be quiet and keep our voices down once we were in the woods, as the ‘gamekeeper’ was very strict about such matters. I was very unsure as to what a ‘gamekeeper’ was but I was not keen about meeting one, particularly as father lowered his voice almost to a whisper whilst passing on his instructions. 

In contrast the noisy meadow the wood was silent, what bird song there was seemed distant and high up in the canopy of leaves, the birds unseen. The oak trees inside the wood were different to those on its boundary with tall bare trunks and branches only near their tops; some were ivy clad to their full height. The narrow footpath which was no wider than the prescribed ‘one man and his dog’ immediately sloped up from the stile and meandered between the trees, adding to the closeness and darkness were large dark green, yew trees which appeared nearly black in the shadows of the oaks and a great many equally dark holly trees growing close to the path added to the sense of gloom. To further add to the gloominess, as soon as entered the woods the sun chose to hide behind a cloud, dimming the already dark wood still further. As we proceeded close together and in single file and in silence, up the narrow path, the sun reappeared throwing beams of light through gaps in the leafy canopy which hit the trunks, branches and leaves, leaving spots of brightness and colour within the gloom, flashes of silver light bounced off the dark green glossy leaves of the holly bushes and brilliant green were it fell on the newly growing bracken, myriads of tiny midges were caught in the beams as they danced up and down against the dark of a yew tree like dancing stars. This ever changing kaleidoscope of colour and sun beams kept pace with us we reached the end or the rising ground which levelled out as we continued, a blackbird making a dash from cover from a bush very close at hand, chuck, chuck, chucking its alarm call as it sped away made me jump, high up in the canopy there was sinister thwacking sound from the wings of a number of bigger unseen birds as they took off, disturbed by our presence, from a distance came an echoing ‘squawk’ sound of a jay and the hollowing ‘rat-a-tat’ sound of a woodpecker as it hammered a tree which echoed through the woods, what birds we did see were flashes of colour as they flew speedily between the trunks and branches.

Still keeping close together, in line astern and obediently keeping more or less silent, as instructed, we passed through a particularly dense stand of holly bushes to find our path transverse by another footpath running north to south but unlike the closeness of the one we were on, this one, although the path itself was equally narrow, was through a beautiful avenue of very mature and majestic beech trees with very little undergrowth to detract from their gracious smooth greeny/grey bark. The woodland floor, apart from the path and a few clumps of spiky dark green ‘butchers broom’, was still covered by a layer of copper coloured beech leaves from the previous winter. Unlike the darkness of our passage up to this point, there was a warm glow with the sun shining through the bright green leaves as well as the beams of light escaping through gapes in the canopy, these shafts of light speckled the floor with spots of gold where they shone on the discarded copper leaves and nearly white patches where they touched the trunks of the beeches. The avenue was less than two hundred yards long before each end was closed off by the darkness of holly and oak, it was like being in the nave of a cathedral, although at that time I had never been in one, with the boles of the trees acting as columns and the branches forming arches and tracery as they meshed high above us. We headed north from about halfway along the avenue where at one point we came across a weasel which ran ahead of us straight down the path we were treading, its skinny body undulating, first in shade then in sunlight, one second dark brown, the next chestnut, it went quite a distance before veering off to the safety of the undergrowth, that incidence by itself was enough to make my day, at the same time I was shortly to know what fate awaited its kind. 

As we passed to the end of this open and colourful beech walk, oak, holly and yew trees took over and we were back into the type of woods we had experienced earlier, we had not walked far into this area  when I saw a figure of a man ahead of us, he was stood sideways on in the middle of the path with a broken twelve bore shotgun in the crook of his right arm with his left hand gripping the barrel and was looking intently up at the tree canopy, he wore a flat cap, tweed jacket. waistcoat, striped shirt with a stiff white detachable collar and a narrow tie, his trousers appeared to end just below his knees with his lower legs enclosed in light brown leather gaiters, on his feet in he wore darker brown boots. Only when he became aware of our approach did he drop his skyward glaze and turn to stare at us, the rest of his body remaining in the same stance and blocking the path. Father carried on walking in his easy going unalterable pace towards the man who continued to gaze at us with an expressionless look, only at the last moment did he step aside to let us pass, ‘mornin’ said father to the man at the same time as touching the rim of his trilby hat, ‘mornin’ came the unenthusiastic reply, ‘nice day’ added father, ‘seen worse’ said the man, equally unenthusiastically and that was all that was said. As we passed I could see that his face was ruddy and weather beaten with traces of blue, his small eyes under heavy eyebrows were unblinking as he stared down at me with a look that seemed to say ‘I hate kids’ which he probably did.  I have no idea how old he was as at that time of my life anybody that was not a child was to me, very old. As we moved further away from him I looked back to see the he had moved back to his original position but still stared after us, only when we were almost out of sight did he turn his head skywards again staring intently towards the same tree top. ‘Who was that man? I asked my older brother, in a voice just above a whisper, ‘that’s Mr Andrews, the Gamekeeper’ he said ‘what is a Gamekeeper?‘ I asked, ‘you’ll find out soon enough’ was his unsatisfactory whispered reply.

Not much further on from our encounter with the man, which I now knew was the Gamekeeper, I became aware of a smell that was new to me, a sweet sickly and unpleasant smell, the path at this point ran a short distance close to a wheat field with a barbed wire fence between the field and the wood, a small section of wire was exposed and free of any plant life, instead it displayed a lot of dead creatures in varying states of decay, hung on the wire, forming grotesque shapes and from which came this pungent smell. There hung the corpses of jays, magpies, rooks, crows, squirrels, weasels and a stoat, my father gave this display no more than a passing glance and as usual never altered his pace and offered no explanation as to what we were seeing but to my sister and myself it destroyed what had been an exciting mornings walk, I asked my brother who had killed the creatures, ‘the Gamekeeper shot them’ he said ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘better ask dad’ and that question would remain unanswered until we got home……..