One year; 100 posts. Fox in the Morning.

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I saw an advertisement for classes in willow craft. It is tempting to learn a craft that has served mankind for millennia. I could make baskets and chairs that might take root in the garden, in wet weather. The Dutch wove many of their most serviceable dams from willow. Their Old Masters drew with willow charcoal . Cricketers and oarsmen ply their trade with willow. The phrase that caught my eye was: ‘Learn to make a dream-catcher.’ I don’t know what a dream-catcher is, but I already have one. It has a clunky name–‘a Blog,’ derived however, from ‘Web Log.’  A web is a dream-catcher. A log is a journal of a voyage. Fanciful, no doubt. It was suggested to me, some time ago, that I should write a memoir.  I demurred, on the grounds that I had nothing memorable to write about. I decided instead to begin a blog, gathering together memories of almost  three quarters of a century. One hundred posts and one year later I have a crazy-paving memoir, possibly even a mosaic.

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This is Hattons’ Wood, a long line of trees and undergrowth, with a right-angled bend to the left. I wanted to live in this wood, when I was a child. I wanted to dig a burrow under a great tree and live in comfort, like Ratty and Moley in Wind in the Willows. There would have been some practical difficulties. Planning permission would have been tricky. Planners have very little romance in their souls, if indeed they have souls, when it comes to underground dwellings in the woods. Damp-proofing and carbon monoxide poisoning would have presented problems. Owls and rustling in the undergrowth at night, would have frightened me to death. I stayed at home.

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The master-plan was to sneak into The Cane Wood on Milverton estate, steal some bamboos for spears, fishing rods, bows and arrows and steal away again, over the stile into Hattons’ Wood and along the beaten track through the forest, until we came to the corner. We could emerge with our spoils at that point and saunter across the fields to the railway station and home in triumph. There was a slight hitch. We heard a shot. The landowner and some of his murderous lackeys were out to kill us. It was just after the war, when such things were of trivial importance. Boys in school said that he drove around in a jeep, shooting at all intruders. A jeep? What’s a jeep? The Yanks had them in the war. We ran. My short legs could not keep pace with my two older brothers. ‘Come on! Come on!’ We came to the corner of the wood. They lifted me down a vertiginously high stone wall. I remember the neatness and precision of the blocks close to my face. My brothers held me by both hands.  We ran and we ran, through hedges, across streams and railway tracks, never stopping until we had gained the relative safety of our back garden. We hid in the shed, listening for the rattle of jeeps and and the barking of orders. It seems that they lost the trail. I still recall the terror and also the tenacity and courage of my brothers who dragged me to safety, when they also must have been afraid.

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You can still tell Milverton land by the cut stone gate pillars and the stylish cut stone stiles. I went back in later years to marvel at the high wall that I had overcome. It was no more than three feet high. I went back yesterday morning to catch the sunrise over Skerries. The wood is impenetrable. The wall is obscured by thirty feet of briars and thorn bushes.The wall and the memory of our amazing escape from death, lie secure forever, behind behind that barrier. The two windmills were directly in line. A sailor told me that if you keep the two windmills in line, you will avoid the reef at the southern end of Saint Patrick’s Island. That’s good to know, even when standing in the middle of a stubble field, just enjoying the view.

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A fox broke from the cover of the wood. He startled me.  He ran across the lower end of the stubble field. He flowed, with the grace of a jaguar and vanished into a hedge far below me. There was no need for him to run. I would never have chased him with spears and arrows or hounded him from his home. In another life we might have been neighbours in Hattons’ Wood. We might have sat together on the hill and talked of old times and woven our dreams and hopes and watched the daily miracle of the sun rising over Skerries islands. Good luck to you, fox, on life’s journey and may you sleep safely, wherever you lay your head at night.

A Passage of Time. The Guttery Lane.

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We called it The Guttery Lane. I don’t know if that is the official O.S. name. On the map it is no more than a double line between the corn fields and the low-lying fields on my right.   It was always synonymous with mud and muck. At the height of the heatwave I thought that I could make it, all the way to the end. The ground was parched. I was an early morning lepidopterist, netting not butterflies, but memories. I was no more than a few hundred yards from the railway, but the early morning traffic was merely a distant murmur. It occurred to me briefly that a search party might find me after many days, crawling along, croaking for water. That’s how it works in the movies. I would, of course, have been driven completely mad by the chimaera of a distant mirage. Vultures would be circling overhead. I needn’t  have worried.

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Sometimes it is enough to ramble with no definite purpose. Thoughts and memories rambled with me. I thought of young men fighting through lanes like this, the bocage country of Normandy, exactly seventy years before my morning walk. This would be no country for tank warfare. This would be a place for sudden and deadly ambush. As kids we fought our wars in these fields. ‘Bang!  You’re dead.’  ‘No, I’m not. You missed.’  ‘No, I didn’t.’  ‘Yes you did.’  Our wars were inconclusive. ‘I know where there’s a wren’s nest, in the wall. Do you want to see it?’  I can still see it, after sixty years. Peace broke out. The fields beyond the railway were special. They held the possibility of endless adventure. The lane was a portal to a place of magic.

I noticed the change. This was once a lane for horses and carts. There were two narrow wheel  ruts. The vegetation in the centre was beaten down by hooves. It made it easy for the plodding pedestrian. I walked on, hoping to reach the spring. I brought children there a quarter of a century ago, to look for frogs. The frogs out-witted us. The spring emerges from the high bank on the left and seeps into the lower field on the right. At least, that’s what it used to do.

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Tractor traffic has  gouged the lane into two deep ruts, anything up to two feet lower than it was in the past. The water cannot escape.  Halfway along, the track becomes a morass. It more than lives up to its mucky reputation. I could see that cattle could manage to get past, but they have a leg at each corner and no rubber boots to leave behind them in the squelching mud. I thought of the poor soldiers. They hadn’t the option of turning back. If I lost a boot, the young lads of memory would go on without me, to search for linnets’ nests in the gorse on Murtaghs’ Hill, (Murtaghs’ Hill is gone) or put up pheasants in Hatton’s Wood. (Never caught one.) A hare might show them a clean pair of heels on the final  narrow stretch of the lane. That was more than I could do. It was time to retreat.

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It was no more than a tactical withdrawal. There are other ways of reaching the end of the lane, but on this morning the challenge was to retrace  the beaten track. It beat me too. There was nothing for it but to have a civil word with the inquisitive heifers and enjoy the profusion of life in high summer. There were butterflies in abundance, but they were not my quarry. There were horseflies and gadflies, but they had not yet got into their stride. They were humming and getting ready for the day’s work.

I came out onto the road. There was traffic. Normal life resumed. It was time for a cup of tea and a look at Plan B. Perhaps a snorkel and wetsuit next time.

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