Monday, 19 March 2007

The Early Bird gets the Worm




It may be a well-worn phrase but how true it is. Not that I would know much about that sort of thing as the words ‘early’ and ‘me’ have never been knowingly put together. However, this morning I can enjoy the rare experience of feeling suitably smug and replete on my fat worm having just returned from a wonderful early morning walk.

I drew back the curtains to find a snowy vista laid before me lit brightly by a rising easterly sun. Sometime during the night the marble-sized hailstones of the previous evening (so big they’d crashed down the chimney into the grate, scattering ash everywhere and leaving a sludgy mess for us all to admire) had turned to flakes and left a thin white blanket over the hillsides. Aha, I thought, we shall walk to school. Well, we didn’t manage that as time, of course, ran out somewhere over the Coco Pops. Instead, I parked in the centre of the village and walked the girls the last few hundred yards. A little fresh air is better than none. We negotiated the wedding marquee that had been attached to the building on Friday (the perils of having a school in the village hall), said our goodbyes, and off I went. I took a left and walked a little way along the lane, slithering a bit in my Wellingtons on the icy surface. I clambered over a gate, traversed a field with, surprisingly, no sheep in it, climbed another gate and set off up the hillside. I looked back at my footsteps in the thin layer of snow. Simple pleasures.

Half way up I suddenly spotted a movement in the middle distance. It was hard to tell whether it was a hare or a large rabbit, but it hopped into its hole as it saw me coming. Briefly there was just the dark silhouette of its long ears poking over the line of the slope, then, whoosh, they’d disappeared. I walked on and saw there was a large warren here. I imagined them all down below in those myriad tunnels, crouched, ears back, noses twitching as my footsteps boomed above them. The giant cometh. I paused at a distance to see if any little heads would pop out again once they thought the danger had passed. But no, they’re not stupid.

I walked on, noting how some of the trees still had brown seed keys clinging to them against all windy odds and that all of them had snow blown up against just one side of their trunks and branches. It had been a north-westerly wind, the one that normally brings all the moisture off the Atlantic, dumping it merrily as rain (or in this case snow) as it first hits this western edge of the Pennines. Having reached the top of the hill and the end of the field I opened the gate onto the track. Turn right and it takes you to a group of isolated farm houses. I turned left, passing through a farmyard where dogs barked and familiar farmyardy smells filled my nostrils as I breathed the cold air. I joined the lane that snakes up to the ridge and headed left again towards the village. It is one of my favourite little corners where a busy stream gushes off the hillside and past the pretty stone cottages. Henri lives here but I’ll tell you about her another day. I looked at the poor daffodils lining the drystone walls. They had been encouraged by the mild weather of last week to raise their yellow trumpets from the warming earth - now they lay bowed and beaten. Thankfully there are many more that had not been so hasty in their blooming which we will still be able to enjoy. I took a photo of a small red-leaved plant which was growing between the stones of the walls and looked so pretty with the dusting of snow. I was told that the air is so pure in this valley that a rare lichen grows on the walls up our lane. Some botanists came collecting it once for the purposes of research and apparently there is only one other place in the country that it grows – somewhere in Wales if my memory serves me well.

I ambled on, taking the time to listen to the birds. The top note was the crows cawing in the treetops but if you listened carefully the chorus of smaller birds was ever present, subtly enriching the main tune. I came to the raised pond which hides behind the hedge and can best be seen on foot and in winter. There was an excited chirruping which I finally isolated as coming from the top of a severed tree trunk, victim of the gales. Two crows were circling around it, swooping in from time to time to feed what must have been their noisy brood tucked into one of the crevices of the broken tree. Three mallards cruised noiselessly across the glassy surface of the water below. I was about to move on when I suddenly heard a familiar, but rare, sound. Was it really a woodpecker? I paused. Yes, there is was again. I was sure this time. My eyes searched the gnarled branches of the trees on the far side of the pond. Suddenly I saw it, a flash of red. The unmistakeable sharp silhouette of the woodpecker settled on a branch. The drilling began. Another flash of red. It had a companion. More drilling. A grey squirrel scuttled nimbly along precarious-looking outstretches of branch. I have lived here nearly four years and have never taken the time to observe nature in this way. It was hugely rewarding.

I continued on my way, stopping again to watch a little brown sparrow singing his heart out on top of the hedge, his red gullet clearly visible every time he opened his beak to utter his song, his brown chest feathers fluttering in the breeze. Around me I could hear a steady drip, drip, as the thaw was already setting in. The clouds were gathering, the blue backdrop replaced by grey. For once, I had had the best of the morning.

Reaching the centre of the village I read the Parish notices and sat on the stone bench for a moment’s contemplation. I spend so much time rushing up and down the lane in my car, but wasn’t a morning’s walk like this exactly why I’d come to live here in the first place? Now the girls are all at school I can actually begin to enjoy it in ways I haven’t had the time or energy for until now. With that sombre promise to myself, I climbed reluctantly into the car and headed back up my hill.

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