One of my plans for the New Year was to make sure I had a little walk or outdoor activity each morning, or as many as possible, before settling to the tasks ahead of me in my day. The idea was to a) get some exercise and fresh air and b) make sure I stay connected with, and get the most out of, the wonderful environment in which I am lucky enough to live. Then I can come in and put the kettle on and get on with the jobs without feeling hard-done by and cheated and frustrated that I seem to spend my whole time tidying mess, washing the smalls and sorting out everybody’s life but my own.
So, having returned from the run down to school, I decided I was going to have a go at re-building a collapsed bit of dry stone wall that is, technically, our responsibility. The fact that it has collapsed thanks to the farmer’s inability to contain or control two errant sheep who were finding our garden the sheep equivalent of the Garden of Eden over the last ten months is, of course, quite another matter.
However much sheep fencing and barbed wire N painstakingly put up on wind and rain swept November weekends, Adam and Eve still somehow found a way in. Usually over a dry-stone wall. It didn’t matter what the height – sheep have a far greater ability to jump than most would give them credit for. Chasing them out of the garden and watching them veritably pole jump over whatever wall was closest, crashing down onto the lane on those spindly looking legs with that great woolly body, it was a wonder they didn’t break limbs every time. But no, the little black hooves, which had made my lawns look like the fields we’re surrounded by, skittered about on the tarmac but somehow held those bulbous bodies up. Quite remarkable really.
Now, I am getting quite adept at dry stone walling, if I say so myself. Having made a brief study of the construction of such walls at an educational farm not far from us, I built a little one at the top of our garden a few years back using just the stones that were scattered about our patch. Given I did not have the luxury of choice, it came out surprisingly well - if not a little low, simply because I ran out of raw materials. It’s still standing, anyway, and I’ve planted daffodils around it so it looks quite pretty in Spring. Then there was the one I repaired the other day which the plumber destroyed. But that’s another story.
This particular job, however, was short-lived due today’s sudden drop in temperature from about 4ºC yesterday to minus 3.5ºC this morning. As I tried to wrench the fallen mossy stones from the frozen ground, I couldn’t help singing the first verse of my favourite hymn:
‘In the bleak mid winter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone
Snow had fallen snow on snow, Snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter, Long ago.’
Abandoning the cause for now, I decided to collect some kindling instead from the fallen branches of the mighty sycamores whose skeletons loomed above me and which guard one side of the house. This done, I then set off for a little meander over the hillside. E had noted on the way to the school bus: ‘the world is looking very grey today’. Indeed. Yesterday’s rains had removed much of the beautiful white cloak which had covered the landscape and still looked so beautiful on Tuesday. Today everything was in an icy grip – pinched, raw and still. The reservoir lay below me, no reflection, just matt and lifeless with its frozen lid. The hills were patchily grey-green and grey-white and the sky above them the sort of pale flat grey which often precedes another snow storm. One is forecast for late this afternoon, but I don’t think it will come. Icy sleet, perhaps, but not soft snowflakes.
The ground I walked on, pitted by the hooves of sheep and cattle, was hard and lumpen, cutting into the soles of my feet despite the thickness of my snow boots. The moss on the walls was sucked of its normal plump greenness, lying flat and forlorn on the uneven lumps of gritstone. Even the cowpats were hard.
I followed the contour of the hill away from the house, then stood for a moment and looked across to the other side of the Comb’s valley. I surveyed the proud, severe escarpment which forms the westerly edge of Comb’s Moss and where an Iron Age fort once resided with its commanding views over the valley. I swept my eyes left, to the northerly hills beyond the reservoir. Eccles Pike appeared still to have some snow cover. I saw some cars moving along the lane which traces that side of the valley, along which a number of my friends live, and heard the hum of cars on the main road which travels along the valley, mercifully unheard from our house and the village.
Turning my attention back to my field, I looked up. I decided a short sharp ascent was what the doctor ordered. This would be the quickest way to the track above our house which would bring me back down in a neat circle to the awaiting kettle. The hill looked less daunting in its winter flatness. The tufts of summer grass make it harder to ascend. As I climbed, I crossed lines of frozen snow and bare grass and a collapsed dry stone wall along which, following the contour of the slope, were short stout holly trees and hunched bare hawthorns. The pitted earth at their bases showed the sheltering place of livestock during harsh windy nights. I knew that, at the top of the hill, I had to negotiate a broken makeshift wooden stile which would take me, God willing, over a wall laced with rusty barbed wire before I could reach the stone stile which led onto the track. Things were not made easier by the frost on the stones and the wood and before I knew it a rusty barb loomed ever closer to my crotch. One slip and I’d be maimed for life. While performing an inelegant origami-esque manoeuvre, hands and feet in extraordinary positions, I managed to catch the inside of my knee on the wire. While painful, it could certainly have been worse! Then, feet finally safely rooted on ground the other side of the obstacle, I looked up. A flock of sheep, etched against the sky on the brow of the hill, stared at me in stoney silence. Some stood, some were seated, but all were ruminating with their gaze fixed firmly on the intruder as their jaws slid methodically from side to side. I stood and stared back, locked in a moment of shared amusement: them at my antics on the wall, me at their resemblance to a glazed-eyed audience at the cinema munching popcorn. A few mastications later, sensing the show was over, they started to shuffle and fidget a bit and turned their attention to other things, leaving me to continue on my way, unwatched. I hopped, rather more elegantly, over the wall with the proper stile and smart yellow ‘footpath’ arrow, down onto the track. And promptly fell flat on my face. It was sheet ice, as far as the eye could see. I’d unwittingly reached the little known Combs Ice Cap, sadly, though, without the necessary spikes and crampons to negotiate it. I attempted a few brazen little steps and slipped over again. And again. I was glad the sheep couldn’t see me. Clowns and circuses came to mind. There wasn’t even space at the edges of the track to stumble down. There was nothing for it. I had to go back. Oh the humiliation. Those sheep had the delight of seeing me re-appear and negotiate the rusty barbed wire wall for a second time. I ignored their cruel bleatings and pressed on. Safely over this time, my cruciate ligaments and my dignity just about in tact, I crunched through a thick layer of icy snow at the base of the wall which shadowed the track, peering over from time to time to see if the polar ice cap had started to melt or not. Indeed, at a certain point, I was able to scrabble over a bit of low wall, slither through some bilberry bushes and drop onto the uneven stones of the pathway. I still had to watch my footing carefully as I pondered whether hooves are perhaps not such a silly idea after all. Before my question was resolved, though, I’d reached the safety of the asphalt at the top of the lane which leads back down to the kettle. A warming drink of tea, and then I would settle to the tasks of the day with colour in my cheeks, fresh air in my lungs and a new insight into sheep. Good grief, can a girl ask for more on a Thursday morning before ten?