May, Knott Wood

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A fizzing Roman candle of a cherry tree in full blossom stands in the corner of the last garden that I pass before I enter Knott Wood. The sky is almost entirely cloudless apart from a gathering of cirro-stratus on the far horizon, and the tender oak and sycamore leaves – which have been propelled from their buds by the warmth of last three days – provide some welcome dappled shade from the midday sun.  

I leave the track at the first of the four hairpin bends it makes to ascend out of the valley, and cross a small stream, murmuring among the flowering woodrush. A sudden current of rising warm air billows a heady floral scent up the steep hillside. I stop and look down to marvel at the cobalt blue of a flash flood of bluebells spilling down the hillside, surging around mossy boulders and the trunks of sycamore, oak and holly. They are at the peak of their perfection, and it is for this that I have come into the woods.  

I take a descending path and wade through the blue torrent. Buckler ferns periscope up through the swells. Their fronds are unfurling in unison, as if the earth has exhaled into a thousand party horns to fill the woodland with a cacophonous spring clarion. But no such fancy is needed, for a whistling wren, a carolling song thrush and a drumming woodpecker leave no doubt as to the season.   

My path has doubled back and I now re-cross the stream 30 feet below my first crossing, but here it is fringed with the broad-bladed leaves and white flowers of ransoms, and their garlic scent overpowers that of the bluebells. At the end of the path I am delighted to find a veteran ash, which I have somehow missed on previous visits and can now add to my map of the valley’s ash trees. I contemplate what disease or damage in decades past might have caused a scar of serpentine fissures on its trunk, before turning around and ascending back up to the main footpath. 

A short distance after re-joining it I cross a dry stone wall and enter an amphitheatre, the pert bluebells crowding its terraces like an enraptured audience. Below me they deluge down a shallow clough, breaking against a boulder before funnelling between two ancient gate stoops.  

I continue, and the path emerges from the woodland into a field. A third of this field is grass, the rest bramble and heather. A chorus of summer migrants – willow warblers, blackcaps, chiffchaffs – conceals itself among small oaks, birch and hawthorn. This kind of scrub is a maligned habitat, perhaps because it has not aesthetically travelled far enough in the direction of ‘natural’ to stop evoking, for some, the indifference and disrespect of abandoning something that was hard-won from nature in the past. In this case what was won and is now being a lost is a once fine and productive south-facing pasture.  

After angling up the hillside to the far side of the field, I sit down amongst grass which is studded with the tiny white stars of greater stitchwort. I lean back on my hands, but have to move them from a patch of baking bare earth onto the cooler grass. On the facing hillside across the valley is a fair representation of the various fates of farmhouses in the English uplands: Heights Farm, a working sheep farm in good repair; Higham Barn and Oaks Farm, both inhabited but neither working farms, the former smartly restored, the latter tumbledown and mouldering; and Thorps, an abandoned ruin.  

I stand up and resume my walk, joining an extraordinary flight of some 250 stone steps that directly ascend the hillside. The labour that went into constructing these steps is unfathomable to me – I have tried to move one significantly smaller stone step in my garden, on level ground – and the cost of constructing such a flight at today’s labour costs is unthinkable. But these steps, like the pasture they border, are being smothered and lost. The lower 200 or so of them are not a public right of way, so there is no statutory obligation on the local authority or the landowner to keep them clear. A few years ago I encountered a man attempting to reclaim them, digging out the grasses and tearing out the brambles. He did not live nearby and did not use them, but had come across them on a walk and was both inspired by them and sufficiently appalled at their neglect to bring back his tools and put in a day’s labour to uncover them. But his is a rare kind of concern that issues in sweat and backache. Their obliteration has only been delayed.  

For now, though, the steps are passable. I ascend them to the ruined house of Higgin House. Bluebells that might once have been brought in for its kitchen table now throng around its cold hearth. Willows crowd its parlour and its pantry is stocked with wild garlic.  

I move on, climbing beside a steeply tumbling stream that spouts from a remarkable culvert underneath the tiny hamlet of Winters. Once back up on the main track, three hairpins above where I first left it, I descend and then cross the hillside in the cool shade of a young birch woodland. In an aerial photograph which sits on my mantelpiece, taken by the RAF in 1948, this was also a fine pasture. It demonstrates that in just a few decades, the field below Higgin House will no longer bake in May sunshine, but be similarly cool and shaded. 

Through a tunnel of holly, on a path the flags of which have long been buried beneath deep leaf mould, I traverse across a series of terraces. Cleared and cultivated on my 1948 photograph, they are now thickly wooded. Deer and badgers have left their wakes among the cascade of bluebells. I inhale a last lungful of spring scent before stepping back into the sun. 

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