Today’s guest blog comes from one of the finest new voices on the British nature writing scene, Anita Roy, with extracts from her wonderful account of a calendar year at Kingcombe in Dorset. First published month by month in Little Toller’s online nature journal The Clearing , the diary quickly gained a devoted following. It is now going to be published in book form through a Kickstarter campaign which we hope you will support if you enjoy the extracts below. Stephen Moss writes in his introduction to the book:
“By choosing to write about Kingcombe, and reveal its life – both wild and human – Anita also holds up a mirror to the rest of rural Britain. This rich mosaic of habitats, squeezed into such a small space, could hardly be more different from the degraded, wildlife-free, food factories that pass for ‘countryside’ in the majority of what Chris Packham describes as our ‘green and unpleasant land’.
Visiting Kingcombe really does feel like going back in time: a corner of the English lowland countryside that would have been instantly recognisable to our grandparents and great-grandparents. Yet, as Anita points out, this kind of place is now, sadly, the exception rather than the rule: On my drive home, I am not sure whether to be grateful that such havens as Kingcombe exist, or filled with despair that they need to.”
Walking in the woods, a bright red splotch on the ground caught my eye. It was so incongruously vivid in that winter wash of beige and brown leaf-litter, I thought it must be a Coke bottle cap. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a fungus – a scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) – and as soon as I’d seen one, of course, others popped into view as if by magic.
I realized I was missing so much, even at a slow walk, so I sat among the fallen leaves and simply looked. The pale tree trunks flared and faded in a slow strobe as the clouds chased across the sun. I noticed an old willow whose massive trunk bent over almost parallel to the ground. Its underside was deeply scored, its moss hung in tatters. It seemed more than simple wear and tear. Then I spotted the culprit lying on the ground: a roe deer antler. Seven inches long with three tines at one end and a ridged frill of bone at the other, it fit snug in my hand like the handle of a cup. We seemed made for each other.
The deer were all around – invisible yet present. Their prints in the soft earth far outnumbered those of humans, horses or dogs, and cylindrical tree guards lay scattered about like spent shotgun casings. And then I looked up – and our eyes met, for a fraction of a second matching each other startle for startle, and then the deer disappeared with a flash of white rump. I stayed frozen, and wondered, if I stayed still for long enough, whether my eyes would refocus and all the deer hidden among the trees would suddenly be revealed, like the primroses and the elf cups, there all the while at the edge of our sight, just waiting for us to pay attention.
It was if the rain would never end. The Hooke valley seemed to be slowly filling with water from the bottom up, and the tops of the hills had already dissolved into the sky. There was not a sign of the lively blood-quickening breezes of March, nor the traditional sharp shifts between cloudbursts and sun that we associate with April. This was no passing shower, but a soft, solid, silent drench: wall-to-wall drizzle, and no let-up in the grey.
I found an old holly tree in a coppiced wood, with three low branches that crossed each other to form a loose triangle. I poked my umbrella through the middle and opened it above them, then sat down on the damp forest floor. Walking through the open fields of this muddy slipshod county, the steady drizzle on my umbrella had sounded like bacon gently frying. It had intensified, as though someone had turned the gas up, prompting me to take shelter in the wood, and here, under my makeshift shelter, the sound was broken into percussive plinks and plonks as the droplets gathered and fell heavy and singly above me.
‘Horrible weather,’ people had said to me. ‘Not very nice, is it?’ or even simply, ‘You’ve picked a bad day for a walk.’
As I sat like some bedraggled gnome under my nylon toadstool, I wondered about these and other pejoratives that we use to describe our natural surroundings. It wasn’t a ‘bad day’ at all. The rain had cleared the stage for me, and being alone in the wide open countryside is one of life’s most precious pleasures, one I treasure all the more for having spent decades in one of the most densely populated – and noisy – places on earth: New Delhi.
And as for the ‘horrible weather’, true it was hardly conducive to sun-bathing, but the all-pervasive wetness had glossed every grass blade, every twig and trunk and leaf. The underwater world where I spent my day was far from dull: the colours in fact seemed to be deeper and more intense, as though everything had been laminated.
We bring our meanings to the world, and paint them on like top-coat. I continued to sit, looking out from under my brolly as from the window of a diving bell. A sudden flicker in the branches – but it was only a grey squirrel. And then I caught myself with that ‘only’. Just because it’s common, doesn’t mean to say that it’s – what’s the phrase? – ‘beneath our attention.’ I watched its aerial acrobatics for a while, its high-speed cornering and breathtaking leaps.
In all the time I sat there in the deep, dank green, I saw nothing more noteworthy than that little grey squirrel, busy doing its little grey squirrel things. It was enough – actually, was more than enough. The longer I sat there, the more the stillness seemed to settle, and the more reluctant I was to break it.
Spring was quietly marching on, proceeding northwards at a stately walking pace. The brambles were beginning to sprout tiny leaves along their spiky dead stems. The trees, still mainly leafless, maintained their wintery silhouettes, but there was a sort of haze in their upper branches now, like a whisper made visible, the hint of new growth, the gathering of the green storm.
It was, in Thoreau’s lovely phrase, the afternoon of the year. The hills slumbered under the wide blue sky, looking more like Tuscany than Dorset, alternately suntanned and bleached. Shorn of their wool, the skinny sheep stood camouflaged against the tinder-dry hayfield, like raised patchwork on a white-on-white bedspread. On the next hill, the black cattle looked like they’d been printed on the pale grass using woodblocks and Indian ink.
All activity around Kingcombe seemed to have slowed, or ceased altogether. The bees stumbled around at ground level, looking more dazed than busy. The swifts and martins that last month blazed around the barn eaves, using the air as a whetstone for their wingtips, had vanished as though they were never there. Every single butterfly looked like a Meadow Brown: even Red Admirals and Peacocks were mottled and liver-spotted, prematurely aged by the relentless heat. The only streak of colour was down in the valley where bright blue damselflies shot through the air like splinters from a shattered pane of stained-glass across the low waters of the Hooke River.
Whenever I’d been there before, the fields, woods and meadows of Kingcombe had been alive with birdsong. The warble of finches, the screech of swifts and martins, the sarcastic laughter of ravens. Now, only the five-note refrain of the occasional woodpigeon mourned the absent rain, and crickets shivered their legs together in answer to the rattle of dried seed-heads.
In Sanskrit there are two terms for the paused breath – the emptiness at the end of the exhale before you breathe in is called ‘bāhya kumbhaka’ and the fullness at the end of an in-breath before you sigh it all out is called ‘antar kumbhaka’, literally the empty pot and the full pot. Wandering through the still, hot fields this August, it felt not just like nature was taking a siesta during the year’s afternoon, but that it had stopped altogether, as a pendulum is suspended, briefly motionless, at the height of its swing. After the energetic, oxygenated, excited flurry of activity in spring, and the lush, ripening fullness of summer we had arrived at the peak, with no more space to breathe, nowhere left to go, but slowly, inexorably outward and downward – the half-year-long sigh emptying out the pot to the crisp, frozen, death-like stillness of mid-winter.
Every time I come to Kingcombe, it feels like I’m playing hooky. Setting off up Butt Lane, I decided to go fully off-piste, and explore an area that I had not been to before. I followed Jubilee Trail across a field. By the time I got to the other side, my socks were jammed uselessly in the toes of my welly boots. I stopped to pull them up a couple of times, but it was no use. I extracted the socks, stuffed them in my pocket, and set off again, bare feet rattling around in my boots.
According to the map, if I swung a left, I’d end up at ‘Fuzzy Hanging’, which sounded like just the place to be on this clockless day. Although I love the shady lowlands – the boggy meadows and tree-clumps nestling in the valleys – there’s something exhilarating about the high grounds of the Kingcombe nature reserve. The hills seem to draw back from the sky, as though they are the curtains and it is the main stage. And today, the sky is a total scene-stealer. Fat, towering cumuli with polished edges above trailing gauzy trails of beige rain across the hills; fingers of God making the earth blush gold; flashes of blue in between downpours. On the drive over from Wellington that morning, I’d been graced with not one, not two, but three rainbows in succession.
At Fuzzy Hanging, I hit a road, so I followed it until I came to an L-shaped block of fields that ended in the disused railway line that runs along the northern edge of Powerstock Common – the other ‘wing’ of nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust here.
I clunked along in my roomy wellies until I reached the soggy bottom of a field. Beyond me was the old railway cutting, and beyond that, Powerstock Common. I wanted to carry on but it seemed that all the mud of Dorset had slowly slipped down the hill and collected in the corner, like ill-fitting socks in this boot of a field. My left wellie had sunk into the mud almost to its top, and every time I pushed down with my right, that sank a bit further too. I flailed my arms a bit.
The good mulchy earth did finally relinquish its hold, and I scrambled back up the hill. Inside my boots, my feet were muddy, but inside my pockets, my socks were dry. Things were looking up.
With a silent fanfare, the sun came out. Most of the trees had lost their leaves and assumed their statuesque winter poses, but in a corner of one field, an old oak lifted its branches, still thick with ochre-brown leaves, clear of the ground.
The tree stood in a low bowl – the ground a good ten or twelve feet lower than the surrounding field. I skidded down the side of the bowl and stopped at the base of the trunk.
I lay back on a carpet of sweet nutty-smelling oak leaves and looked up at the tantalising brocade of blue, white and gold. Sky, cloud, leaf, sky, cloud, leaf; the lobes of the oak leaves echoing the rounded mounds of cloud; everything tessellated together. In this cup of earth under this canopy of tree, I was for a moment both hidden and held. No clock could tick me off here, no satellite could spot me. I was alone, AWOL and a bit deliciously lost.
All illustrations by Anita Roy. Kickstarter page here.