19th March 2020
I am walking towards Whittle Dean, an ancient woodland half a mile from my house. It is eerie. What is peculiar is that there are so few planes flying overhead. The silence is startling, punctuated sporadically by the songs of birds. I pass through Castle Field, named by me of course. From here I can see Prudhoe Castle and I try to imagine what it was like for the Scottish soldiers of the twelfth century, so far from home, intent on invasion but wondering whether they would live to see another day.
Through the gate and to my right is a bank of celandines. They are bathed in sunlight, bright, radiant. The first flowers of spring for me, so celebratory. If I narrow my eyes it looks like yellow paint has been spilled down the bankside. The broom is out, and the field is still in its winter shroud, but the overall impression today is one of subdued winterly glow as soft, amber coloured grasses cling to newly emerging foliage.
There is evidence of recent tree management. We have endured Storms Dennis and Ciara this year and older trees have been left dangerously fragile. A while ago Stan, who lived in one of the cottages within the wood, complained to the landowner about the precarious nature of some of the branches and when he refused to act, Stan boarded up and moved out. A man of principals!! I thought the overhanging trees were mysterious and bewitching but then I tend to view things in a romantic light.
I enter the coppice. This is ancient, semi-natural, oak-ash woodland. It has been here far longer than I have been alive. I am at once in awe of everything that has been observed and envious of what will be seen in future when I am no longer around. What must it be like to be an oak tree and to live for five hundred years or so? Do they simply watch as we wreak havoc: world wars, changing climate and now a pandemic? Are they quietly waiting and wondering what our next steps will be?
The birdsong is becoming louder. This is something to be thankful for when the world seems to be falling apart. Nature appears to be carrying on as normal. Perhaps she is looking down and whispering, ‘I told you so,’ although today I do not get that feeling. I am protected and encompassed by a safety net, like the outside world cannot affect me. I consider myself privileged. Not privileged in terms of financial wealth or private education or any of the other things that our society appears to value most, but privileged because I am out here. and I am walking.
I pass through an avenue of Scot’s Pine. I love this part of my sojourn. I am so small, the trees so monumental. I look down to Whittle Burn, the banks carpeted in wild garlic. Perhaps I should pick some and make soup. It is a good antioxidant, and this is certainly what we need at present.
And suddenly a clearing where people have built wooden holiday chalets. I am surprised to find a few of them occupied as we are all supposed to be self-isolating. Perhaps certain people have chosen to self-isolate in the woods, finding solace in nature. It seems that the more ‘civilised’ we become, the more we are divorced from our natural surroundings.
Down to the Old Mill and there is so much warmth in the sun, warming my winter chilled bones. Very little remains of this beautiful building apart from the remnants of ancient walls which now provide a canvas for lichen, moss and ladder and bird’s nest ferns. There is a certain atmosphere here, suggesting that it has been a happy place. The setting is stunning and in the eighteenth century, provided subject matter for artists. For now, it is deserted. Humanity seems to be shell shocked by what is happening, as though reality has been suspended and so, I guess, many are staying indoors.
As I walk back, hugging the side of a field and looking down towards the village schools, I realise with a shock that the children will only be there until tomorrow and then we have an uncertain future as the government closes all educational institutions. The plan is for teachers to prepare lessons online and for parents to home school. I’ve so many thoughts about this. First of all, in the future, will there be a whole generation who become nostalgic for the time when they were at home and spent their days with Mum and Dad? And will this unprecedented time of lockdown change education forever? Will children emerge from this disaster more knowledgeable about the world around them? Will they have learned to cook, to explore, to draw or will they simply become enfolded once again in our exam machines? I find myself reflecting on my own childhood. My favourite memories of school are when my primary teacher would take us for nature rambles.
‘Day twenty-three of lockdown,’ and I say it out loud in a way that reminds me of Big Brother. I have to think about the number as each day merges into one.
The trees are bursting into life. There are remnants of rust coloured bracken, like old ladies’ fingers, shrivelled, interspersed with the acid green shoots of young foliage. Hoverflies are emerging in abundance and it seems ironic that, in the absence of the incessant noise of jet engines, I am now experiencing the loud buzzing of their mini counterparts hastily flying around my head.
I walk down towards the river and the glade reminds me of Cragside. Oh, how I miss visiting my favourite National Trust properties. This would have formed part of my yearly routine. But I have this beautiful space and I think about the times when I have passed it by on my way to the grander landscapes of The Lake District. How many of us are now discovering the beauty on our doorsteps?
I enter a bluebell glade, the flowers meandering up the bank amongst wood anemones and sorrel, dappled in soft sunlight. There are celandines too. I find a place to stop and muse on the fact that the celandines have brought me the sun while the bluebells offer the sky.
There is a destructive irony in the fact that many of us take this, this beautiful largesse so much for granted. Like spoiled brats who believe that no matter our actions, others will pick up the pieces. Well, sorry, no, it is about time we accepted responsibility.
We are already seeing images of how landscapes are starting to change because of the forced lockdown of industry and the resulting lack of pollution. We are amazed and overawed by this phenomenon. The blue of the sky is becoming more intense than anything previously experienced by the present generation and there have been reports that bird song has become predominant. Seventy-five per cent of people in the UK want such changes to remain. Will this happen?
Bathed in warm sun, the cherry blossom has burst forth and I fleetingly ponder on the fact that I had promised myself a trip to Alnwick Gardens to walk through the famous cherry blossom glades. It seems such a waste that the only person who will benefit this year will be the duchess.
I find a new path across a field and bump into Nancy. Despite living in the same village for eighteen years, this is the first time we have met. She is a delight and we both revel in each other’s company. She tells me of her husband’s sudden death in December and how he has missed all of this, that they walked everywhere together. I find myself thinking about how she now walks and lives alone. And she tells me of her daughter working on the front line of one of the hospitals in Newcastle and how she prepares meals for her to collect on the way home. “This is my war effort.” Nancy declares. I muse about communication, how we so easily slip by people, ask how they are and rarely listen to their response. We tell ourselves that we are too busy. But we are slowing down now. When we pass, greetings are exchanged and I am aware that the once gratuitous, “Take care,’’ is offered with warmth and sincerity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take this forward?
Time is moving on and many are getting used to this new way of living. Some of us have gained space. We are able to reflect and to create. For others, it must be like a living hell.
I have decided to rise at four to hear the dawn chorus. I have never done this before, but the emerging sun and the bird song help me wake. As I enter the field, a young doe stands and stares at me. Neither of us wants to give way. We are suspended in time and for a fleeting moment, there is nothing but this.
I walk into the wood and it begins, that rising melody. Nothing is discordant and yet the songs are so different. I continue and discover swathes of bluebells interspersed with the darker blue of violets, the white flowers of wild garlic and luminescent lime green of emerging beech leaves. I narrow my eyes and I am in an Impressionist painting. Nothing clashes, everything is harmonious. The ferns in the undergrowth are coiled, emerging like Catherine wheels ready to join the show.
Passing the chalets, I notice what looks like a group of twigs splayed on the grass. I discover that it’s a labyrinth and beside it, chalked on a small blackboard are the words, ‘Walk around the labyrinth, Beltane greetings’. Beltane, Celtic May Day, a time of fertility, symbolic of new, creative power surging through the forests. Beltane represents the peak of spring when Earth energies are at their strongest. Interestingly, Whittle Dene is mentioned in a Local Historians Table of 1846. ‘Among the romantic thickets, the projecting rocks, and the deep whirling pools of the sequestered ravine of Whittle Dean, near Ovingham, Northumberland, spots are still pointed out by the neighbouring villagers, as the favourite retreats for harmless fairies’. So, I walk around the labyrinth and hope for magic.
And I begin to wonder how we allow the destruction of such places. I wonder how people can walk through landscapes similar to this and fail to be touched by such enchantment. And yet this is exactly what is happening. Ancient woodlands will be destroyed in favour of faster links between London and the North if plans for HS2 are allowed to go ahead. It has been suggested that the ancient sites can be dug up and translocated elsewhere, yet experts have deemed this idea as futile. The Woodland Trust states that ‘Translocation is not feasible for ancient woodland because ancient woodland is defined as an irreplaceable habitat.’
And yet I hope. I hope that this time of changing lifestyles and changing perceptions of what is and is not necessary will enable us to slow down, to find meaning and to heal. I hope.