Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Put them in a Tree Museum

Last month I found myself driving out east from Cambridge, and I looked out for signs that winter was on the run. Circling buzzards broke off from spiralling lazily to play and tease each other. Reproduction was on their minds. I drove out by Six Mile Bottom, Dullingham and through the mysterious Devil's Ditch, then past Snailwell and the rude-sounding Frekenham.

East Anglian landscape is dramatic for the intense feeling of freedom and space. Big horizons were especially impressive against skeletal trees. Only the stately Scots Pines wore any green.

But then my reverie was interrupted with a jolt.

First I saw magisterial Scots Pines wearing yellow bands, at waist-level. They'd been sentenced and awaited execution. Further on yellow machines assaulted the landscape, tearing up the rich black soil to make way for a wider highway to make it easier for us to rush from one end of the country to the other in endless pointless journeys.

England is crowded and I often find myself wondering what it was like in those days when our population numbered thousands, not millions, when the land could breathe and wasn't waterproofed by swathes of concrete and tarmac.

All we seem to have left now are tiny scraps of green, and even these are unnatural. They have been cleared and ploughed and ravaged, then in a few places have been allowed (or rather neglected enough) to struggle back to life again.

It's showing my age but I found Joni Mitchell's song going around in my head...

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But LEAVE me the birds and the bees
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Sussex Forests and Skeletons in Cupboards

Dipping into my Dad’s library, I was surprised to find a book “Closing Ranks” by Dirk Bogarde. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The man was a film star during my Pa’s formative years and they’d both seen action during the Second World War. My immediate reaction was that it would be celeb eye-wash. Intriguingly though the dust jacket told me Bogarde had three honorary literary doctorates including one from France. Perhaps he could write as well as look glamorous on the big screen.

I started to read a tale set in the familiar and fine Sussex countryside. The story caught me up. It centres around a gentrified family with skeletons in their cupboards who gather to see off a dying nanny. There is reference to some under-reported messy British history: when Cossacks were forcibly repatriated into Russia at the end of the war.

Yet there were lovely descriptions of rural England...

“A dragonfly looped around her head, dipped low, soared up, a whispering crackle of papery wings..”


“every shadow of a thought or doubt.. crossed his face with the clarity of cloud shadows racing across the fields..”


“A moorhen hurried though the rushes on the stream bank and launched itself into the water, flicking its tail with fussy anxiety.”


“The first crack of true dawn split the greyness, and as the sun rose above the brim of the silent earth, the first birds started, calling and scolding, the light grew stronger, drenching the still-damp fields. A golden haze grew in brilliance.... the valley was all at once glowing with sunlight, rang to the sound of the birds in copse and wood.”

Describing the dog as draggled made me smile and reminded me of all those words we use without thinking - like dishevelled - that we wouldn't normally shorten to their original root. The book was a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted, skilfully observed read, made all the more fun for me for being sited in beautiful Sussex woodlands.

Is it my perception or is there a dearth of novels set in southern England??

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Hayley Wood

The bitterly cold weather has been getting us all down but finally there are glimpses of spring.

This was enough for S and I to take ourselves to Hayley Wood on Sunday. It's a reserve in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire:52 hectares of ancient woodland managed by the local wildlife trust. It is also a site of Special Scientific Interest renowned for its oxlips.

We've pretty much consistently missed them over the last several years and were determined that this year we'd get there early enough in the season while the trees were still skeletal. When nothing much was showing any signs of being alive. The wood can seem a bit desolate in winter but we were determined to catch it at its best. We wanted to see and marvel at these rarities.

We searched for green sprouts. There weren't many. Just some hints of Dog's Mercury

and a few Bluebell leaves. We were sure we must be too early.

But then there were few likely leaves, and then some plants in bud, and finally.....

 The birds were in fine spring voice and there was a total absence of traffic noise. The unaccustomed sensation of sunshine on my face and forearms felt like unadulterated luxury.


there were even a few shy wood anemones


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Talking dirty

A loo with a view near Helambu in Nepal

The very charming and enthusiastic Justin Jones Deitchman got in touch just recently and offered to interview me about things lavatorial on Radical Radio. How could I refuse? The resulting broadcast is up on the web at http://webtalkradio.net/internet-talk-radio/2013/04/01/radical-travel-staying-healthy-on-the-road-a-guide-to-travelers-diarrhea-and-difficult-toilets/

Enjoy it.