Collapsed time: a composite account of a series of consecutive walks in Standish Woods

These early days of 2021 are ones of high strangeness. The continuation of a global pandemic and the return of national lockdowns in response to a mercurial mutating virus, a president in charge of one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world acting out his manifest insecurities via a bid to subvert democracy, a persistent and pervasive fog that continues to enshroud my home town more often than not – all are contributing to the sense of unreality and dreaminess that has been growing since Solstice, and shows no sign of abating.

I’ve alluded before to a surreal sense I have at present that time is somehow collapsing, stretching and warping, since mid-December. That Solstice feeling of hanging suspended on a thread, twisting on the edge of the year, has persisted. As well as this sense of stillness and pause, I have a sense of the sound of this feeling – paradoxically it is one of movement, a flicker, a whirr, the sound of a playing card on the spokes of a bicycle wheel or the roulette wheel as it spins. 

Time is slipping. I found myself this year repeatedly startling at the thought that I had forgotten to buy my grandmother, who has been dead for nearly 6 years, a Christmas gift. The Christmas holidays, segueing as they have into another bout of furloughed leave, have blurred the distinction between the week and weekends – without the structure of work, all days are becoming one. I cannot really remember when Christmas is.  The lack of structure is incredibly pleasant, but is also affecting how I think – my memory is poor, I cannot remember whether I’ve spoken thoughts out loud or what I did an hour ago, I’m struggling to keep the reassuring family routines and responsibilities of mealtimes, bedtimes, dog walking and the like in place and ticking along as they should.

Walking, and indeed living in this state is deeply pleasant.  I have time to think, to reflect, to react, to observe – not least my own inner processes as well as that of the landscape around me.   It’s led me to think about not only how I am moving through the land, but also how I might write about it.  Along with some of the shackles of time, I have also shed some concerns that I have unconsciously held around issues of accuracy, a kind of reporting, a need to ‘be proper’, to do things in order. It has been a bit of a revelation to think that I can write what I want, when I want.

To that end, after a short series of walks in Standish Woods between the Solstice and Epiphany – a regular and favourite local place – I have decided to record them as one, collapsing various pieces of time into one place and piece of writing. Snippets of phrase and verse arose from the walks, and I have incorporated these.

Entering the beech woods by the carpark I feel liberated, the lifting of mood and heightening of senses that heralds a good walk to come. I felt a strong need to ‘wear the landscape’ and so have dressed in warm rich brown sheepskin, a gold-green velvet skirt, a beautiful mohair jumper that I have knitted that contains all the colours of the beech leaves. My boots are strong and I give thanks for them, these oxymoronic barefoot walking boots, that allow my feet to feel their way along the paths and undergrowth, every root, stone and twig offering itself up to my soles that accommodate them like gloved hands.  This ‘seeing’ with my feet is a deeply personal and pleasurable way of exploring the terrain. Real barefoot is best of course, and I used to run this way, but in concession to the weather and some fairly rough ground, plus out-of-practice feet, these boots are a very good second best.

wear your surroundings

wrap them round you like a cloak

of moss and bark

of leaves and stone

of sky and clouds

of skin

As soon as you enter these woods you have to choose a route – one of three, as if in a fairytale.  I choose, as I nearly always do, the middle path and descend gently down the flank of the slope. The low white gold sun of the season strobes and flickers between the tall grey-green beech trunks – a slightly disorientating interference at the edge of my vision. My vision, like my memory, is generally weak, and I always wonder to what degree my ability to see things and photograph them, to remember how things feel and look, is where all my looking and remembering powers go, leaving little room for much else.

The ground underfoot is a carpet of mud and undergrowth and sheddings from the trees, and feels like the compacting of the snow that is to come but without the distinctive ‘crump’ sounds that always reminds me of the squeak of cotton wool – instead a crunching of old bracken and beech mast.  An exploded earth star fungus and rotting Troopers Funnel push through, the last of this years crop.

 

I pause to look through a picturesque gap in the trees, bench conveniently placed to appreciate the bucolic, quintessentially pastoral scene of lush green grass falling away to the flatlands of the Severn, dotted with sheep. I fall quiet, and listen to the birds, the twitterings of unidentifiable (by me) small flitters, a raucous squawking of jays. And then – something flies slow and heavy across to the right of me. The only thing I can think of that size is a buzzard which are joyously, extremely common here, but even the brief, semi-aware glimpse I had lets me know that it was all wrong for a buzzard. Too red, the wrong shape entirely. And I realise, hardly daring to let myself think it might be true, that it must have been an owl. A tawny, I’m guessing by size and colour.  I look for it among the tree cover, but in vain.

Shortly after this I stop to harvest some birch bark, taking care to only take some and leave the rest to decay, to form habitat. I notice my knife marks from last year, and am pleased that the bark hasn’t been stripped entirely since I was last here.  

Hooking round at the bottom of the path, after passing the strange blasted hole to the left, exposed yellow earth like a wound, shockingly bright after after the muted greys, browns and coppers I’ve seen so far, I take the path that leads to the environs of the Neolithic burial mound.  On the way, I spot a strangely regular looking stone, solitary beneath a beech, very pale and visible against the leaf litter. I go to investigate. At first it makes no sense, this pillow-shaped stone, creamy Cotswold yellow with a patina of green growth. And then, delightfully, it’s clear. What this is, was at one time a bag of concrete mix. Over time, the bag has clearly decayed, water seeped in and hardened the mix, and then the plastic had finally rotted away leaving the shape of the bag moulded in concrete, a cheap, unintentional rural version of artist Rachael Whiteread’s ‘House’, a modern day standing stone.

On the stone is a gift from the owl, a pellet. These are endlessly fascinating.  I leave this one be, rather than dissecting it to see the dried out bag of fur, tiny bones and teeth within.

owlspit

Walking on, I spy an all but iridescent flash of bright green to my right. It is a favourite place, a carpet of moss soft and forgiving underfoot, that leads to a small precipice. There is a worthy bit of fence to stop people charging straight over the edge, but you can walk round, and the cliff face on the other side hides a crook-nosed man who, while blindingly obvious to my eye, proves very resistant to being captured on photograph. Maybe he would prefer the solidity of film to digital.

I eventually find the burial mound, and it is a strange conceit of this place, that it is very hard to find – this bit of the woods is ‘mazey’, as they say in Somerset, and each time I come here I am mazed.  After many visits now, I still can’t ever walk to the mound directly.  I have to look for particular landmarks to orientate myself to it – an intricate exposed fretwork of beech roots, a particular hollow with a rising then falling path, a bench from which I can see my house and an old stone gatepost marking the Cotswold Way.  On a misty snowy day I got completely disorientated, and was actually walking away from it when I thought I was walking towards it, be-misted beech trees looming in the snow, casting no umbrae but themselves appearing as shadows, utterly otherworldly.

It is fairly unprepossessing as burial mounds grow, minding its own business in the woods rather than brought to the fore against a skyline, or standing clear in a field. It is a favourite of mountain bikers, who follow the track that leads up and over it.  It is, confusingly, at the same time big and small. My eye is caught by a strange irregular shape, an incongruous man-made blue and yellow in the tangle of weeds at the top. I flip it over with the toe of my boot, and instantly think ‘Fox!’ A strange breed of fox, this, with its free party fluorescent rave mask left at the top of the hill.  Not the usual gory dripping mess of a mask left by the hunt. I download a digital compass app on my phone to check a hunch – and yes, this mask has been left, purposefully or serendipitously, at the north west of the mound. In the modern re-workings of our pre-Christian religions this is the direction of the ancestors. I cannot tell if this guardian is facing out or in. Is it protecting the mound and its occupants from harm from outsiders? Or is it a warning, serving to protect outsiders from the occupants? I decide neither. It is just standing sentinel, holding vigil, possibly opening the gateway on certain days and nights. I return another day and the mask has gone, but in its place is a breastplate, or greaves. A step by step building of a suit of animal armour.

As I walk back, even though it is around midday, the sun still hangs so low in the sky – Lux Brumalis, the light of winter, a cold silver fire with pallid warmth yet the same colour of the heart of the forge, a hint of the warmth to come later in the year and a reminder of the continual solar explosion. This light is old by the time it reaches my eye, I am seeing the past as if it was now, and again time spins and dizzies me.  I cross the old paleolithic track, so clear from up here as it traverses the same fields I looked at earlier from down below. It leads directly to Haresfield Beacon, and I wonder about old ritual ways that lead from the burial mound to that highest of vantage points looking across the gold ribbon of the Severn to the hills beyond, and speculate as to what meanings these paths may have had to our ancestors of the long-ago.  I stand there on this path,  suddenly pinned – triangulated – by three things, two sounds and the thought and presence of an object. The fox mask, the mew of a young buzzard, and the piercing whinny of a horse. All things unseen, and yet they hold me to that spot until acknowledged.

what do you want with me

fox horse and buzzard

what do you want with me

here in these woods?

I feel the call of home now, but I still have a task to complete. I want to find the transmitter mast that I can see from my north-facing house. It exerts a pylon-like pull on me, my eye and thoughts are drawn to it ever since we moved here. I still don’t know what this attraction is, really, Partly aesthetic; I love the colours and shape of it, grey, lines, triangles, and the contrast between this most man-made, artificial of artefacts and the surrounding countryside (which is also largely man-made and artificial in honesty, so maybe it is kinship rather than contrast which is the enticement). And as a true Haunted Generation child, seemingly deserted apparatus in rural settings exert a deep call. But I still feel there are stories here to be told, and I think it is that that worries away at me and draws my eye and mind.

Like the burial mound, the mast proves weirdly tricky to find, playing hide and seek amongst the trees and of the many paths I can see, at first none seem to lead to it directly. Unlike the burial mound, I now firmly have its measure and can walk unerringly to it any time I please. It is fenced off, but walking on aways I find a way of framing it more pleasingly than with grey government issue railings, and the colours shout to me – golds, coppers, silver, and then later the crystalline grey and white of frost and snow.

I return back to my starting point, again, having circumscribed my route, again. I walk this route like a pilgrim, embedding it within myself, drawing the triangle between my house, the mound and the mast, imagining great loops and whorls of imperceptible ghost footprints, left there by walkers like me and feet like mine since prehistoric times.

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