A sunny morning in early April; a morning of green and blue and gold, the light pale and clear, the air unexpectedly warm. After a frustrating delay of two months due to a back injury, I am finally beginning my 'Valley under the Skin' project with a walk from the village of Camp to the point where the Dillay Brook rises.
Camp (yes, they've heard all the jokes) is probably the highest village around here, right up on the plain at the north-east end of the valley, houses grouped around a crossroads. This Monday morning it's distinctly quiet and devoid of other walkers, which adds to my pleasurable sense of playing truant while the rest of the world works. By a bank of riotous daffodils I turn through a gateway onto a track running towards green fields where a couple of horses are kicking up their heels. I feel like doing much the same thing myself, only my back wouldn't stand for it.
Good thing there's no-one else around. I've decided that the easiest way to record immediate impressions of the walk is to talk to a small tape recorder as I go, and this takes a bit of getting used to.
The track now enters woodland and begins to head downwards in a business-like manner. I am walking in a green tunnel of trees and hedgerows, bright with new leaves. On the steep bank on my left, ferns are unrolling into improbable curled shapes and any amount of other plants are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the spring race as fast as they can. Wild garlic is winning (as usual). My gardening friends hate this plant, but I love the filigree white flowers and it looks like I'll be seeing them again in a week or so. Under the shading leaves, a lone wood violet peers out at me. In the woods to my right, an ultraviolet haze announces the coming of bluebells. The air is full of birdsong and the scrunchy sounds of squirrels being very busy in last year's leaves.
Why is the idea of the source of a stream exciting? I suppose it has overtones of exploration and adventure, shades of 'Dr Livingstone I presume'. There's a spring marked on the map, further down the valley, but I'm already looking out for any hint of the stream. There's a deep cleft on the right of the track which looks like it could be caused by water run-off - in the past maybe, or at times of heavy rainfall? No water here now, though.
The track veers off to the right into the woods and ahead of me is a fence, a stile and a long view down into the beautiful Dillay Valley, floored with grass, zebra-striped with sunshine and shadow from the ranks of trees above, splotched with bright green patches of new leaf and misty glimpses of may blossom. Here at last I find the stream, welling up from the ground under a green dome of hawthorns, meandering around a little before gaining strength and heading off down the valley in a slender silver ribbon.
The hawthorns which guard the stream’s beginning have spectacularly gnarled and twisted trunks; I sit down for a while to draw them. The bird which has been shouting alarm from the branches above gains confidence from my stillness and settles down to pour liquid song into my ears from surprisingly close quarters. Apparently a sketching human sends out a much less threatening vibe than a walking human.
One last job to do before retracing my steps. One of my aims is to record the sounds of the valley and in particular, the sound of the stream at points all along its length. Narrative fitness demands that I should begin with the sound of the stream rising. A problem, though – there isn’t one. I’m sure that this trickle of water must be making a trickle of sound, but the microphone is not convinced. That's the trouble with technology - so literal-minded. No romance in the soul of a digital sound recorder, apparently. I have to make do with the sound of the bird (robin, I think) and the distant cry of a buzzard, a defining sound of the Slad Valley if ever there was one.
Must go, before my back notices how long I’ve been on my feet. But all the way back up the track things are continually catching my eye. I’m noticing far more than I did on the way down, when I had my head in the map. Now there’s the flash of an orange-tip butterfly. The end-grain of a felled tree wearing a woven wrapping of ivy. The strata of the bank, where its stone bones emerge from the covering of plants. The intricacies of lichens on treetrunks.
I’ve noticed before that drawing seems to ‘tune my eye in’, making me more aware of my surroundings for a limited period. And what tends to catch my eye is detail. I’m a detail sort of person. Landscape pleases me, but it’s close-up detail that draws me in and gets me thinking. Take this point here, for instance, where the bank is so high that new plants growing out of the top of it are above my head and I can look up at the undersides of their leaves. It occurs to me that this as close as I’m likely to get to a mouse’s eye view of things, a world where most of your surroundings are above you. We humans tend to assume we can look most of our world in the eye. I try to imagine how a mouse’s perspective might feel. (Wouldn’t anyone, who read ‘The Borrowers’ in childhood?)
Maybe there’s a germ of inspiration in there. By the time I get back to the road, I’ve mentally designed a pair of glass screens, taller than head-height, engraved with a massive pair of dandelions, viewed from underneath. That would make a good entrance for an exhibition, I think. Hmm. I may need a bigger kiln. And a sponsor. Still, it’s a beginning.
Google map of this walk