Things have changed noticeably since I was last here. Weirdly, we've had almost no rain in the last six weeks (the thunderstorm which chased me out of the valley last time turned out to be a flash in the pan) and it's been unusually warm. Spring seems to be rushing headlong into summer at least a month early. The field of dandelions I passed on the way here last time is now a field of something else entirely, though still spring-yellow. I wonder if I will see the difference in the level of the Dillay. Dillay Farm gets its water from springs in the valley, Mrs Barrington tells me, and if the dry period continues too long they could be badly affected. I know that our own little stream, a very minor tributary of the Slad Brook, is much lower than usual.
As usual, I'm getting distracted by detail. Further downstream, just before the track, the ground is boggy and already covered in a carpet of new plants. There are so many different shapes of leaves that it's mesmerising; I recognise only buttercup and birdseye but there are many others. If you took a square foot of this bit of ground and worked out what all the different species in it were, it looks to me as though it would be dozens. The odd flower is almost too much, too bright a splash of colour in amongst all this line and texture. Must move on, because I am supposed to be focusing on the lower part of the valley.
I cross the footbridge near Rose's cottage and pause to frown at the map. What's on the ground here doesn't entirely seem to fit with the official version and I'm wondering if that's why I got confused last time. I decide that the only thing to do is to follow the footpath running along the side of the valley which crosses into the Nature Reserve; that way I'm bound to find out where the Reserve is, and I can then drop down to the stream and walk back up it to the farm. This looks easy on the map...
|Vole's-eye view of a bluebell|
Must move on. The footpath now runs quite close to the stream, shaded by a wall of low, leaning-over trees. I quicken my pace and immediately pheasants and other birds explode out of the undergrowth ahead of me. A wren, braver than the others, shoots up right beside my feet. I've noticed this with 'my' birds in the garden at home - birds seem to be hard-wired to react to abrupt movement. If you amble along gently they don't seem too bothered. There are plenty of them in the trees here - I can hear numbers of great tits going 'teacher, teacher, teacher'.
Even down here near the stream and in the shade the path is very dry and has cracks in it. Ahead of me an earthworm is crossing it, determined, but painfully slow. The distance I am about to step over in one stride will take him several minutes at least to cover.
Now the path is climbing away from the stream through a handsome bit of woodland with a side order of scrub in the spaces between. Here drifts of bluebells still blow although they've been over for a fortnight or more elsewhere. Everything looks very sharp-edged and new and I'm having the same problem as before - the more I look, the more I see, and the slower I walk. New ferns shooting up in exquisite curlicues; orange tip butterflies; pheasants in the scrub; a snail browsing on a nettle leaf. How would one express a snail's eye view of things?
I turn away from the nature reserve and walk back up the stream, which is flowing through a cathedral of taller trees here, their branches clad in new leaves forming a fresh green curving roof. And down on the bank amongst the spring greenery is another kill - a small deer, this time, by the look of it. There is fur everywhere, a section of backbone with pelvis and back leg bones still attached, and a tiny, perfect hoof. I estimate from the length of the leg bones that this deer probably stood about 3ft high at the shoulder, and wonder what killed it.
Further on, I make a semi-successful attempt to record the sound of a fat bumblebee, striped yellow and orange, which is a new one on me. Must remember to look him up. He's buzzing around by a small spring which is running out of the ground and down into a trickle of a tributary which flows into the main stream. Looking at this I suspect I can thank this dry spell for being able to walk along here without wellies; the ground has the air of a natural bog. There are some very striking fern shapes growing up here, all new-minted and perfect. It's frustrating trying to photograph them because as far as the camera's concerned it's all just green on green. Not having a brain, as such, it can't focus on the shape the way I can. Mind you, my brain has some trouble when I try to draw one of the ferns. My eye can follow the strong shapes, such as the sweep of the stem, but when it gets to the areas of low contrast and high density of detail, such as where the different leaves fold over into each other, my brain kind of goes 'bler' and gives up the struggle to focus, and the resulting drawing is frankly crap. It takes a couple of goes before I get a reasonable result, by which time my eye has sorted out where to look, as it were. Now with my brain 'tuned in' to drawing, I could happily stay for hours trying to get it right, but time is going on and I have to drag myself away.
As I arrive back at the stile by Rose's cottage, I notice that the stream flows in a pipe under the track and scramble down the bank to get a recording of the resonant glopping noise it makes coming out of the pipe. I pause to collect the pheasant wing and as I walk away, the wind riffles through the feathers and makes the whole thing vibrate and buzz weirdly, as if the ghost of the bird was trying to escape from my grasp. While I've been in the woods the haze has cleared and it has turned into a blue and gold afternoon. On the grassy hillside below the farm the ewes are calling their lambs (now appreciably fatter then when I last saw them) to them as I pass by. I spot a spent cartridge on the ground, reminding me that man isn't necessarily just an observer of the whole predator-prey thing that goes on in this apparently peaceful valley.
Google map for this walk