I wrote this piece a little while ago but did nothing with it. I then reworked it and read it at Blackwell's and Borders in Oxford. A few days after the Borders event a friend asked me for a copy. He told me later that he'd read the piece listening to Thom Yorke's song Harrowdown Hill, which I hadn't heard. It's a great song.
It's my intention to write more short non fiction over the coming months.
I was planning walks in the countryside around our new home well before we moved, poring over OS maps while solicitors conveyanced. The only unknown was the airfield. The geometry of its runways looked as menacing as a Klingon battlecruiser amongst the green space.
I consoled myself with the thought that it’s hard to find anywhere that isn’t affected by planes. And yet, while it is true that the noise is infrequent and not that bad, the life of the airfield permeates your consciousness. Look closely at the Millennium window in a nearby church and there’s a little VC10 flying over a bountiful landscape. Even when I was walking in another part of the valley earlier this year I was reminded of its presence.
The walk was in any case always going to be difficult emotionally.I tried to focus on my goal of visiting the lock on the Thames where otters had bred but I couldn’t repress my curiosity about what it would be like seeing the wood before this where Dr David Kelly committed suicide. How would I feel? Did I have a nobler motive than curiosity?I remembered his voice on the radio and my wife saying, ‘He’s utterly broken. You can hear it.’ We felt sympathy for his family and were shocked by the proximity of what had happened.
The walk begins inauspiciously with a narrow footbridge over the dual carriageway that we often drive along to work. Did we pass beneath the bridge that day?If we did, it gave no sign that anything was amiss.It’s only in our heads that such connections are important.
It is early morning, an hour after sunrise, on an overcast January day and the landscape on the other side of the bridge is monochrome apart from the red berries of a guelder rose.I follow the lane to a village and it is only when I’ve passed through that the sound of the dual carriageway fades and is replaced by birdsong.After the primary school the footpath slopes towards the valley, bounded on one side by the remnants of an orchard and a line of Douglas firs, and it is as I round the last of these that I see Harrowdown Hill for the first time.I stop and look but am soon aware of the sound of a plane rumbling above the cloud.
As I listen, I remember the day that the bodies of the first soldiers killed in the Iraq war were flown home. That morning I heard the announcer on the Today Programme say that the aircraft would land at noon. I was working on my allotment when I heard its engines. I couldn’t see it because of the cloud but knew the route it would take and imagined it flying over our old house and allotment, the church where we were married, the wood where we hid an earring in the bole of a tree for luck.
I knew where the plane would appear. It was a black shape.I took off my cap, the one my father used to wear.I don’t see him much now but I wear it because he used to wear it.
As the sound of the plane disappears, I continue down the slope towards a section of road. The fields here are small, mostly old-looking unimproved pasture.To the left is a stone farmhouse with brick chimneys.The tarmac gives way to a long track which, it occurs to me, must be almost tunnel-like in summer, providing welcome shade. The verges are lush and green this mild winter and the secretness of the place is good for wildlife. There is a great tit making its familiar ‘teacher-teacher’ call, causing the ash keys to tremble as it hops through the branches.I catch sight of a treecreeper then realise there is a great spotted woodpecker at the top of a dead tree.I raise my binoculars and watch.I see the pointed beak, the flash of scarlet beneath its tail.He pecks the bark, gives the branch a faint drum, then looks round, almost self-consciously, and ruffles his chest feathers.
After he goes with his strange dipping flight, I continue along the path which climbs the eastern shoulder of the hill.I pause at the gateway to the wood where Dr Kelly died. The trees nearest me are predominantly thorn bushes although there are taller ashes higher up. There are some brambles but overall it is surprisingly open.It is a beautiful place and must be all year.
The low wooded hill reminds me of one we can see from our village which always makes me think of the locus amoenus or ‘pleasant place’ of Classical and Renaissance literature. Poets used these groves in two contrasting ways.Either to give their heroes a rest in a place that was quite literally pleasant or to lull them into a false sense of security before exposing them to the dark underside of human experience.Knights in these stories were safe as long as they stayed on the plain surrounding the locus amoenus where they could see opponents and the chivalric code made sense.But once inside the wood, edges became blurred, emotions difficult to judge.
I walk on a little further, over the brow of the hill and can suddenly see the silver line of the Thames.I stop for a few minutes and lean against a fence and stare at a field with plum-coloured earth.