Shades of Life

by Adele A Wilby

Many decades ago, I packed my bags and left the shores of Australia and headed to the United Kingdom (UK). My secondary years of education had taught me to believe that my journey to the UK would amount to a ‘return’ to the ‘motherland’. A ‘return to the motherland’? Really? That says more about the education system I was exposed to, than just how naïve I was. However, having learned after my arrival that the UK was not, in fact, my ‘motherland’, I did discern that it had more to offer in terms of being ‘in’ the world than the distant shores of Australia, and I decided to stay. Thus, after many years resident in the UK, I considered myself as someone familiar with the country, until, that is, a change in my life circumstances provided me the opportunity to know the UK, or more specifically, England, in a totally different way.

Acting on the advice of a friend concerned with what he considered to be my solitary life following the death of my husband, I joined the Ramblers’ Association in the UK. Involvement with activities of the Ramblers didn’t last too long; group walking was not my thing. I did learn however, that walking was something I relished; it literally, put a spring in my step. The more regularly I walked the more the country opened up to me, an England loaded with complexity, diversity, mystery, and an alluring, limitless beauty: the English countryside.

In many ways, the countryside is how England can be: cold and aloof, requiring time to get to know; a place where one can feel a sojourner in its midst; a place where its nuances and secrets take time to understand. But it is too a place that tolerates your presence, and, as long as you remain respectful, it will allow you to saunter and relish the attributes that it has to offer, undisturbed and secure. That, to me, is fair enough; I don’t ask for more. I have no wish to disturb its existence, or indeed, undermine any aspect of its life.

The UK is exceptional for its network of public footways and bridleways; walking routes where ramblers are permitted to cross farmers’ property, to pass through private driveways and gardens and around farm buildings, if that is where the public right of way takes its direction.

From amongst the countless number of walking routes throughout the UK, I have spent most of my walking time in South England, which includes the Surrey Hills. It is not without reason that the Surrey Hills, with such places such as Box Hill, Leith Hill, Tilford, the Fensham Ponds, and St Martha’s Church has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: it offers an endless array of stunning portraits of the countryside.

Of these portraits, small hamlets on the edge of a woodland or fringing a remote country road constitute the quintessential image of the English countryside. From the roofs of the cottages neatly thatched by the skilled hands of a trade from a different era, to slate roofs dipping under the weight of age, and the bricked walls bending with the ravages of time, we can assess to which period of history these hamlets and their structures belong; they are original England.

These family cottages are frequently surrounded by a galaxy of coloured flowers and fragrances compelling a halt in my footsteps, and drawing me to the borders of an English country garden. Who can help but wonder at the yellow hues, and the pouting trumpets and petals that the different varieties of daffodils bring forth. If I am very lucky, I might spot a jonquil tucked away somewhere in the garden, and then I linger a little longer, my nose buried in its petalled face, inhaling, for as long as is socially permissible, the depth of its beguiling perfume. A heavy, sweet scent in my nostrils often directs me to the clusters of tiny pink flowers on a daphne shrub. The English rose, that symbol of English history, is a common sight, roses of all colours, flourishing within the confines of the gardens. Sadly, the existence of the perfumed rose seems to be on the wane, and I frequently have to be content with admiring the fullness of blooms before I continue on my way along the public right of way.

As I ramble along the designated paths, I often find myself having to hurdle stiles and stepping into fields where I am surrounded by the ripening cobs of shoulder high maize crops, or knee high amongst wheat ears and the beards of oats, or the ankle high crops of vegetables waiting to be picked and packed. The paths thread the way through crops, on into pastureland where herds of cattle stroll leisurely, grazing on the succulence of the grass, fattening themselves oblivious to their fate that lies ahead. Cows sidle up to me, their long black eyelashes blinking coquettishly from the other side of the fence as their large, dark, glassy eyes look down their noses into my face, sizing me up to determine whether I am friendly or not. So too, do I enjoy catching the gaze of a sheep not quite sure if it should get up and run away, or if it should continue with its lazing amongst its brethren under the leaden clouds of the English sky. Horses too are the favourites of many who live in the English countryside. I have to be content with the odd occasion when a horse’s curiosity gets the better of it, and it will momentarily abandon its grazing and stroll over to me as I walk, and allow me to sneak a gentle pat of its nose. Such moments remind me of just how glad I am to be a vegetarian.

But South England is not all flatland walking routes, or meandering paths over the soft curves of the hills in these areas. Inclines are frequent, and steep, but the view that fans out in front of my eyes from the peak of these hills is sufficient reward for the expenditure of energy required to get me to the top in the first place. From these scenic locations swathes of seasonal colour spread out before me like a patchwork quilt draped haphazardly over an unmade bed, with clumps of trees intervening as if the quilt were full of holes. But as the old cliché goes, ‘what goes up, must come down’, and so after coming to terms with the bewildering beauty of the view, and ready to move on, the moment comes to descend to ground level once more.

A walk up or down one of the many hills in the area frequently involves traversing a woodland. Entering the domain of trees, bushes and all the other resident creatures in the woodland can be akin to entering a monastery of monks committed to a vow of silence, so still and calm it is, the difference being that while the world of the monk is constituted of monotonous routine, deprivations, and limited social contacts, the woodlands are thriving metropolises of harmony and mystery in a wonderland of interconnected life forms. From the heights of trees and beyond the vision of the eye, the melody of birds singing to each other adds to the ambiance of calm in the woods. The sweet fragrance of wild honeysuckle wafting from somewhere amongst the scrubby hedges excites the nostrils, while the smell of pine provides a freshness, and the odour of mould from the damp carpets of leafy undergrowth remind us of nature recycling at work. Nettles behave naughtily, ever willing to cause irritating itchiness to the body should a negligent rambler ignore their presence, and dare to brush against them while winding through the paths of undergrowth. At times too, I have had to remind myself that I am walking in a woodland and not in a kitchen, such is the smell of wild garlic that occupies ground floor space of some wooded areas. But for many ramblers, it is the blue bells that are the star of the show in late spring. The blue of the small bell shaped flowers carpeting the woodland floor, and pitted against  the greens and browns of the forest is a spectacle not to be missed should the opportunity avail itself to see them.

Despite the considerable competition from so many contestants in the popularity contest for most favourite life forms in the English woodlands and countryside, the jewels in the crown, so to speak, are, for me, the trees: silver birches, willows, ashes, scots pines, pines, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnut trees, maples, cherry, and so many more. Who doesn’t love trees? and we each have our favourites, if that is at all possible, and those for me are the beech and the oak trees.

Little is popularly known about the ‘life’ of trees. Are they social creatures interacting with each other? Do the various types of trees live harmoniously with each other in the woodland? Are they competitive with one another? Do they send out warnings to neighbouring trees in times of danger? Do they support one another during times of stress?

I frequently find myself thinking about the possibility that trees might actually give each other a helping hand in times of difficulty. That this might be so occurs to me when walking paths sunken into the ground by centuries of rain water washing down through them, and the heavy load of human footprints. Huge, old beech trees often border these paths, and the interlacing of their exposed roots suggest a support mechanism for each other given the precariousness to their existence that the heavily eroded banks of the paths pose to them.

Such stretches of beech trees also make the routes a haven of shade, or dark and dingy, even eerie, depending on the season one traverses the paths. But most of all, I never cease to wonder at what I am witnessing as I make my way along these paths. Networks of roots with shaded greens of moss crawling over them create beautiful and original sculptures beyond even the artistic scope of the human hand. I regret the passing of these galleries of natural sculptures as I come to the end of those stretches of paths and I have to leave them behind as I continue on my journey through the English countryside.

Beech trees have established their identity throughout the countryside, but so too have those trees so frequently identified with the English landscape: the oak trees.

Many varieties of oak trees exist in the UK, but I am more familiar with the English oak, the Sessile Oak and the Turkey Oak.  Should anybody wonder why the English oaks hold a special place in my sentiments, do take a stroll across an open field and confront a single oak in the distance; be prepared for its beauty to take your breath away, and to stand and gaze at the life form ahead of you. ‘Regal’ perhaps best sums up the tree. Alone in the field, it stands tall, its branches extended, like a colossus supporting its perfectly shaped luxurious crown of green foliage and the myriad forms of life that have made it their home.

But not all English oaks are so perfectly shaped, particularly the old ones, the hundreds of years old English oak trees. Very old English oaks are not unlike us in the ageing process. The accumulated years have seen them shrink, and it is sometimes difficult to imagine they might have towered over the woodlands at the height of forty metres. Their girths are substantially thickened, so thick indeed that it might take two, or even three people, holding hands to circle them. Varieties of growths reminiscent of warts, or evidence of disease on their bodies deprive their bark of its youthful regularity. Their branches are thick, but the knots and bends in the them look less like the strength of their younger days, and more like ageing limbs experiencing difficulty in supporting the weight of their adornments. Their crowns too, are thinning of the lush growth of their heyday. Still, like us subjected to the force of age, they clothe themselves with the best they have at hand, and, in doing so, they retain their dignity.

Standing at the foot of an old English oak and looking up through its branches, I cannot but escape a sense that the old tree might bend over, and with its thick and twisted arms scoop me up like a cuddly grandparent, and reassure me all will be well. I wish, in such moments, the old oak tree could speak and share with me the events of history that it would have witnessed over the centuries, and dispense the wisdom accumulated from such longevity.

For many of these old English oak trees, living is more behind them than ahead. Still, there is much life in them yet, and I am certain many more ramblers will stand at the foot of their trunks and gaze up at them in awe the way I do, knowing that they will still be there, old, and regal, long after my days of experiencing the joy of walking the English countryside have come to an end.