Welcome back the light

katie-and-simon-admire-the-viewWinter is a time of darkness for all of us in the Northern Hemisphere. I know some people find this hard. You go to work in the dark you come home in the dark and in between is a backdrop of grey murk.

Like many things in life you need to embrace the winter dark for what it is, a time to withdraw inside and sort out your housekeeping. This can be a chance to get on with all those indoor projects that are impossible to do when the sun is shining. A chance to enjoy the delights of reading a book by the fire with a glass of cherry brandy or some internal quest to sort out your inner dirty laundry and make the new year a fresh start.

The dark is a blessing but on the winter solstice it is also a joy to turn the corner of the shortest day and welcome back the sun.

chilham-house-in-mist

Chilham Castle in the mist.

This year my traditional solstice walk went from the beautiful village of Chilham near Canterbury in Kent up to the downs where mist hung in the valleys before descending to Godmersham Park, once owned by Jane Austin’s brother and which was the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice.

We then headed up again to Blue Downs, through yew groves and along holloways before descending back to Juliberrie Downs and visiting the long barrow, now almost lost in the corner of a field of cabbages.

solstice-walkers

Solstice walkers on a holloway.

The long barrow is very long indeed, 144 feet to be precise but is now almost covered in bramble. Inside a stone hand axe had been deposited and later Roman burials took place there along with the deposit of a hoard of coins. Legend tells that it is the burial place of either a giant or a whole army and its horses.

an-offering-of-bread-and-mead

an offering of bread and mead

Today the spot was empty and the sun set directly in front of us as we welcomed back the light, called for peace to the four directions. (In my case not very loudly as I had lost my voice.) Offered bread and mead and sacrificed something we wanted to leave behind in the old year which we wrote on pieces of paper and burnt and then hung on a nearby beech tree a hope for the new year written on a strip of cloth.

This is a rather ad hoc solstice ceremony but as the sun sets on the grave of a prehistoric ancestor it is hard not to feel the movement of time and a connection with the winters of the past when there was far more to fear in the darkness and far more reason to give thanks for the return of the sun.

solstice-sun-from-long-barrrow

solstice sun from Juliberrie’s grave.

 

A Merry Perambulation – Part Two

064-cockham-wood-fort

At Cockham Wood Fort near Hoo St Werburgh

Part two of A Memory Perambulation, an account of a walk  in the footsteps of William Hogarth across North Kent, is now available to read at the online magazine Longshore Drift

http://longshoredrift.org.uk/a-merry-perambulation-part-2-by-carol-donaldson/

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Reaching Spitend Hide; triumphant celebrations at facing my fear

Reaching Spitend Hide; triumphant celebrations at facing my fear

Just returned from the next leg of my trip across the Estuary. Have just spent three days walking the marshes of Sheppey, not an easy task for a girl with a phobia of Daddy long legs:

Elmley Marshes 5th October 2014 

It is a golden and glorious autumn morning  but my heart is full of fear at the miles of horror that lay ahead. It is a sunny day after rain, the absolute worse conditions for me to set out in. I have no idea how I am going to make it across the marshes. Already I can see them, ranks of them, lined up on the pot plants outside the door of Steve, the estate manager house, spindly legs and click clacky wings. It is the height of daddy season, there are at least ten on this very plant, how many more are out there?

 

Daddy-long-leg,  Jackaranga

Daddy-long-leg, Jackaranga

As I climb Elmley Hill , the grass shivers with them, the day is warming up, they are feeling perky. One belly flops across the sky in front of me, arms and legs splayed backwards, ‘wheeee,’ it’s whole body seems to say, ‘here I come, for your face.’ I feel the fear rising, the adrenalin levels shooting up, all common sense leaving me as the phobia takes hold. I make myself walk on. I know the view is spectacular from the top of the hill. I must make it, I must go on, because what is the alternative? Run back to the car park and call a cab to take me home?

view from Elmley Hill

view from Elmley Hill

At the top of the hill daddies leap up around my legs, a leg touches my hand, I squeal and shake it off. I hear rustling in my hair and fling off my hat and sunglasses, jumping around on top of the hill like I have been stung by hot coals, shaking my hair out frantically. ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ I tell myself. I am on top of the hill with millions and millions of bodies writhing around me and I can’t enjoy the view of the sweep of the Swale around the island and the glass smooth water of Sharfleet Creek, but now I am here I can not just teleport myself elsewhere, I have to get off, I have to walk through them.

‘Look up,’ I tell myself, ‘Look up and enjoy the view, enjoy it Carol, DO NOT LOOK DOWN. You are going to have to do this today. This is likely to be the worst test you are will ever face but you are going to have to face it’

I prepared myself as best I could, tying back my hair, arming myself with my map case and mini tripod and then I walked, because I had to, through clouds and clouds of these creatures, they touched my hands, hit my face, clattered in my hair and I just kept walking I have no idea how.

In the last few weeks people had said I was brave for all sorts of reasons. Brave for leaving my job and going freelance, brave for walking in the countryside on my own, brave for staying at the homes of people I had never met. I knew different, you cannot be brave about things you don’t really fear. I knew out of all the acts of bravery I had supposedly performed, that this, this walking through long grass on an autumns day, facing a creature which had previously sent me into meltdown. This was the only thing that was really brave.

On Chislet Marshes

by MLP

by MLP

As a child I always wanted to be a ‘naturalist.’ I pictured myself heading out for long days in the field with a net over my shoulder to catch all things which swam or flew and a hand lens on a strap around my neck to identify rare plants.

Surveying ditches for the Internal Drainage Board might not sound like such a thrilling occupation to some but it allows me to live my childhood dream. So yes, I get odd looks tramping through the undergrowth in a floppy hat and binoculars. So, yes, I am bored of hearing “Going fishing darling?” from ‘funny man’ dog walkers. Yes, yes, I have days where I spend hours fighting my way through thistle jungles and swaying from heat stroke but I also get to places that few other people are allowed to see, field edges, hidden copses, tangly brooks. I see private glimpses of wildlife, a hovering kingfisher, a cormorant, silver bubbled, slipping underwater in search of fish, sky dancing marsh harriers, wildlife with it’s back turned, not expecting to encounter a person out here where few are ever seen.

This is not a gentle stroll along a footpath, they are, as a friend recently said, ‘hard miles.’ but I love being out all day in the countryside, seeing no one and having a purpose. It is a privilege and I never forget it.

On Wednesday I was out on Chislet Marshes, a vast sea of wheat fields winding their way in from the sea, watched over by the eye of Reculver Towers ever present on the horizon. I had walked many miles along the reed fringed Shuart Dyke, testing the water quality, noting the diversity of plants, searching for water voles.

At lunch time I lay with my head on my bag on a wooden bridge covered with lichens and watched the clouds build and swell . Swallows skimmed inches above the water, almost grazing my chest as they crossed the bridge. I contemplated a skinny dip, fancying the prospect of baking myself dry on the sun warmed timbers beneath me, but the water had high nitrate content (I had tested it) and looked none to inviting. I knew from experience that even the loveliest looking streams could hold nasty surprises, having lowed myself into a brook last year I emerged with a leach stuck to my foot merrily sucking my blood.

Besides, I had already been caught  in a compromising position once that day. I go slightly feral on the marshes in the summer and forget what normal behaviour is. With no one to be seen for miles I had been having a wee quite out in the open when the seaside train to Whitstable had flashed past. I had quite forgotten about the railway line, hidden in a dip. The driver, and passengers got a vision which might scar them for life. Maybe I was becoming more of a naturist than a naturalist.

 

 

Liberty, Fraternity, Equality

Brooke@en.wikipedia

Brooke@en.wikipedia

How lucky are we that, in England, our countryside is, for the most part, still open and free to all.

Today I parked my rather battered Nissan Micra next to a line of Chelsea tractors (shiny jeeps that never see any mud) in front of a multi million pound property and enjoyed a rather fine tuna sandwich and cup of choca mocha from my thermos while enjoying a beautiful view across a lake fringed with beech trees. An egret sailed overhead, ducks splashed in the lake, sheep grazed the meadow. A footpath led off round the lake and no one could stop me or make me pay for using it.

I appreciate that many people don’t have a car to get out to these spots or a job which allows them to be strolling the countryside on a weekday morning and I only have these things because I am a product of a university education which was once also free and available to all and is now, once again, only available to the wealthy, but, parked next to so much wealth and privilege I did feel quietly satisfied that no one can yet charge us for a view.

Blessed be our footpaths and our right to use them.