Magazine article The Spectator

Elegiac Thoughts at the End of a Perfect Day in February

Magazine article The Spectator

Elegiac Thoughts at the End of a Perfect Day in February

Article excerpt

Dry, sunny days in February are an uncovenanted gift from the Almighty, and there is no better place to enjoy them than the Vale of Taunton in west Somerset. It stretches between the Quantocks and the Brendon Hills, a green and delectable carpet of ancient field and meadow which lies like a natural garden at your feet. A mild water called the Doniford Stream runs though it to the sea at the time-worn harbour of Watchet, little changed since it inspired Coleridge with the story of his Ancient Mariner. There are a few villages, with names such as Stogumber, Brompton Ralph and Monksilver. But most of the habitations are remote farms, whose honoured names are all given on the map: Chubworth Farm, Pitpear Farm, Woodadvent Farm, Emble Farm and so on. I once counted nearly 100 of the old place names, going back to Stuart, even Tudor times, perhaps earlier. There are hundreds of separate woods, too, each named and distinctive, each with a peculiar character - and beauty - of its own. Then there is Galloping Bottom, Sticklepath, Huish Champflower, Dun's Stone, and many other mysterious names and landmarks.

This is old, old country, quite unchanged - on the surface anyway. A network of little red roads, ten feet wide, if that, link farm to farm, meandering down to stream-beds, then up again, sometimes skirting woods, sometimes picking their way through them, seldom straight or level, following a historic wisdom which lays down that the shortest distance between two points is never the best way to go. All the hedges, some hundreds of years old, are still intact. Broad and high, they give refuge to a multitude of small birds and warm, furry creatures which scurry across the red track in front of your car. The tops of the hedges, bare at this time, and kept close-clipped by Somerset County Council, catch the low-angled beams of the sun, and run alongside you like golden ribbons of silk as the road dips up and down.

This is tree country as well as hedge country. There are some big, old plantations, such as Withycombe Scruffets, but most of the trees come in small copses and clusters or line the endless tracks, sometimes congregating at the corners and crossroads as if for a gossip. I find myself anthropomorphising them all the time. There are ancient beeches, twisted and tortured, with outstretched roots like the bony hands of witches; big, handsome sycamores, sometimes with a youthful swagger of gallantry, more often elderly gentlemen who have seen better times; oaks of all sizes, many very old indeed, and looking it, though upright and capable of defying any wind and weather. The trees must be owned by someone, I suppose, but in most cases they have been left alone for generations, to grow or not as they think fit. They are settled inhabitants of the countryside, with their established rights, fixed place and individual character - no two even remotely alike. Many are swathed in ivy and have branches sticking out at odd angles: eccentric arboreal clubmen, as I imagine, of uncertain temper and habits that are unpredictable, to strangers anyway. The big sycamores are noble things at this time of year, their trunks a yellow-silver-- grey, which glows into burnished gold when the sun hits them squarely, every twig of their bare, overarching canopies lighting up as though incandescent.

We have had much rain, like everywhere else, though the red earth continues to suck it up thirstily. The turf is green and springy. Streams are full and in places have burst over sedgy banks and spilled into the lush meadows, forming little ponds in which wild duck and the occasional gull alight. …

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