Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Encouraged by the lengthening evenings and a really warm, sunny day, I head off for a short walk before sundown. I remember a similar walk some years ago, when the Resident Wise Woman pointed us in the direction of some earthworks that are all that remain of the medieval village of Pinnock, high in the Cotswold sheep country. Leaving the car at a wide place in the road, I walk along the tarmac until I come to a gap in the hedge and find this sunken lane leading downhill towards the earthworks. Here in the country, it's noisy, as usual, but the noises are appropriately rural: larks singing as they rise from a nearby field; the occasional pheasant erupting with a noise of flapping wings and clanking call; the ceaseless baaing of sheep and lambs.
Sunken tracks like this are not unusual. One theory of their formation is that they mark the ancient edge of two landholdings, and that each landowner marked the boundary by an earth bank. Digging the earth to make the banks left a dip in the middle which formed an access track, and, as rainwater flowed down the slope, more soil eroded away and the track became still deeper. Hedges and trees on either side grow until they almost cover the path. Their roots and the stony ground make the way uneven and hard on the feet.
As I come to the lumps and bumps that mark the site of the deserted village I realise that, of course, the light is quite wrong to photograph them. To catch their shadows in the grass I need to point my lens right into the low evening sun. The whole site would naturally be clearer if I could get above it in an aircraft. So as the light begins to fail, I climb back up the sunken lane, thankful at least for the rural tranquility and the glimpse of this atmospheric and ancient route between the trees.
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Just after writing this, I discovered that Robert Macfarlane, superlative chronicler and analyst of all things to do with places and our routes into and through and across them, is about to publish Holloway, about his journeys along sunken lanes in Dorset with late and great Roger Deakin and Macfarlane's subsequent visits to the same places after Deakin's death. I'm sure that Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household's novel in which the hero hides in a Dorset holloway, will loom large in Macfarlane's book. It was also on my mind as I made my own walk, as was another, less well known, novel by Household, Watcher in the Shadows, which comes to its compelling climax in Gloucestershire, a few miles from where I was walking.