Country diary: gateway to a winter’s trail

The hills in the distance were still banked with snow, but on the narrow path above the village, the frost had melted even in the hollows. At the far end, a rusted iron gate guarded the steps down to the road; pushing it open, I wondered how many times it has swung on these simple hinges, giving access to both school and chapel in the village.

In the wood above the lane, thin shafts of watery sunlight sliced between the limbs of dormant beech trees. Beyond, the crown of the great oak tree stood naked against the sky – each twig, branch and bough utterly still on this windless morning. The loudest sound, aside from the occasional sharp mewing call of a red kite, was that of water gurgling from field drains into the ditch at the side of the road.

I turned north and took the footpath that zigzags across the hillside. Following hedgerows and occasionally diving through copses, the path led me past spots that I hadn’t seen in winter for years. A narrow strip of land between fences, once optimistically planted with staked saplings, was now all but bare. Only a single stunted beech tree had survived predation – probably by rabbits, whose tracks through the grasses suggested a robust population.

Fallen wood, sodden and rotting, lay in the undergrowth – made colourful by the rosette-like fruiting bodies of the fungi that were slowly breaking it down. The back wall of a small quarry, long abandoned and eroded by rain and frost, had fallen away from the roots of an ivy-covered tree, leaving it vulnerable and exposed. The changes, slow but significant, have mounted up.

Clambering across the narrow footbridge, I remembered why I avoid this route in winter. For perhaps 50 yards, the path, constrained by the river on one side and a fence on the other, was more than ankle-deep in mud. I traversed it with exaggerated care, just about avoiding a spectacular debacle, and with a sense of relief turned on to the old coach road towards home. Cutting across the top field, I climbed over the final stile – holding on to the narrow, holly-shrouded stone post that probably predates most of the village. Long may it remain.

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