A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 4 – Amberley to Winchester

Mmm…I was rather forgetting I said I’d post the last part of this…

Our room looked out over what is called Amberley Swamp. We slept with the curtains open, and were woken by the pre-dawn light, although the bluey greys and purples soon gave way to greens and yellows in the low morning sun.

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But once the sun was up, the mist contrived to linger for a while longer and the cool, still air was filled with the cries of unseen birds. Later, as we left Amberley and approached the first steep climb of the day, we saw a yellowhammer on a gatepost singing its traditional ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ song.

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I tried to get a photo of the little perisher, though I wasn’t very successful.

This is all about the sheep, by the way.

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Baaa!

The South Downs landscape as we know it today was largely formed by sheep. I don’t mean that large flocks of sheep sat down and planned it as a kind of Rural Development Project, but that for certainly more than a thousand years it was grazed by huge flocks of sheep whose dung helped improve the soil so that in places crops might also be grown. This led to the felling of virtually all tree cover (originally, the Downs were forested, as was most of Britain) and the establishment of the large grassland areas we associate with the Downs today.

Fans of Terry Pratchett will recall that the Mistress Weatherwax series was set in a part of Discworld that bears a large resemblance to the Chalk Downs of England. No coincidence, I am sure, as he hailed from the Wiltshire area which includes, of course, Salisbury Plain. When I read these books, I get the sense that in describing that area, he is writing of an area that is dear and special to him. There are rolling Downs and sheep and a witch who is also a shepherd living in a shepherd’s hut, which is a caravan but not as we know it, Jim.

Shepherd’s huts were the most basic of boxes on wheels, usually with a tiny shuttered glass-less window, a bunk bed, a small wood burning stove and pretty well not much else. The  hut would be up on the downs (there’s an oxymoron that’s not an oxymoron for you) for most of the year, and the shepherd would live up there looking after the sheep. Probably no chance of a day off or a night out, month after month. It was a tough life, and not at all romantic. Even getting hold of water would be a problem, with the general lack of any water at all on top of the Downs, unless they parked up near a dew pond (see part 1).

There used to be one in the grounds of the Visitor’s Centre at Exceat, near Seaford, although I’ve no idea if it is still there now.

A number of companies now make shepherd’s huts for trendy well-off folks with a bit of garden to shove them in, and charge quite a lot of money, and they are frequently much larger than the originals would have been, and fitted out in some luxury – a far cry from how they would have been when built on the farm for the shepherd. Perhaps they need a new name for them: Mock Shepherd’s Huts, perhaps.

A quick look at what Professor Google comes up with when you enter ‘Shepherd’s hut’ into the search engine reveals an overabundance of words like ‘luxurious’, ‘style’ and ‘cool’ and ‘glamping’…you get the idea.

In the first post of this series, I mentioned I had once intended to start an outdoor adventure company, which never happened. Had I done so, it was to be called Red Kite Outdoors. I mention this, as we saw a number of Red Kites towards the end of our walk. Which gives me an opportunity to include a second poor quality photo of a bird in this post.

There, don’t say I never do anything for you.

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A Red Kite – just out of range of my camera.

As planned, on the last day we reached Winchester.

We cheated, incidentally. We were so tired after the penultimate day, we walked an easy path for 3 miles or so into the village / small town of West Meon, went for coffee there, had lunch, and then took the bus to Winchester.

We don’t care!

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An easy path

After finding our AirBnb guesthouse (pretty damn good, actually) we went and had a look in the cathedral. It is pretty close to the end (or start) point of the walk, after all.

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An arty farty reflective light shot of the cathedral that shows nothing of the cathedral

We stood around in the Cathedral as the choir went through their practice before Evensong. I do not know what piece they were singing, but it was a beautiful, haunting, ethereal piece. It was tempting to stay for Evensong, just to hear them sing again, but we had an appointment with a celebratory supper which I was reluctant to delay.

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What better way to celebrate our arrival in Winchester?

On Windover Hill – The Premier

It was Saturday 7th March, and we were in Chichester, Sussex, for the much-anticipated premier of Nathan James’ On Windover Hill cantata.

It took place in the church at Boxgrove Priory, in the village of the same name a few miles outside Chichester. Just over a month ago I posted here about a walk we joined at Windover Hill, viewing and discussing the Long Man of Wilmington – the subject of the cantata, which gives some of the background to this work.

Nathan describes this piece as ‘a result of 3 years of writing and research into the ancient figure and how it has inspired writers, poets, artists, and musicians’.

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Nathan introducing the cantata

It was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Harlequin Chamber Choir, and Corra Sound, conducted by Amy Bebbington.

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The cantata is in nine movements, with each movement scored around a piece from various times ranging from c 1340 BC to 1996. These diverse sources include English folk song, poetry, extracts from plays, literature, and even a piece from 14th century BC Egypt, used here because there is a carving on a chair found in the tomb of Tutankhamun which strongly resembles the Long Man.

The music has a very English feel to it, reminding me strongly at times of Vaughan Williams or Holst, another element that contributes to the sense of it being grounded in Sussex.

Much more about the music, and the story of the project, can be found on the On Windover Hill website, here.

Between several of the movements, there were readings chosen to help illustrate aspects of the mythology of the Long Man – poems, excerpts from books and an extract from an article arguing that the Long Man may have been, in fact, a Long Woman. All pieces by writers challenged by the meaning and significance of the figure. At the back of the church, too, there were a range of artworks inspired by the Long Man. And several times during the performance, a couple of dancers took the floor, their actions visually interpreting the subject of that particular movement.

This, what I might term holistic approach to staging the work, contributed strongly to the listeners total immersion in the work without, I think, distracting from it.

As well as the cantata, the program also consisted of several other pieces, all with a Sussex connection. It began with a beautiful piece by Thomas Weelkes (c 1576-1623) Hosanna to the Son of David. Weelkes, the program notes informed us, was frequently in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities and was ‘noted and famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer and blasphemer’. Strangely, I immediately felt an affinity to the fellow.

There were pieces, too, by Frank Bridge, John Ireland, an extract from Goblin Market by Ruth Gipps, and a piece largely unknown today: Wyndore (Windover) by Avril Coleridge-Taylor which was its first performance in this country for 82 years.

The acoustics in the church were wonderful, an especially appropriate setting for a choir. It was a hugely pleasurable and satisfying evening.

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The Long Man, photographed on the pre-concert walk

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During the afternoon before the concert we wandered around Chichester for a while and I bought a few old postcards of Sussex from the indoor market including, by chance, this one of the Priory church, where the concert was held, about a hundred years ago.

It seemed to fit comfortably into the feeling of history, myth and tradition I felt that day.

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

On Windover Hill and The Oddness of Time

Yesterday, we joined a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, on the South Downs in Sussex. The walk was led by composer Nathan James, and Justin Hopper, the author of The Old Weird Albion.

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The Long Man is a chalk figure etched through the grass into the hillside, below the summit of Windover Hill, revealing the chalk that lies beneath. When and why it was first cut is the subject of myth and speculation – and that brings us neatly to Nathan’s new composition.

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On 7th March, Nathan will premier his fantastic new choral work On Windover Hill at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, Sussex. This has been inspired by the Long Man, its mythology, and the art that has arisen around it, as well as the written history and the geography of the surrounding land. It has a very English feel to it, in the tradition of Vaughan Williams or Holst.

Full details of the work and the performance can be found here. Tickets can also be bought by clicking ‘The Premier’ link in the sidebar there. We have ours, and it would be great to see it sold out!

This walk was by way of a taster for the concert, with a mixture of history and mythology imparted along the way, a poem from Peter Martin, read by himself, and extracts from stories read out by Justin, all of which referenced the Long Man. Also  Anna Tabbush sang two folk songs, one of which was the only song known about the Long Man, appropriately enough called The Long Man and written by the late Maria Cunningham.

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I’m not sure How many people I expected to see, but we were around forty, with a surprisingly large number being artists of one sort or another.

The weather was so much better than we had a right to expect – the forecast had been for clouds and rain, but the clouds cleared during the morning, and we had plenty of sunshine as we ascended, although it rather lived up to its name at the top, with more than enough wind for everyone.

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Here, the remains of prehistoric burial mounds sit overlooking the Long Man, and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

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Some landscapes seem to muck around with your perception of time, and Downland seems especially prone to this. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, but suspect it is a combination of factors.

It is a very open landscape, and other than the contours of the land and a few trees, frequently the only features that stand out are prehistoric ones, such as barrows and chalk figures. Due to the uncertainty around their origins, these have a timelessness about them, a fluidity when it comes to grasping their history. We see the long view, which perhaps works on our sense of time as well as space. The more recent additions to the landscape are usually in the form of fences, which can easily seem invisible as we look around for something less ephemeral than the open sky to fix our eyes on.

The Downs are an ancient landscape, in any case. When human beings recolonised what is now Britain after the last Ice Age, at first they kept to the higher ground which gave less impediment to travel and settlement than the marshy and thickly wooded lowlands. Most standing stones and burial mounds from the Neolithic or earlier are found on these higher areas.

I do not get these feelings in more recent landscapes. At a medieval castle or manor house, it is easy to imagine the inhabitants baking bread or sweeping corridors; activities as natural to us today as they were then. I feel a comfortable mixture of the old and the new, a recognisable timeline connecting the past with me.

But barrows, standing stones and hillside figures have a purpose alien and unknown to us. Step on the ground near these remains and you can feel the presence of the unknown. No wonder the belief in the past in faeries and elves who inhabited the underground, and who lived essentially out of time.

They offend our carefully erected sense of order and belonging and, perhaps, still pose a barely acknowledged threat to us today.

I might be imagining it, of course, but listening to the extracts from On Windover Hill on the website, I think I recognise that feeling in places, an unexpected musical response to my own feelings. And then Nathan’s description of his creative process on the website echoes some of this too.

I’m hooked!

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

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As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

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‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

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Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

Strolling in Sussex (1)

Yesterday, I went for a bit of a walk. The oppressive humidity of the previous day had lessened, fortunately, and it was an overcast morning with a cool breeze.

Just the way I like it.

I decided to take the train a few stops down the line, where I could get out at one of those stations that bears the name of a village a mile or so away but stands on its own in the middle of the countryside. The nearest building (other than the station itself) is a farm. Hopefully I could have a day’s gentle walking with nothing more demanding around me than birds, insects, trees and wildflowers.

I really, really, needed to do that.

It seemed a good start at the station. A good omen. While waiting for my train to draw in, my eye was drawn to a single large, white, bindweed flower in the tangle of brambles and vines and bushes, trees and garden plants escaped and gone native that serves as a barrier behind the platform.

Most gardeners hate bindweed. I suppose we do, really. Once it gets into the garden it grows at a ridiculously rapid rate and strangles any other plants in its way. And even pulling it up doesn’t get rid of it. It just regenerates. I tell you, come the end of days it will just be scorpions, cockroaches and bindweed left.

But this flower looked lovely. The largest, pure white, bindweed flowers often remind me of the calla lily, only a calla lily that is not so…let’s say…excited. One of my favourite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve probably told you that before. But O’Keeffe was particularly known for painting large flower paintings, many of them more than a little ‘suggestive’. And the calla lily was one of her favourites. I’d show you one of hers but, you know, copyright and all that. I’ll leave you to look it up if you wish to.

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So, here’s the bindweed flower.

Anyway, I got on my train and later I got off at the correct station and began walking along the footpath and got shouted at by some sheep.

Really, there’s no other way to describe it. On one side of the footpath were a couple of dozen sheep in a field where the grass had been cropped very short and there seemed to be very little left for them to eat. As soon as they saw me, they came rushing over to the fence bleating loudly. Obviously demanding to be re-housed in the field on the other side of the footpath.

In that field, thick lush grass was being munched by a couple of dozen quite contented sheep. I didn’t hear a (Bo) peep out of them.

‘Really sorry,’ I told them. ‘I can’t help you.’ I walked on feeling oddly guilty.

But I got over it.

 

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For the rest of the morning I walked slowly through fields and along lanes, stopping frequently to look at flowers and insects and, really, just enjoying being where I was.

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Bridge over the railway

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I was just beginning to think it must be lunchtime when my path took me through a field of long grass.

This field lay between a stream I had just crossed, and a wood where I was heading. The wood stood a little higher than the surrounding fields, and the long grass of the field I was to cross was thick and green. The breeze caught the top of the grass, so it waved like the sea or a large lake and as I began to wade through it, it really did feel as though I waded through water.

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And there was the drag of the grass against my legs, and the top of the grass sparkled a little in the breeze, just as wavelets would. And there was also the sense that I was not quite sure what I might suddenly step upon. Just to complete the illusion, there were also some lovely blue damselflies darting around.

Then I finally stepped ashore at the edge of the wood, walked up a slight sandy slope that might have been a beach, and sat down to eat my sandwich.

Now, I have to tell you that this was the best sandwich in the world, and I won’t brook any disagreement. Thick wholemeal bread, cheese, several large slices of raw onion, and several thick slices of tomato. Perhaps it was my mood, and the setting, but it was damned good.

And then it was time to explore the wood.

The Weald of Kent and Sussex

South East England is my area. It is where I was raised and, other than a few years spent abroad, it is where I have lived my whole life. In particular, the Weald and the Downs. Not so much the coastline, which has never particularly attracted me, but the hills and valleys, the woodlands and rabbits, the hidden crags and open downland, the land of streams and foxes and badgers, birds and villages and butterflies.

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On the Sussex Downs

There is a curious fact about the wooded areas of South east England, which is that there is more woodland, covering a greater area now, than was the case four hundred years ago.

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Back then, South East England was the industrial heartland of Britain. This was before the discovery of the coal seams of the North and the Midlands, and the various factors which would eventually lead to the greatest impact of the Industrial revolution being in those areas.  Instead, the modest iron deposits of the Weald were mined and worked into firedogs and nails, cannon and cooking pans, as the wealth of words such as hammer and forge in place names still bear witness.

 

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Huge numbers of trees were cut down to feed the fires of these forges, and huge numbers also for charcoal burning, for building, and near the coast the great Kent and Sussex oaks were in huge demand to build the large number of ships the navy demanded. But then from the mid eighteenth century onwards, industry began to shift northwards.

Despite the pressures on the land for building and for farming in this crowded corner of our crowded island, there is actually more woodland now than there was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And that is not something that can be said of many parts of Britain or, I suspect, many parts of the world at all.

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The Weald is an area whose underlying rocks are sandstone and clay, which means that the unimproved soils are inevitably either light and sandy or thick and claggy. In some parts there are old sunken tracks known as ‘Summer Roads’, so-called because they became impassable in the winter months, when they might have had a foot or more of thick, wet, muddy, clay on their surface. When these were in use, journeys between villages that might take an hour or two in summer, could became almost impossibly long during the winter.

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At the moment, all everything in the news seems depressing and unpleasant and so, this post is an indulgence. Just a smattering of information, and a few photos of places I love, largely to improve my mood.