Flint Flakes and Very Big Snails

We are now allowed to go out to exercise for an unlimited amount of time each day.

This may not have been top of everyone’s Relaxing-the-Lockdown-Rules-Wish-List, but other than the opportunity to finally begin to see some family and friends, I think it was top of mine. On this first day of slightly increased freedom, I take camera and notebook and go off for a longer walk than I’ve been used to this last couple of months. Nothing particularly long, but it feels good to know there is no reason at all for me to limit my walk or have to justify it to anyone.

Naturally, there are other walks I want to do even more, but I’m still reluctant to use public transport to get to somewhere I want to walk and, to be quite frank, the government has not made it clear whether I’m allowed to (although they’ve given the police a major headache if they want to try to control it). So for the moment, the South Downs will have to wait.

But now I am thinking of a walk I did almost exactly a year ago, to reacquaint myself with an area of the North Downs I lived close to a long time ago. I planned to walk along an ancient trackway running along part of the ridge of the Downs, and marked as such on the Ordinance Survey map. This is an area where many Roman remains have been found over the years, mainly in the wide river valley nearby, but I had no idea how old the trackway was thought to be, whether it pre-dated the Romans or was more recent.

But many of these routes were in use long before the Romans arrived, since the early Britons found the lower lands were frequently too marshy and thickly wooded for either easy settlement or for travel. And so it is highly likely this route is several thousand years old. One of the Old Ways. And just walking along it gives me a sense of continuity with the past.

In a wooded area the footpath passed a wide, shallow pit, although there was nothing marked on my map. Mindful that it was always possible it had been dug out by early settlers mining flints, I stopped and poked around in a few areas of exposed earth until I found a couple of flint flakes that appear to have been worked.

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To my un-scholarly eye one flake appears to just be a waste flake struck off the flint being knapped (R), but the other could be the tip of perhaps a knife that was being worked but broke in the process, or even a stone chisel (L).

Having adjusted the focus of my eyesight, as it were, to looking for worked flints, I almost missed the fact that the obvious snail shell partially revealed nearby was larger than it should have been, measuring about 5 cm across.

The Romans brought all sorts of goodies to Britain, including a large edible snail (there’s no accounting for tastes) that we now call the Roman Snail. Although found over much of Europe, they have become rare in recent times. In the UK, too, they are now only found in a few areas, including parts of the North Downs, and are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it illegal to kill, handle or possess them without a licence.

The shell I found obviously belonged to one that had long ago gone to meet its maker (or maybe a few herbs and a thick gravy), although I had no way of telling how long ago.  Whether there is still a population of living snails in that area I don’t know either, since that is information that tends to be kept as secret as possible.

But both the finding of the flint flakes and the snail shell seemed to reinforce that feeling I had of continuity with the past.

In Praise Of Trees

It has been mind-buggeringly hot and humid for most of the last week, breaking records for mind-buggeringly hot heat here in the UK. But now, with heavy rain and gloom and a delicious green light filling the kitchen from the trees and bushes outside in the garden, it not only feels refreshingly cooler but looks it, too.

During this last week, almost the only way I could bear to be outside at all, was sitting on our lawn in the shade of the gorgeous hazel tree that dominates the garden.

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In so many countries, trees are planted to provide shade whether it be for travellers, or for residents in towns and villages or city squares.

They understand the value of the shade the trees provide in hotter climates, but in the UK we, and by that I mean governments and entrepreneurs and business people, we seem to be obsessed with cutting down trees, almost for the sake of it.

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Yet we can no longer pretend we have no idea how vital trees are; for us, for the ecosystem, for the planet. We need them to remove the carbon from the air and to replenish oxygen. They are habitats for huge numbers of wildlife. Their roots help bind and provide stability to the soil, preventing erosion, landslides, and the spread of deserts. Where they exist in sufficiently large numbers the water vapour they give off helps to bring down local temperatures and increase rainfall.

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They are sources of food for animals and for people, and for thousands of years their wood has been used for building dwellings, making furniture and utensils, fencing, tools, boats and wagons, and as a beautiful raw material for artworks.

And they soothe the soul!

Used intelligently and sustainably, they will continue to perform this role for as long as we wish.

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Yet despite all we now know, we continue to cut down trees at a ridiculous rate. In Brazil, we are losing rainforest now the size of three football fields per minute! The rainforest in Indonesia is also being cut down at a rapid rate. The HS2 rail link planned for the UK will cost a stupid amount of money and destroy massive amounts of woodland, just to take a little time off rail journeys that already happen.

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Yet there are many smaller – petty – instances of trees being cut down that amount to official vandalism, no less. I feel particularly strongly that in many towns in the UK it has long been the policy that when trees planted along streets have become larger than the council thinks appropriate, they cut them down but rarely if ever replace them with new, younger, ones.

The call to re-wild areas of the UK is growing, and I feel we should now be devoting as much land as possible to the creation of new woodland, as well as re-planting hedgerows to replace fences, and individual trees in gardens and parks and along roads.

And stop cutting them down!

Bob’s New Hobby

Bob’s wife has been urging him to do more work around the house.

I don’t mean things like the washing up or vacuuming the carpets – God knows, she tried that before, and it ended with her drinking an entire bottle of gin in one sitting – no, I mean the ‘little’ tasks such as putting up shelves or fitting new internal doors or hanging pictures.

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Just why anyone would encourage someone like Bob to engage in activities that involve sharp edges, high speed motors, cutting blades, heavy blunt instruments or pointy pieces of metal is totally beyond my comprehension, but who am I to judge these things?

I had occasion to go round to their house recently, and was startled when Bob proudly showed me the shelves he had recently put up in the alcove in the living room. Now, I am certainly not someone who regards himself as a handyman in that respect, and my opinion of DIY is that it is something to be avoided at all costs, but even I could have made a far better fist of it than Bob did.

The shelves contained a few books and two or three very large ornaments which, I suppose, had been chosen due to their shape and mass being such that they were unlikely to slide off of the shelves, despite the unusual slope of those shelves.

‘What do you think?’ he asked, proudly. ‘Gina is very pleased with them.’ He indicated his wife who was standing in the doorway. As I glanced at her, she gave me a look that was nothing if not inscrutable.

‘I’m quite impressed, Bob,’ I said, which was true, since I was unaware of him even changing a fuse before. ‘Is this the first time you’ve put up a shelf?’

‘Oh, no,’ he said, looking slightly hurt. ‘I put a shelf up in the garage, last week.’ I raised my eyebrows.

‘You’ve found a new hobby, then.’

‘I can’t think why I haven’t done this before.’ His enthusiasm was obviously sincere. ‘There is so much to do around here. We’re getting a new kitchen cabinet next week, which will need putting up, and it would cost a fortune to pay some bloke to come and do it, so if I do it we’ll save that money.’ I stared at him, quite unsure what to reply. ‘And Gina wants me to cut the hedge this afternoon,’ he continued. ‘I’ve never really been into gardening, but I’m rather looking forward to it.’

From the living room there came a crash! and the sound of heavy objects hitting a carpeted floor fairly hard. ‘What was that?’

‘Nothing,’ said Gina, mildly. I looked at her sharply, aware that she was usually Bob’s fiercest critic, but she merely smiled at me and sipped her tea. A little later I went out to the garage with Bob.

‘This is the shelf I put up,’ he said, proudly, indicating a plank of wood somehow clinging to the wall just below the ceiling. To get anything down, Bob would clearly have to use a step-ladder.

‘Why so high up?’

‘Gina suggested that it would be a good place to put some of the bigger tools, so they weren’t in the way. I stared up at the shelf from the opposite side of the garage. I could make out a heavy hammer, an electric drill, and…

‘Is that a chainsaw, Bob?’

‘Yes. Gina wants me to take down that old tree at the bottom of the garden. It was a real bargain.’ I stood silently for a moment, as a thought struck me.

‘A bargain? Where did you get it?’

‘At the Saturday market in Umbridge.’ The market was notorious for selling cheap imported electrical goods from the far east, most of which had faulty wiring with no earth, and dubious import licenses, and other, heavier, tools that had been chucked out because they were no longer reliable.

‘Right. Your idea?’

‘No, Gina’s. A friend told her about them.

‘Right. Um. And the hedge this afternoon?’ He indicated a hedge-trimmer that lay on the workbench. It was big. Very big. I don’t really know about such things, but it looked as though it was designed for seriously heavy work. ‘Is that electrical?’

‘No, petrol driven. Same as the chainsaw.’ I scratched my chin thoughtfully, and as I did so I gradually became aware of a muffled sound that was not unlike that of an electric drill, coming through the wall from the house. Bob seemed not to notice it, and I decided not to mention it.

‘Bob, were there any instructions with that?’

‘No, but it’ll be easy enough to operate. These things are all quite similar to each other,’ he said, confidently.

‘Do me a favour,’ I pleaded. ‘At least get a book out of the library on this, and learn how to use it before you start.’ He shrugged.

‘If you think it important.’

‘I do, yes.’

We strolled around the garden, and Bob pointed out the jobs and ‘improvements’ that he had been asked to do. Eventually, and much against my better judgement, I have to say, I offered to come and help him, or to at least keep an eye on him. He smiled broadly at this.

‘Great! I’ll get a few beers!’

‘We can have them afterwards,’ I said, hastily.

We went back indoors. In the living room, the shelves were still up, and still filled with books and ornaments. In fact, Gina was in the process of adding more books as we came in. I stared at the shelves, and I stared at Gina, who returned my stare coolly.

The shelves were now perfectly level.