I was heading towards the track where we walked at the weekend through part of Northam – starting at Goats Hill Road, a road flanked by a somewhat superior housing development on one side and a less superior one on the other, screened along its length by a high prickly hedge. Like many such roads, the name of Goats Hill Road alludes to the not so distant past, very recent in fact, when folks lived and worked in close connection and interaction with the land. A little way down, there is a large notice, saying words to the effect of ‘Private Road. Keep out. Residents Only’. But immediately before this notice is a narrow steep muddy track, leading down through dense overhanging trees and thick tangled undergrowth, and it was here where I had previously led the family for a Sunday afternoon jaunt.
I wanted to do the walk again, with the intention of recording the sound of running water pouring downhill throughout the length of the track and beyond.
My time was limited, as I had an appointment immediately after lunch, but I’d decided I could just about manage to do a round trip down the track and up through the surrounding fields, and reach home again in good time.
I left my house in bright sun, but by the time I had crossed the main road, there was a torrential downpour of rain and hail. Hailstones and rainwater bouncing off the road . I hid in the bus shelter along with someone else, and we agreed it was “Funny old weather”.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it started.
I continued, but had only got a few yards further when I encountered an elderly gentleman carrying two carrier bags of greenery for ‘his birds’. I naturally enquired about them, and heard how he was a registered bird-keeper, and had them in a huge aviary, encouraging them to breed – what were once common garden birds throughout the country, many species of which are now fast disappearing from the scene.
From there, we embarked on a fascinating account of what this part of North Devon looked like before the road was built; stories of a tame raven and a tame fox who regarded the old man’s place as ‘home'; an account of how he had once taken a bullet out of a seal that had got washed up on shore, and nursed it back to health with brandy and warm milk – and of a couple of leopard cubs that nobody knew what to do with, so he had taken them to live with him.
I felt privileged and enthralled to talk with this gentleman, but eventually I continued on my way.
I found the track, sparkling and inviting in the winter sun, and started off. Delicate scents of wet leaves, plants and mud, bright dappled water running fast underfoot, the presence of bushes and trees, intricate tracery of bare branches against the sky, and beyond that, high above, the roar of the wind. Within the enfolding branches and greenery all was quiet, apart from the sounds of running water and a few small birds singing.
I soon added to this by splashing my way down the centre of the path where it was most worn away. Aware of slippery mud, wet leaves, water running downhill over shiny tumbling stones, I walked down through the stream of running water, senses sharpened partly through habit, partly through having to be continually attentive to my feet and the ground underfoot.
Careful, do not slip and fall, don’t get snagged in brambles, don’t drop the recorder in the water. After a time, I stumbled across a small fast running waterfall, gushing down the stony embankment of the pathway, and merging with the main stream. It was here, when I retraced my steps a little to take just one more photo, that I found one of my gloves lying in a pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
I pondered how the houses and bungalows I’d passed had seemed to become less and less solid as I went along, and developed a fleeting cloudy quality in my mind. And as I proceeded further down between the trees, everyday life itself became gradually less significant.
I reached a place I remembered, where there was a junction of steep pathways, two of which I believe led down to the river, one of which led up through steep fields towards home. Here there were several old concrete boulders or bollards, obviously installed there many years ago to block the path and discourage vehicles, but they were now fallen, and covered with thick luxuriant green moss.
There were other signs of previous use too – what appeared to be a spring, emerging from the steep embankment cliff into an oblong trough, and bubbling out again from a hole in the pathway.
As I neared this place, I realised there was no way I could complete my planned journey in time to get back home and set off for my appointment.
So I stopped a while, looking at the disintegrating artefacts from the past – the trough, the spring, the concrete blocks… and attempting to discern what had been occuring here in days gone by, conjuring up visions of horse-drawn carts labouring up the hill from the river, and of the possibility of German troops in WW2, trying to infiltrate the area through Devon’s narrow back lanes, and getting blocked. Flickering dreams from another time-frame, like the modern houses I had passed earlier.
I knew there were sprawling housing developments around me still, never very far away – yet behind the dense trees and tangled undergrowth, I could see nothing. The narrow corridor I had been travelling along felt more real, more powerful and more substantial than any human constructions beyond. Perhaps this was something to do with having the senses fully engaged: feeling alive. Or perhaps it was the clear liquid singing of a couple of woodland birds above my head.
I was surprised to hear the clash and clatter of the local recycling truck within yards of where I was standing – even though it was completely hidden from sight by a tangled mass of trees and overgrown bushes and hedges.
I turned back and returned the way I had come.
Try again tomorrow!