Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Neil Sentance

Neil Sentance | 28th December 2011

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

I turn left out of our front gate and head up the lane towards the old church. Opposite the old school I take the gap in the dry-stone wall, past a farmyard silage container and start up the brambly corridor to Bothen Hill. It’s a short but steep climb up to the triangulation cairn at 420 feet. Breathless at the top, on clear days you get a panoptical view.

To the south is Lyme Bay, sun-strewn blue, shimmering. Small boats skiff across the bay towards Charmouth, following the line of younger cliffs westwards, from Jurassic to Cretaceous. Vast clouds billowing up from the southwest loom over the harbour village of West Bay with its swish new-build flats incongruous amid the old fishermen’s cottages, concrete rest-homes and fish-and-chip cabins. In January we walked here with our friend Mila, down from London on the bitterest weekend of the year. It was glassily cold as we trudged down to the beach, now an empty quarter, no dog-walkers, no sea-anglers. The whipcord wind lashed straight off the bay, rolling up stony grey waves. Weathering gulls flattened against the sky. We could barely stand in the gale, and Mila was forced to holler, huddled in her cashmere. The light was flat, nordic and reedy. We soon all left for the pub, faces shining.

To the west is the Marshwood Vale, scattered small villages and folding fields and high-banked hedgerows where once Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane went searching for the holloway used as hiding place by the hero in Geoffrey Household’s seminal thriller Rogue Male, set hereabouts… Iron Age hill forts – Coney’s Castle, Lewesdon, Pilsdon Pen – range across to the eastern chalk uplands and earthworks of Eggardon Hill.

To the north a military helicopter sweeps over the hills and woodlands of the borderlands with Somerset, whose villages with postage stamp cricket grounds are where my philosopher pal Nick and I played too few games in the summer. In our forties but far from the oldest in the team, we know we’re never going to be as dashing with the bat or lethal with the ball as we once thought we might have been.

It’s been a year of more shade than light. A tonic has come through walking. Our west Dorset village is networked with narrow paths and sunken lanes, some municipal, some ancient. I clamber up the hill as often as the desk-dictatorship allows. In the summer it’s all vaulting green up here but now in midwinter often as not the fog coils in over the hillsides – on such a day, of the conical Colmers Hill to the southwest, only the tops of the buffeted pines are visible. It’s one in a series of hills that are cut through by the two rivers, the Asker and the Brit. Their confluence is where Bridport grew up, an industrial ropemaking centre since the Middle Ages – it reminds me of a Lancashire mill town without the steeples and stacks. Buzzards circle, tireless, though often mobbed by crows. On a walk in November I could hear one screeching, very close by. As I turned into a thicket of young birches, I saw him, perching, his weight bowing the branches. He clocked me and took off, awkward at first, then imperious on the wing, his cry primordial. I saw him last over toward Eggardon. In September I went with my wife and kids to the kite festival there. Too gusty for kite-flying, our five-year-old took me on a walk of the ramparts, away from the madding crowds. We stopped on a ridge and watched the lapwings tottering over Powerstock Common, green on green.
Filled with the long view, I look downhill into the fore and mid-ground, searching for our house and garden in the valley bottom. There’s another squall veering in. I can just make out the flapping of the asphalt roof of our shed, flailing like a comb-over, exposing the sodden planks – last night’s storm has ripped out the tacking again. I look past the bristling hedgerows of the organic farm and the green woodpeckers rummaging on the ground for ants, and towards the village. I can see along the high paved main street towards the Victorian new church in fine Arts and Crafts style and the cottages of forest marble, the tough limestone quarried locally. Newer houses, creeping bungalow blight, have spread towards the town, itself bulged out of its ancient core in the last four decades and run through by the main road, built over the route of the old seaward railway. Such manic highways are what the writer Michael Smith sees as the modern-day equivalent of medieval open sewers, fumy, littered unplaces.

I turn back to the southeast, looking past the nature reserve, and over fields of huddling sheep, white monoliths on the pasturelands brindled with black rooks. Seagull armies mass on the opposite field, then wheel up the swell of the hillside, over the remnants of strip lynchets, the age-old terracing common in this part of Dorset. A small herd of alpacas graze near an iron-wheeled shepherd’s hut, the type artisans do up as fashionable garden offices. My eye follows the track to the old church, now stranded on the village margins – its stone tower and chancel are all that remain.

It’s time to go home. I take the longer route over the high field towards Shipton Gorge and find the bridlepath. It normally doubles as a water course but is now iced over and I half skate, half tumble back down to the gate and metalled Long Lane. It’s blustering down this way too, dead leaves mashing and telephone wires singing, stridulating. In August I came down here with Alan, our American cousin, watching the miner bees making homes in the friable sandstone banks. He is a Washington lobbyist but workaday hassles fell away as we walked. He first visited here in 1971, a teenager hitching with his older brothers along the southwest coast path. Some things are familiar, he said, but his memories are dim forty years on. He remembers most clearly being chased out of town by locals and hitching a ride to Bath, the full-on olde English tourist experience.

These walks have begun to inscribe a kind of life-geography, an emotional bonding to place. In Scandinavia this type of thing is being used as a psychotherapy, a getting back to earth, a re-grounding in the restorative effects of nature. And amid the furze and copses and wind-ragged thorn trees, you get a taste of what the Japanese have long known of the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, stress management via woodland strolls. It works.