The sky is so overcast this morning that Wenlock Edge is shrouded in mist; all that I can see is the hill climbing up to meet it. The rain has just stopped and at first all seems to be still outside. I can hear the sheep calling to one another across the valley and the birds are whistling. When I lean out of the window and sniff the air, it reminds me of staying with my family as a child on the Welsh borders; hay mingled with the scent of grass and the earth. There are five ewes in the field near the farmhouse where we are staying, one is so lame it can hardly walk and it follows the others round at a distance. They don’t wait for it, but leave it to hobble after them.
I see a young house sparrow sitting on the low wall outside the breakfast room. I know it is a baby because its feathers are still fluffy and downy. It comes so close that I can see its breast pumping as it takes a peck of rainwater on its beak. A robin joins it and a curious wren flits about looking for worms or grains of bread to eat. My guess is that they are fed regularly by the woman that lives here. The sparrow takes another perch in the nearby hedge and I notice that there are two more there, so still that you would hardly notice them. A coal tit flies down to the wall for a while and then up to the nearby wainscoting where it can survey all the comings and goings without being seen. It is almost hidden from view there, tucked away. By nine o’clock the mist is lifting and Wenlock Edge is a dark line of trees on the nearby ridge, looking down on the fields.
The sun comes out as we are walking along the disused railway line that used to pass though Much Wenlock on its way to Wellington. It is a relatively flat track and affords easy walking. There are bluebells dotted about, more purple than blue. Their delicately up-curling petals emanate a light scent of sweetness, which you often don’t notice until you have passed them. They are a sign of ancient woodland and, since there have been trees on the Edge for the last 10,000 years or more, this is certainly the case. We pass a pile of recently cut logs, probably left there by the National Trust before they are transported to its Dudmaston Estate. I am in Shropshire to research for my book on Chalara dieback of ash, also known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The book is called Epitaph for the Ash and most chapters deal with a different area where ash dieback has arrived or where ash features. Ash trees are the predominant species along Wenlock Edge and although it is free from ash dieback for now, it is only a matter of time before it arrives.
We traverse an old railway bridge which goes across the lane that we drove up only about half an hour ago, and I doubt whether anyone else has been that way since we did. Not many people frequent rural Shropshire. Ours was probably the only car to pass that way. An orange-tipped butterfly lands on a leaf in front of me and when it closes its wings it is almost hidden from view. The underside is dappled white and black to camouflage it from predators. It is the first butterfly of spring for me, and my heart lifts with it.
The trees disappear on the right hand side and we can see the view below. We sit on a log and two riders pass by on white horses. They are chatting and their voices carry on the air, getting fainter and fainter. Below us is an oak tree alone in the middle of a field of grass, its branches twisting under the weight of its new leaves. The tree is obviously self-seeded. Farmers often leave one tree to grow because it acts as a landmark and helps the farmer’s perspective; he or she can measure how much of the field they’ve got left to plough by how many times they’ve passed the tree. Or perhaps they think it is beautiful; we never think of that.
The hills of Church Stretton rise to the west like bread dough and there’s a veil of yellow dandelions on a nearby slope. A strip of light moves towards us across a field of rippling grass, the shadow of a cloud. Some small fir trees shelter a greenhouse and wire frames that will have vegetables growing up them soon. It is so lovely to see this fresh spring day because I didn’t know that I would enjoy such a sight again. This is the first time I’ve written for Caught by the River since I had an operation to remove part of a benign brain tumour at the end of 2013. The right hand side of my brain was frozen after two procedures and I’ve spent more than a year learning to walk and talk again. It was called an acoustic neuroma, but fortunately is very rare.
We walk on under the now hot sun, so warm that I have to take off my jumper. We turn off the main track when there is a sign saying public access isn’t allowed, and we go uphill along a narrow path. There is a whitebeam tree whose leaves create a mottled shadow on the forest floor. The white flowers with their five petals and yellow heart light up the trees. I smell a few of its white flowers but there is no scent.
After an hour we return to sit on the same log to eat our lunch but rain is threatening so we have to eat quickly. We watch clouds gathering and rain falling to the east in a patch, but none falls where we are. The fields going up the hill, further away, are in shadow and the trees are darker there. Some of the trees are rounded in shape and a lighter green, whereas some are conical.
The same riders pass us by on their way back. The man asks us if anything has changed as though we have been there all the time. We call after him that we have walked further and just sat down again, but he has passed. I don’t care if it looks to other people as though we haven’t moved; all I care about is that this fresh spring day might last forever. Such a lot happens in a short space of time when we aren’t really looking.