It’s seven o’clock and the day is languidly slipping away towards what promises to be a perfect dry-fly evening on the river. Quite a rarity this year with a summer that seems to have been dominated by chilly nights and northerly winds, but for tonight at least, Wiltshire basks in summer. Still, warm, muggy. Good bug weather.
I’ve parked the car tight up against the hedge in a little lane and the sloe heavy thorns skitter screechingly against the passenger window, fingernails on a chalkboard, setting nerves on edge. Out of the rear view mirror the river Wylye wends its way around a wooded meander and out of sight, its surface dark as murder under the trees.
As I shut the door with a noise that definitely doesn’t sound like a golf a pheasant takes off from the hedge in alarm and the dog lead rips through my fingers, I’m nearly pulled over by Mungo and his spaniel instinct to chase. Joe emerges from the back seat, having climbed across and laughs unselfconsciously at the sight of me trying to recover my balance. Days like this are the days when being a dad, single or not, is pure pleasure. When his company means everything and when we get on like two old friends, content in each other’s place in the world.
We take our packs from the ground next to the car, turn away from the river and head for the dusty drove that starts under the railway and threads up onto the downs, leaving the Wylye’s chuckling surface and the swarms of insects collected under the canopy for another day. The evil scientists of Wessex Water (no doubt wearing lab coats and laughing maniacally) have pumped the lifeblood of these rivers away to flush toilets in Bath once more and the rivers are on their bones. Skinny water. When the rivers are this low I tend to leave the fish alone. They have enough to contend with as their environment is denuded of its basic element in the name of profit and too-cheap water. It might be a dry-fly night, but not for me.
The green of the valley fades as we climb, grasses bleached surfer-blonde by the summer, and across the folds of the chalk landscape, the sun casts long shadows over copper corn-covered fields. Each footstep turns over lumps of flint that bounce away with a clatter. For fifteen minutes the only sound is Joe’s whistling and the panting of a happy dog. Up here there’s no road noise, no airplanes, no car alarms; the modern world retreating swiftly as we take the path less travelled.
Just past a broken pair of old pine trees who stand sentinel on a bare chalk ridge, we turn off the droveway and head off piste.
As a child the Dorset countryside was my playground. No-one minded if you roamed wide across fields, woodlands, or streams as long as you shut gates behind you and didn’t get in the way. As I’ve grown older (not grown up, I hasten to add) I’ve noticed that the countryside around me is full of signs telling you what you can’t do, where you can’t go. I’m determined that if I can leave Joe with one positive attitude when one day I pop my clogs it’ll be a healthy disrespect for authority. To question his betters, to take things with a pinch of salt, to challenge. Perhaps most importantly I want to instil in him a real sense that the countryside belongs to him. All of it. Sure it may physically belong to a man called Phillip who wears red trousers and a flat cap, but in spirit this land is Joe’s, mine: ours. I want Joe to simply accept Roger Deakin’s pastoral anarchy as normal, to know that as long as he doesn’t damage places and treats them well, then he should treat them as his own and feel free to pass private signs, to want to know what’s beyond that keep out notice.
So we squeeze past a gate held together with tattered orange baler twine and pick our way through the long nettles and ragwort; off diagonally across an empty field, heading towards the shadowed woodland fringe that angles off towards the city, watermeadows and spire. Joe kicks a puffball and the spores dance on the air, catching the sunlight. For a split second its as if tens of thousands of tiny fey beings are set loose in the world and all three of us stop in our tracks to watch, time forgotten.
Stepping into the young oak woods the wider world disappears as silence envelops us, a profound uncomfortable silence, the trees around us seem to hold their breath, waiting to see what we are about. Each exhaled breath, rustle and snap seems an intrusion into a world where we don’t belong. Without a word we both turn away from the woods centre and snap, crackle and pop our way back. Back to the boundary between light and dark, between an unlimited horizon and a deepening heaviness. We find a clearing in that half-world and stretch our hammocks out in an L shape between two oaks and a gnarled leafless holly. There’s something really special about sleeping in a hammock rather than a tent, you feel much more a part of your surroundings for one, for another it just takes about a minute to be set up or taken down. It’s much easier to be a stealthy ninja camper with a hammock.
I show Joe how to scrape back the soil and we light a small fire in the space between our beds for the night. This small token of humanity, this little flickering fire, transforms the space and it becomes somehow more home.
We sit for a while feeding the flames, chatting about this and that. About the rugby world cup, about festivals, surf trips and whether Joe can come snowboarding in the winter and before you know it it’s nine thirty. The snacks have all gone, the drink bottles are empty and I’ve done quite well at keeping a twelve year old occupied but I can sense a change coming. It’s either bed time or I have to think on my feet. I get Joe to bank the fire, covering it up soundly with the soil we cleared earlier and I zip our bags inside the hammocks and grab the lantern.
I’d forgotten just how hard it was to walk with an unshuttered lantern, my eyes are blinded and I can barely see the ground so give up and turn it off, allowing our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. We head off across the fields, trousers starting to get wet from the settling dew, and down off the chalk back into the valley. I know that somewhere across a few fences and behind another piece of woodland is the Royal Oak, a couple of pints and a game of pool and the walk back up in pitch darkness should add to Joe’s evening nicely.
The bar is busy as we walk in and for once, the air is thick with Wiltshire accents. The agricultural contractors are in off the fields for a drink before going back out to work through the night in their combines and tractors. The cider is good and Joe seems happy listening to the colourful language and seeing this side of the adult world. Time slips by unnoticed, the crowd of contractors thins slowly and soon it’s time to plonk the empty glasses on the bar, nod to the barman and head back into the night.
There’s no moon tonight and the pearly spread of the Milky Way is clearly visible, strewn across the sky until it disappears into the dark negative space of Grovely Woods stretching across the horizon. We pause to hunt glow worms for a while in the starlit flower rich grassland, and I can feel Joe’s smile without having to see it. He’s a different boy away from the TV and Xbox, more content, happy in his skin.
We top the ridge next to the broken pines and look back across the feminine folds of the downs glowing silver in their celestial light. Somewhere over that first shadowed ridge is the Woodford Valley, then Stonehenge, Larkhill, Shrewton; if you throw your imagination far enough it’s chalk all the way to the source of the river Avon up in the hills above the Pewsey Vale.
On the smooth curve of Smithen Down, somewhere up near Newton Barrow we can see the agricultural contractors back at work after their break. Headlights criss-crossing the field harvesting the dry corn, downland for the moment looking like ski piste at night.
Tired but happy we collapse into the hammocks and the fire, revived from its soil bed is fed with some small branches and flickers away merrily, making the shadows of the woodland dance. Mungo is curled up on my feet, content but unsure of this new sleeping position and thus restless.
With a jumpy dog and an excited boy in the camp sleep is fitful. Images flutter in and out my mind throughout the night, mental polaroids caught in the hinterland between sleep and wakefulness; snuffling badgers, hooting owls, a fox right up to the edge of the camp.
At dawn, somewhere between four and five o’clock, there is a moment where golden first-light bounces off the long grass in the field on the edge of the woodland and a young roe deer wanders in and stands silhouetted, ears twitching, body taught. It stops there, sensing our presence but not knowing quite what the smells are for five minutes before Mungo, finally realising what is there, makes a lunge for this new playmate, tearing a section of the hammock on the way.
With the dog calmed down I doze again, hand on his collar until about seven where we pack up the hammocks and walk back through the dew covered grass and down the drove. Beyond the smell of early morning the air is heavy with a dusty musty sweet molasses smell, the scent of the corn being cut and ferried away on distant hills.