Wednesday, June 03, 2020

the fields

Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Swindon, 3 June 2020.

So here we were in Battle, me and my pal Nick. We moved there, as far as I can work out, around the start of July in 1984; I must have discovered the fields immediately, but I would have missed the flowering of some plants, and others it took me years to discover. So let's think of this period of wandering in the fields, nearly always alone, as lasting from 1984 to 1988, when I bought a flat in St Leonards-on-Sea.

We were supposed to be writing our PhD theses, you may recall; and somehow, we did. We also spent many idle hours messing about, and lots of other things happened in those years. But this evening there's only time for the fields.

The fields were around the back of the small close where my mum and dad had just bought a home to retire to. That was still a few years off. In the meantime it was Nick and I who were lucky enough to live there.

The fields were owned by the local council. Everyone knew there were plans to build on them soon. In the mean time the council wasn't yet so bankrupt that it couldn't afford to pay a farmer to manage them as hay-meadows. Accordingly, they were a colourful sight at this time of year. Most of the fields had masses of Yellow-rattle, mixed with the purple blooms of Knapweed. Sprinkle that picture with Oxeye Daisies and some nice grasses (Crested Dog's-tail, Sweet Vernal-grass), then fill in the gaps with Common Vetch, Tufted Vetch, Meadow Vetchling and Bird's-foot Trefoil; that'll give you a good idea.

This was the ground on which the Norman army mustered, before the battle in 1066.

There were half a dozen fields, but one of the furthest was exceptional; it was on quite a steep slope, going down to a wooded stream. In this field there were all the species I've mentioned, but some others too. In spring a ribbon of Early Purple Orchids would erupt across the upper slope. As summer came on, there'd be hundreds of Common Spotted Orchids, and also a few Twayblades. There was lots of Pignut here; I often dug up, and ate, the root nodules that lay several inches down in the friable soil. There was Fairy Flax and that small relative of broom, Dyer's Greenweed. Hardest to locate, down at the base of the sward, there were a very few Adder's-tongue Ferns; they were the same yellow-green colour as the Twayblades, but were only two or three inches tall.

I spent many hours in those fields, mostly in summer evenings after work. (There was no internet! I had no mobile phone in my pocket!) I came here to smoke, to dream, to think about my passions -- the latest ones were house music and modern poetry --, to agonize about my love life, or to plan the next paragraph, fine-tune an expression.

Not long after I left to live in St Leonards, the hay-making stopped and the fields were allowed to run to waste, gradually becoming full of blackthorn and hawthorn, coarser grasses and stands of taller herbs, impenetrable seas of bramble, and young oaks and birches. The fields became less open,the dog-walkers were confined to a few paths through. Most of the colour departed; I might still find an orchid or two buried among the scrub in the "special field", but the Yellow-rattle vanished entirely; it's a semi-parasite on the roots of grasses and must have been completely dependent on the hay cycle.

I visited Mum and Dad for a lockdown garden visit one day last week, and while I was there we went for a walk in the fields. It's now been 35 years, but the long-expected development still hasn't got going, except that the Battle Methodists, finding their old chapel untenable, built the fine new Emmanuel Centre on the far edge of the fields. (It opened in 2014.)

Around six months ago, however, the route of a future access road was hopefully marked out. Of course there is still a lot of nature here. In fact as the saplings have become trees the appearance of the fields has even begun to improve a bit, in my eyes.  Along the route there were several flat boards lying on the ground. This is to trap the slow-worms and get them out of harm's way; perhaps to the "special field", which has long been designated too steep for houses and I think will become a nature reserve. I don't take it for granted that the estates will start to sprout any time soon, but you never know.

Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Swindon, 3 June 2020.

[I don't think there can be much harm now in referring to my story all about lovely kjell, closely modelled on this time in my life.]


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