Monday, 30 December 2013

Thoughts on Forces of Nature on a Wintry Walk - 30.12.13

It was a late departure. It had been pelting with the most attractive rain all morning, and yet, having a few hours to myself in the flat, I delayed going out to enjoy it. At first I thought perhaps I had missed it, but no, it continued pelting. In fact, at one point, and for the first time certainly since we moved here, and maybe in a year or two, I did actually consider turning back, as I contemplated the dampitude of my trousers in the Achilles heel between waterproof anorak and wellingtons. But I am made of sterner stuff, and it was not a choice to be regretted.

I walked up the hill through the playground, thinking, rightly, there would be no one there (apart from a council employee in a van, doing no ostensible work, nor with any work ostensibly to be done) and headed for my favourite subway. Last time - Christmas morning - it was odiferous. Not this time. A veritable torrent was streaming through it. It wasn't flooded, just puddley, and with this really strong current on one side. As it's the lowest point until quite a few yards down the hill, where the water goes is a mystery. As I walked up the slope on the Headington side, I was greeting with not just the rain again, but the traffic spray from the ring-road, flung a good ten or twelve feet from the road itself, and enough to make you soggy. I retreated and took the steps instead. Today at last the final victims of the Christmas weather were reconnected to sources of heat and light in various parts of the country, and it amazes me every time how when nature flexes her muscles, vainglorious humanity is laid low. It's just water, for heaven's sake, but in the right quantities, in the right places, it makes every difference, and there seems to be precious little (at least whilst our rulers remain in Climate Change Denial Mode) we can do about it. There is a nobility in the might of nature to subdue its most powerful child.

And so to Bury Knowle Park, of which I am very fond. A boring vulgar manor house in the middle of Headington, whose only merit is to house the local library, which, alas, is to be known as "Headington Library" rather than "Bury Knowle Library". The house may be plain, but it, and its park, have a pleasing name. My usual bench being occupied by some dastardly interloper, I headed for the perimeter path, one I rarely use, and headed for the Co-Op to buy salt for our dinner (if he's good, I might add food to it), before continuing my peregrination through to Headington Quarry. By now the sun was beginning to shine but the paths and puddles still justified the wellingtons. What was quarried here, apparently, was clay, and the resulting pits have made some very unusual and architecturally interesting dwellings, as every inch of this prime real estate has been turned to suburban profit. It is full of ups and down, unexpected alleyways and turns. Even here, though bourgeois humanity has taken his loot, nature still seems to be calling the shots.

Over the road, and into Risinghurst, the posher part of our bit of "over the ring road" Oxford. A right turn into C S Lewis Way, and so past the writer's house, The Kilns, to his eponymous nature reserve. The Kilns is surprisingly meagre. It's low and squat, with small windows. It has a poorly-attached extension, making it an L-shape on the ground floor. It looks damp. It probably isn't. The notice telling visitors not to knock on the door without making an appointment has been torn up, which seemed meaner than the notice itself. But what the house lacks, the little nature reserve amply compensates for. All of this land was originally Mr Lewis's garden, and other (rather nicer) houses have been built on it too, perhaps providing an endowment for the reserve, and any other favoured projects of a man with no children nor other heirs.

You walk down a muddy path, through a clipped gate, and straight onto a large pond. It's another of those quarry hollows, filled to the brim just now, of course, and surrounded by tall, very English-looking, leaf-bare trees. There was a bike chained to a notice to the right, but no sign of a cyclist, not when I arrived, not when I left. In fact, not a human soul all the time I was there, sitting on a little bench overlooking the pond from its narrow end. The pond is bigger than several tennis courts, but smaller than a football pitch. I may not be a lot of use on scales and distances. And so I sat, thinking my thoughts about something quite other, occasionally noticing the antics of the mallards and moorhens, when a flash of unmistakable blue made me pay attention - a kingfisher. It dived, splashed, bobbed straight up, and disappeared again into the bank opposite. Kingfishers, unlike waterfowl, do not have natural lamination, water makes their feathers damp and heavy, that's why they have to dive, and fly out of the water, so fast. It's also why you never see them bobbing on the water like ducks; they would sink. And then it flew closer. And then very close. Twenty feet away from me, and looking me right down the beak. Stunning awe and wonder. If you've never seen one, they are tinier than you can imagine: apart from the fish-stabbing beak, about the same size as a sparrow, but transfigured by colour, the blue on top, the russet below, the black and the white, and I dare say others in between. They are the most tiny, dazzling, forces of nature you can see. It was about to set off - I wasn't disappointed, this had already been a bonanza of a show - but it hovered instead to a higher branch. It reminded me of the hummingbirds we saw in Brasil, the ferociously beating wings, the absolute control of the air. They call the hummingbird the "beija-flor - the flower-kisser (of course, the verb comes before the noun, rather as when His Lordship says "stop bus", but that's languages for you).

The journey home required another subway trek, this time under the A40, but this one is near the Sandhills Park and Ride commuter and commercial line into Oxford, and out to London, so it's never odiferous. Emerging on the other side, the cold, ferocious winter sun was blindingly bright. It reminded me of the other day in the car when the sun was so fierce that we had to stop the car. The force of nature.

Rain and sun and quarries and kingfishers. What a little creature a man is, and how blest to enjoy them all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2013

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