It was as if the rain would never end. The Hooke valley seemed to be slowly filling with water from the bottom up, and the tops of the hills had already dissolved into the sky. There was not a sign of the lively blood-quickening breeze of March, nor the traditional sharp shifts between cloudbursts and sun that we associate with April. This was no April shower, but a soft, solid, silent drench: wall-to-wall drizzle, and no let-up in the grey.
Keats was writing a few miles to our west, and exactly two hundred years ago, but his words could apply just as well to Kingcombe today: ‘You may say what you will of Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod County.’
I found an old holly tree in a coppiced wood with three low branches that crossed each other to form a loose triangle. I poked my umbrella through the middle and opened it above them, then sat down on the damp forest floor. Walking through the open fields of this muddy slipshod county, the steady drizzle on my umbrella had sounded like bacon gently frying. It had intensified, as though someone had turned the gas up, prompting me to take shelter in the wood, and here, under my makeshift shelter, the sound was broken into percussive plinks and plonks as the droplets gathered and fell heavy and singly above me.
‘Horrible weather,’ people had said to me. ‘Not very nice, is it?’ or even simply, ‘You’ve picked a bad day for a walk.’
As I sat like some bedraggled gnome under my nylon toadstool, I wondered about these and other pejoratives that we use to describe our natural surroundings. It wasn’t actually a ‘bad day’ at all. The rain had cleared the stage for me, and being alone in the wide open countryside is one of life’s most precious pleasures, one I treasure all the more for having spent decades in one of the most densely populated – and noisy – places on earth: New Delhi.
And as for the ‘horrible weather’, true it was hardly conducive to sun-bathing, but the all-pervasive wetness had added a glossy coat to every grass blade, every twig and trunk and leaf. The underwater world where I spent my day was far from dull: the colours in fact seemed to be deeper and more intense, as though everything had been laminated.
We bring our meanings to the world, and paint them on like top-coat. I continued to sit, looking out from under my brolly as from the window of a diving bell. A sudden flicker in the branches snagged my attention – but it was only a grey squirrel. And then I caught myself with that ‘only’. Just because it’s common, doesn’t mean to say that it’s – what’s the phrase? – ‘beneath our attention.’ I watched its aerial acrobatics for long minutes, marvelling at the high-speed cornering and breath-taking leaps among the branches overhead.
In all the time I sat in the deep, dank green, I saw nothing more noteworthy than that little grey squirrel, busy doing its little grey squirrel things. It’s enough – actually, it’s more than enough. The longer I sat there, the more the stillness seemed to settle, and the more reluctant I was to break it. It stretched out in all directions, a medium for light waves and sound waves to travel through. Sound travels four times faster through water than air, and though I know my physics is all wrong, it felt like I was sunk deep into that saturated space, listening with my skin.
‘One man’s weed is another’s precious plant,’ said Debbie Billen, who has worked at Kingcombe since the centre opened almost fifteen years ago. Kingcombe is, basically, a ‘weed farm’ – they are its whole raison d’etre. The thistles and buttercups, cow-parsley and sedge, nettles and violets, yellow rattle, orchids and any number of other plants that make up these meadows could so easily have disappeared under the plough – slipping beneath our attention to be tamed by pesticides and force-fed chemical fertilizers. The land round here is known as ‘unimproved grassland’ – a phrase of breath-taking arrogance. Watch out, here comes the Anthropocene, out to improve you out of existence.
Spring was quietly marching on, proceeding northwards at a stately walking pace. The brambles were beginning to sprout tiny green leaves along their spiky dead stems. The trees, still mainly leafless, maintained their wintery silhouettes, but there was a sort of haze, a shimmer, in their upper branches now, like a whisper made visible, the hint of new growth, the gathering of the green storm. It’s been a good year for primroses – they are all over the place, like lace doilies on the sideboard – and under the trees, the leaf mould has entirely disappeared under the dense cross-stitch of dark green leaves. In a few weeks, this place will be carpeted with bluebells and I don’t care if it’s raining – I already can’t wait to come back.