Under My Feet In the Dark

268984_2030979927480_5213006_nTwilight. Blackberry bushes rustle and white tails flash. Rabbits have probably inhabited the Warren since the Romans introduced them.

The Warren at Folkestone is a Site of Special Scientific Interest between cliffs and the Channel, created by 200 years of coastal land slips from here to Dover.

I must be gone by nightfall. But dusk to dawn, as  nocturnal adventurer Dixe Wills notes in his fascinating book At Night, ‘ … to be honest, is very rarely truly dark in Britain’.

Although far darker than my home some 70 miles north in London, the night will be illuminated by rows of houses behind me and in France, less than half that distance.

Unofficial campsites down in the Warren will glow with bonfires. Some tents house an ever-growing number of homeless people in this deprived town.

After more than five decades here, I can find my way with my eyes shut. So I close them, take off my shoes, and creep forward.

When thick springy grass underfoot changes, becoming sparser with rough patches of bare earth and sharp flints, I’m standing on the site of the Roman Villa. It’s been filled in for protection, kept permanently in the dark.

This special place is bounded by three chess board rooks: Martello Towers built for protection from Napoleonic invaders.

I open my eyes and lick lips dry and salty from the breeze blowing here on even the stillest day inland. I reach out to rub the ribbed stems of shoulder-high Alexanders between my thumb and forefinger. The Romans brought those here too.

Confusing Alexanders with their hemlock cousins worries me. These particular umbellifers are dangerous anyway, because they grow right at the cliff top’s edge, and I shift back from the 100 metre drop.

The information board about the villa site has almost vanished in tangles of brambles. Nowadays it’s on the wrong side of one of the signs WARNING people in big red capitals to keep away from the edge.  Sea water causes the clay of the cliffs to become unstable and it slumps, constantly falling on to the foreshore.

Mr Winbolt was walking in 1923, the board says, when he recognised that the stone drains he came across were Roman. The first excavation began soon after.

I helped on another excavation, a community project nearly ten years ago, when long summer days baked the clay almost too hard to break with mattock or archaeological pointing trowel.

We were literally rushing against time, before the site slips away forever.

Now the sea inhales and exhales waves, as it did for Mr Winbolt and for the Romans who lived here: always changing, and always the same.

A 2nd exercise for new Nature Writing course, City Lit, London 

In Lincoln’s Inn Fields

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Written as a first exercise for a new Nature Writing course at City Lit.

I trudge past an effigy on a bench at the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn Fields: the first of several homeless men. I’m dragging my feet like a toddler, frowning and miserable in damp socks from the April shower earlier this afternoon.

I don’t want to be on this writing class nature walk in London. I do want to be back on holiday in the Chilterns. I want skylark song by hawthorn hedgerows iced with creamy blossom, the ‘tu-whoo’ and ‘kee-wick’ call and response of male and female tawny owls, and roe deer barking in the beech woods.

I picture the aerial ballet of soaring red kites, the wandering toad we found, and the brown hares – all heart-stopping four of them – boxing and jinking in the young wheat.

The mopeds and taxis and delivery vans along Newman’s Row whine and growl, and the first leaf to catch my eye isn’t even real. The frond of fern is stencilled in chocolate powder on cappuccino foam, advertising coffee at the inevitable cafe.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is London’s biggest public square but today it’s a prison, wire fencing encased in tall redbrick and grey buildings. Last time I was here, my husband visited the Royal College of SurgeonsHunterian Museum. I’d stayed outside, revolted by the fake nose of a woman suffering from syphilis, the 18th century skeleton of the so-called Irish Giant, and all the other weird shit that he loves.

The College buildings are shut for renovation until 2020, swathed in scaffolding and grubby plastic sheets. I turn away to crane my neck up at another giant: a London plane tree, as bulbous and deformed as any specimen at the Hunterian.

London planes shelter no wildlife, although grey squirrels may eat their spiky balls of allergy-inducing seeds. It’s not a tree to inspire folklore, unlike my favourite rowan: the Guardian tree of Swedish family gardens.

This monster isn’t the oldest London plane: that tree was planted in Bedford Square around 1789.

Perhaps the surgeon who removed my appendix in 1978 once sat in the shade of this tree. And maybe Miss Adams of Moorfields ate her lunch here. She should have a plaque, like others nearby to former College presidents: ‘Heroic straightener of my daughter’s eyes in two long operations.”

This veteran with its camouflage trunk is a healer too, with that flaky bark combating London’s pollution. “I suppose I rather like you,” I think.

Just along the path, my new classmate Jamie jumps up, child-like, to shake a cherry tree branch. It showers him with pink petal confetti, and I laugh out loud.