For my next Lockdown Nature Walk (taken on February 10th 2021), I went up Fishchowter’s Lane, an ancient track on the southern side of Totnes. It was a very cold, grey day but I found much that was encouraging and some that wasn’t. After my account of the walk, I have included a poem that feels relevant, “A Backward Spring” by Thomas Hardy.
A jumble of bright green, grass-like leaves spills along a roadside wall near the beginning of Fishchowter’s Lane on the southern edge of Totnes. This is three-cornered garlic and despite the bitter easterly wind, a flower stem has dared to appear among the leaves. Most of the flowers on the stem are still swathed in a pale papery bract but one has escaped, snowy white with a hint of a pale green stripe. For a moment, this fragile flower holds my hope that spring, when it arrives, might lighten this lockdown making it easier to bear.
I begin to walk up the lane past houses and a former quarry, now a dark, fern-fringed grotto occasionally used by a wood worker. Trees grow within the quarry and a group of small birds fusses in the leafless branches. One of these trees, a hazel, drapes over my path casting a mist of yellow catkins that shimmers in the wind.
The lane rises gently along the side of a grassy valley as it enters open countryside and I begin to be aware of a stream rushing along the valley bottom a little way below. I am used to mud on this path but with the recent spell of cold weather, it has frozen hard with reminders of that morning’s snow caught in crevices. At first the lane feels open with views across nearby fields in the valley but soon the character changes. Trees and scrub growing in the path-side soil banks now cover the track giving it a more enclosed, sheltered feel. By late spring, fresh leaves will have created a mysterious green tunnel here but today some light still gets through. With the overcast conditions, though, this is a poor flat light and everything feels rather gloomy.
Despite this, the enclosed track has a feeling of lush green growth. Ferns and wall pennywort cover large areas of the soil banks and have yet to be touched by the cold weather. Shiny arrow head-shaped leaves push up through the soil on the banks and by the path side, some with prominent black spots. These are the leaves of Lords and Ladies whose beacons of orange-red berries will light up the green tunnel in late summer. Groups of pointed leaves like small spears, some spattered with mud are also emerging through the hard soil along the side of the path. Breaking a piece of leaf releases a sharp oniony smell transporting me forwards to a time when these starry-flowered ramsons will capture the edges of the track. Then further along, green mats of oval wavy-edged leaves cover the bank. This is opposite-leaved golden saxifrage an evergreen, damp and shade-loving plant. A few yellow flower stems are already showing, bringing hints of sunshine to the dark track.
The path continues to climb slowly, sometimes enclosed by trees, sometimes more open. A stream running off a steeply sloping field crosses the lane to join the water in the valley and I pass an organic smallholding before the lane rises again to reach a junction where another path crosses at right angles. The junction is set in a peaceful tree-lined glade where water cascades from fields across rocks and old tree stumps before entering a culvert to hurry downhill towards the valley stream. I stand there for a while listening to the ebb and flow of the watery sounds and I try to imagine the people that have walked this way over the years. I also reflect on how, if you walk a path regularly, it can insinuate itself into your life.
Fishchowter’s Lane leaves the tree-lined glade to head steeply upwards across the side of a rising hillside. The path is enclosed by scrub and mature trees and feels rather bleak today. As I climb, the noise of the wind threading through the trees begins to dominate and apart from wall pennywort growing on the soil banks there is little to see except for a few green spikes that may be bluebells. In compensation, the views to the north become increasingly spectacular, across the valley below, to the town of Totnes and further on to the Dartmoor hills.
The lane climbs about 75metres from the watery glade in a short distance so I am relieved when the track levels out. This part of Fishchowter’s Lane is open and airy in spring and summer, its high hedges richly embroidered with wildflowers. Today, though, the plants growing along the banks look damaged. Foxgloves and wall pennywort show this most with their leaves drooping uncharacteristically. I am puzzled by this at first but decide that the recent high winds from the east combined with persistent low temperatures have damaged the lush leaves of plants that grew well in the earlier mild weather. It looks alarming and although it may set back these plants, they will recover and regrow so I press on to the next junction where I turn left along Bowden Lane.
This is a well-used farm track, scarred with deep muddy ruts glinting with shards of ice. It’s another mass of growth in the warmer seasons, abounding with flowers and insects but today it looks apocalyptic. The farmer appears to have decided to rein in the vegetation, flailing the hedge and plants growing there, spreading the cuttings across the high banks that line the lane. A thick brown layer of coarse fragments of wood and leaves covers both sides smothering any new growth, so that the lane looks dead. I don’t hang around here, there is nothing to see, the wind is bitter and a little snow is now falling. The lane ends at a four-way junction and I walk on to the minor road which allows me to descend along Totnes Down Hill. Primroses with their yellow flowers are showing well in the high banks but it is very exposed with more evidence of wind damage.
So, what about my earlier hopes for the arrival of spring? With all this natural and unnatural destruction, all this loss, I can’t help but feel downcast but then I come across a splash of snowdrops growing by the side of the road. As I look at the delicate green markings on these flowers, a great tit sings a joyful “teacher, teacher” from a nearby tree and then a robin appears. Not wishing to be left out, the bird begins to speak to me.
A Backward Spring by Thomas Hardy
The trees are afraid to put forth buds,
And there is timidity in the grass;
The plots lie gray where gouged by spuds,
And whether next week will pass
Free of sly sour winds is the fret of each bush
Of barberry waiting to bloom.
Yet the snowdrop’s face betrays no gloom,
And the primrose pants in its heedless push,
Though the myrtle asks if it’s worth the fight
This year with frost and rime
To venture one more time
On delicate leaves and buttons of white
From the selfsame bough as at last year’s prime,
And never to ruminate on or remember
What happened to it in mid-December.