Living in the countryside at this point in the calendar year is a treat. We’re in the depths of Spring; everywhere, there is life stirring. The hedges are full of wildflowers, and in the cool green dampness of the woods, clusters of bright daffodils glitter like treasure. Across from my sister’s house, the creamy-coloured 13th century church sits in the sparkling lushness of its lawns, where the primroses are scattered like yellow confetti. Beyond the graveyard, in the rolling open pastures, sheep graze lazily against the shimmering backdrop of the distant London skyline. The fields are newly ploughed; furrows of peaty, iron-scented earth stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. On our walks with the dog, we rummage for shattered remnants of the past, our pockets filling with bits of blue-and-white crockery.
My favourite walk takes us down the lanes and into the undulating land that surrounds the Chevening estate. The footpath leads around the front of Chevening house, which is never open to the public, and provides a fantastic view down to this beautiful mansion that many believe was Jane Austen’s inspiration for Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s house in Pride and Prejudice; Austen’s uncle was the vicar at Chevening church, and she visited on several occasions. The hilly landscape here offers wonderful, sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, before taking you up into a great expanse of woodland. Filled with the rustling of squirrels and rabbits, and the singing of birds, it is a haven for wildlife. At this time of year, the air is filled with the scent of wild garlic, which we pick to make pesto when we get home. Beneath the trees are cluster after cluster of the thin bright green leaves of bluebells; soon, they will burst into brilliant life, and the entire wood will become a sweet-scented carpet of almost ethereal violet-blue. Next week, perhaps, the show will begin.
Once we are almost back in my sister’s village, we pass the shattered, overgrown remnants of the enormous Victorian mansion that was torn down after the war (I wrote about this before, here). February’s storms have wrought immense damage in this part of the wood; the ornamental trees that belonged to the mansion’s gardens mixed in with the native species have not fared well and many have come crashing down. On our last walk, we saw that a felled giant Cedar of Lebanon had demolished a huge section of fencing by the footpath, making it possible to enter a section of the wood that is usually inaccessible. Rather naughtily, I climbed through the gap in the fence and found myself face-to-face with the ruins of some sort of building. The roof had fallen in, but I could still see the edges of the floor; tiny black and white mosaic trimmed with Royal Doulton ridged, non-slip tiles. This was similar to the changing rooms I had found on my previous adventure in the woods, when I came across the debris-filled swimming pool and its ancillary buildings. I couldn’t work out how close to this we were, but I didn’t think I was too far, and so couldn’t help but think this had to be some sort of bathing-related facility. A closer look at the round walls, which had little openings around the bottom, made me wonder whether this had perhaps been a sauna or steam room. An exciting discovery! Perhaps one day I’ll be able to find a map of the old grounds and discover exactly how the now overgrown landscape once looked.
Last night, we took the dog out for her walk through the woods. The sinking rays of the sun were flashing through the trees and a mist was rising as the heat of the day receded. My sister and I were chatting, not really paying any attention to our surroundings, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a herd of deer came galloping out of the mist across our path and disappeared into the distance. They were gone in a blink of an eye, and it felt like a brief glimpse of something from another world. As we returned home via the road, we looked across the hills beyond and saw London sparkling in the distance, each glittering building clearly defined. Normally we can’t see this view because of the perpetual smog and haze that covers London; after almost a month of restrictions on travel and the shut down of a lot of industries, the difference in the amount of pollution is startlingly visible.
Out here in the middle of nowhere, life is slower, simpler, more serene. In the background, rather than traffic and sirens, there is simply birdsong. The nights are steeped in silence. In the evenings, rather than going to the theatre, or a restaurant, I watch the sun setting over the fields in a glory of red and gold. During the days, I look forward to my walk in the woods, looking out excitedly for that first pop of colour that will signal the bluebells coming into season. With nothing else to distract me, I notice every flower, every tree, every daily change in the landscape as Spring marches on apace across the countryside. I breathe in fresh, earthy air that comes from a clear, plane-less sky. There are hardly any cars on the road. The only shop open is the local garden centre, which now resembles a Victorian grocers, its selection of locally grown produce a lifeline for the village. I feel like I’ve stumbled into the past. Strangely enough, I don’t mind staying here for a while.