and had the space and time to write away, discovered a liking for writing before breakfast.. partly to get homework done, but also because I felt quite creative in the half dream like wakening state.
Here follow three pieces that I completed whilst at Totleigh...
‘What’s the difference between a hedge and a hedgerow?’ shouted Mortimer.
Hmmn, thanks for that Mortimer. My American friend has an uncanny knack of homing in on the niceties of the English thesaurus.
There are some ancient hedgerows in Devon, some that were laid by the rolling English serf alongside the rolling English byways. Mortimer and I are bowling along on a galaxy, a tandem courtesy of Devonian Cycle hire of Exeter.
‘Hedges are shorter,’ I blagged.
Mortimer’s key utterances that he repeats with a near irritating regularity are the expressions of good humoured but mild scepticism, ‘oh, OK,’ and the rather more enthusiastic, ‘that is so neat.’
Neat the hedgerows are not. I explain the theory of dating hedgerows in England. Fifty years for every species of established flora along a run of fifty yards. Mortimer slams on the brakes, in an unquestionably American thirst to put the theory to the test.
OK, there’s elder, blackthorn, hawthorn, oak, bramble (with berries still worth tasting this late in September), there’s nettle, cow parsley, garlic, bindweed, buddleia, willow herb, ragwort, many other worts.
‘What’s this wort?’ asks Mortimer innocently.
‘About ten cents a bunch.’
We reckon this section of hedge from Sheepwash to Totleigh is over 800 years old.
‘Wow, that is so neat,’ enthuses Mortimer, predictably.
The best bit about riding a bike, and even pedalling a tandem behind an eager American, is the silent gliding along the country roads so that wildlife in its myriad forms doesn’t hear you coming. On various rides the fauna I have snuck up on have included moose, buzzards, white tailed deer, racoon, chipmunks, armadillo and alarmingly, though harmlessly, a couple of rattlesnakes.
Here we turn a corner to surprise a Friesian munching the top leaves of the hawthorn hedge.
Riding a bike also puts you on a slightly but significantly higher plane than sitting in a car. You can see over the hedgerows, and horizons are set back beyond the foreground fields. You feel part of the landscape, and the hedgerow doesn’t divide you from the wider perspective.
Mortimer falls silent for a moment. There’s a yellowhammer, ‘a little bit of butter but no cheese.’ And further along a bunch of chaffinches, flashing pink and grey.
I attempt a little history, and explain to Mortimer the importance of hedges that were laid at the time of enclosure. Common land that was claimed by the manorial landowners and put to pasture for sheep and cattle. I venture a little poetry.
‘Enclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of workers’ rights and made the poor a slave.’
‘John Clare,’ I explain.
The hedgerow has been flayed along a short section beyond an oak copse. The raw stumps of elder and thorn have been shredded rather than cut. The top surface is cropped as neat as a recruit to the US Army Corps, but we share a collective mutter of disapproval.
Mortimer’s original question about distinguishing hedges and hedgerows has hung around like the weather. The Great Hedge of India, I explain to Mortimer, was a thousand miles long north to south, planted by the British in the 18th century as an emblem of colonial control. In China the Han dynasty built the Great Wall, a feature so vast it can be seen from space; at the outposts of the Roman Empire, Hadrian built a wall to keep out the picts. What do the Brits do? They grow a hedge.
‘Oh, OK,’ adds Mortimer.
We reach the end of a hedgerow, and turn the corner. We sneak up on the good villagers of Sheepwash celebrating their award as Devon’s best kept village. The pub is open all day.
‘Fancy a pint, Mortimer?’
‘That would be so neat.’
Slippery when wet
- a confessional
I’m in love with a wrasse.
Which is a bit like saying I’ve fallen head over heels for a three-toed sloth, or, methought I was enamoured of an ass. It’s one of those, ‘what can he possibly see in her, she’s not even the same species?’ things.
My love is unrequited.
The wrasse is swimming in blissful ignorance of my doting (or should I say ‘dotage’?) over the northern arm of the Great Barrier Reef off Port Douglas in Queensland.
We met through a dating agency, an outfit targeting the over forties called Reef Tours, You’ll Love It. They operate an internet site called Plentymorefishinthesea.com. Once I had trawled through their prospectus I was hooked. Sadly, though I didn’t know this at the time, the wrasse wasn’t.
However, nothing daunted I set out to meet the lovely on a kind of blind date; blind in the sense that I didn’t know if she would turn up, and she didn’t know what I was.
Reef Tours sail out of Port Douglas, famed for its Seven Mile Beach where I had already set out my stall with a spell of nude sunbathing, without success; apart, that is, from the lifeguard who ordered me back into my shorts.
So hopes were as high as the midday sun as we set sail. I’d already noticed that the sun was crossing the sky from right to left, and as a dedicated heliotrope took this as an omen of good cheer. Today I would see the object of my heart’s passionate longing.
We buffeted over the waves to the rendezvous, accompanied by a school of Hector’s dolphins. I’m overcome with the frisson of anticipation. Dolphins are fine, but I wouldn’t want to swim with one. It’s only the wrasse I desire.
There are a few other companions on this date; we all don our special love-gear. Despite avowing that my body was a lycra-free zone, for this liaison I am prepared to put on the figure-hugging neoprene. I tense my shoulders in a flutter of naughtiness.
I slide into the warm and wet like a sensuous… thing.
Then suddenly, as I splutter uncontrollably with a face-mask filled with water, there she is, my glorious painted lady, coquettish, fluttering flirtatious, finny, luminous marbled flank, blue lips, ah those lascivious lips.. I was transported instantly to a nirvana of ecstasy.
She shimmers in aquamarine and emerald, pink around the gills, translucent ivory tail and dorsal fins. And big, she’s a stupendous, luxurious, firm, heavy, wrasse. About my size in fact.
Oh my love, I drown in your rhythmic hypnotic curves. She nuzzles my hand, then turns back to the reef.
My mask fills with water again, and I kick, break the surface, grasping the air.
Turning, face down, snorkel erect, I return to my amorous wallowing.
The reef vibrates with the myriad life forms, but my love is gone, a haze of plankton occupies the void.
The wrasse, as they say, is history.
One of the least attractive aspects of riding a bicycle along the highways and byways of the world is the closeness it affords you to the many and various life forms that meet their maker trying to emulate the chicken by getting to the other side of the road.
I’ve made a detailed study of road kills over many years and across three continents; and these are my findings.
1 In Britain the most common road kills are hedgehogs and rabbits; in France they are industrial gloves, and in the US bungie ropes are the most common.
2 In New Zealand road kills accounted for the rapid decline in kiwi numbers before it was noticed that they were mimicking the human tradition of pressing noses against all visitors in welcome. A similar study in Glasgow observed the head butt offered in greeting by Rangers’ supporters that led to the wrecking of numerous four-wheel-drive vehicles on the M8.
3 In the United States snakes often pretend to be dead bungie ropes – do not be fooled. Snakes are unreliable as fastenings for your tent or pannier bags. They also do not stretch thus making them useless as drying lines for your smalls.
4 The industrial gloves that constitute the majority of French road kills are almost always left-handed, and made of heavy duty red rubber. Black or brown gloves, right handers and those made of leather are rare, and highly prized, especially by the chefs and restaurateurs of the Dordoigne.
5 The bad sight of any ride is likely to be the road kill that started its crossing carrying or under its own shell; examples include tortoises, armadillos and green lipped mussels. The mussels can sometimes be retrieved and steamed with a little stock or white wine. Tortoises and armadillos are spectacular in their squashed grimness. They also go off very rapidly, so it is better to come across these road kills as fresh as possible, even to the extent of running over them yourself.
6 Don’t try and run over a tortoise or armadillo on a bicycle.
7 In Idaho you can claim road kills and trade them in, but see 3 above regarding snakes – in 2003 the going rates included $5 for a racoon, $10 for a coyote and $50 for a democrat; bears could also be traded in for $25.
8 Don’t try and run over a bear on a bicycle.
9 It is believed that rabbits in England have learned to crouch low with their ears in the non-erect position between the oncoming headlights, a position known as tharn. It is also thought that this explains the high number of rabbit road kills just outside the Reliant Robin factory in Tamworth.
10 Don’t get too upset by road kills; they are part of the rich red tapestry that is travel and have been since the dawn of civilisation, and even before that when Neanderthal man was run over by Eddie Stobart on the Preston By-pass.