The Needwood Wassail

Two sides bordered by Derby-lands
In the west, dark Bagot’s brooding stands
Trent to the south the flowing lifeblood
‘twixt them all, our fair green wood

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

Our ancient forest calls to the heart
Rich soil, gentle valleys, never to part
Stout oak, lithe hazel, the black elder tree
We raise up our glasses and drink unto thee

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

We, the folk of the five parishes
We, the stewards of the wood, cherish’d
Open up! Open up! And let us all in,
Open up! Open up! Or we’ll make a right din

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

Saved from the axe, saved from the fire
The Needwood is rising, rising like spires
The Winter is going, watch it retreat,
Good health, raise cheer, give thanks for the feast

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

Wæs þu hæl!

The Long Man

Long ManBandy-legged he strides
Through wind-weathered pastures
Tousled haired grasses,
The long fringe of Winter
Blow across his gaze
Sweeping, his clod footed feet
Brush them back
With irritated steps.
Boldy, he bog-hops
Over transient streams
Seasonally available
Like plump strawberries
Or barb beset pineapples;
There is a spring in the long man’s steps –
But Spring is not upon us, not yet
Just this low, long sun of Winter behind him
And those shadows – spreading, stretching
Elongating the everyday.

First swards

First swards_fotor

The first green stripes have appeared, verdant and plump, fluffed up like new pillows from the fizzing barber’s blades; rotary cutters in a cycle of snipping. Clipped edges, scraggily neat, on turf in truth to wet to cut, but it’s a signal all the same, a beacon, that Spring beckons like the first rays of morning light, optimism rising. There’s always one who breaks the seal of Winter first, pitching for a place as gardener of the year, eager to see that thick-pile carpet of grass, moss and daisies, one light, one dark, feathery foot marks following where gumboots amble behind. The real change though is in the air not on the ground. Gone, the crackling dry smells of sharp frosts, cracking wood under sheaves of leaf litter and curling morning mists. In, the rich smells like snapped daffodil stalks, of grass swards, their winter hair army-sheared, their sap freed to storm dark adenoids and wake up the green man within.

Low light

Early morning; it feels like I am heading east
But the low, back-lit winter sun scrambles over the horizon behind me
Sending lighthouse beams skimming over the grass
In a tree, slumbering pigeons blink to life
Chunky grey balls; camouflaged Christmas decorations

Dazzling flares of reflected light dazzle, hillbilly headlights
Mounted on ‘roo bars, off the panes of cheap double glazing
Chickens, loose in a field purr to life like an accelerating motorbike
Off in the distance

IMG_2827_2

Winter Days, Summer Nights

Whilst I am not a fair weather biker, winter cycling does challenge. Inevitably, boisterous walks with our dog or short intense, mist-shrouded runs take their place, exacerbated by a busy pre Christmas business schedule.  Yesterday though I fitted in a short ride: really, it was a late Autumn ride: with a bite to the air and the fallen leaves now a levée of pulped compost damming up behind the kerbstones like snow drifting against an exposed hedge or drystone wall. I wasn’t there, but my dad’s recount of the banks of snow up near Tegg’s Nose in 1956 came to mind, so vivid they were in the telling. Towards the road centre, the leafocaust was less intense, here a collage wallpaper print, the maples particularly picturesque. My tyres were skittish. Later I would buy some new ones to find more grip.

In the evening, I read some old blog posts, one from a now defunct blog I had called ‘The Speed of Bike’.  The contrast in this post was immediate: in a few short weeks the clouds of insects, the warm smells of cropped fields and plump, rich hedgerow fruits, gone,  replaced by the clear starkness and broad horizons of winter.  It is reposted below.

I have a circuit. If Map My Ride can be trusted it’s 15.3 miles but close enough for me to call it 15 allowing for rounding. It’s mainly flat, but not so flat to allow just a cruise. The initial 4 miles are a long drag, more than a false flat, less than a ‘categorised climb’, with a lumpy road surface and regular ripples across the road which make for an uncomfortable hammering for the hands. Then a long section, 8 miles which is flat cruising on resurfaced roads, before a final 3 miles that loops me back into the village. It’s my unthinking route – if I want a quick ride and don’t feel inspired to route plan, or just haven’t got the time, then I set off, happy to be unthinking.

That was my mode last night. A quick gap before tea for a breather. Autopilot on, concentrating on the sensations of the road not the ride itself – it may sound strange, but sometimes there’s equal pleasure in just turning over the pedals. Pulling up not just pushing down; counting revolutions as the tyres gently whirr on the tarmac; feeling the road through your handlebars. There’s a mesmeric intensity to it which takes me to another place.

Last night though, Mother Nature caught me out. Not by a blazing show of power – lightning; hail, brimstone. Rather through the gentle elongated light of Summer. As I pedalled, I tried to think of the words for this piece – but unlike my pedal strokes they didn’t flow in the ‘there and now’. It was a bigger, more holistic impression of ‘this is what makes the British countryside so special’. And it was the light most of all. Even two hours before sun down, the light was low. It stretched everything: trees ran across the fields like the bony hands of a skeleton; buildings were pulled outwards like play dough, with a soft shadow added from photoshop. And the air was still warm, melting away in front of me as I cycled – just like the butter my gran would melt on the side of the stove before dragged her bone-handled palette knife through it for the first round of toast.

And the bugs. Millions of nameless, swirling, random insects pinging off my jacket, leaving small pok-marks as their exoskeleton performed its protective task. So many that at times I had to turn my head away and steer through eyes askance down the road. If there is a Maker and we are all to be judged then I’ll need to confess my sins for the number I unintentionally snuck up and spat out.

At last, home. As the brakes ease me to a standstill, and I clip out of the pedals, the sense of sadness that comes from riding on a long summer evening. Like the Summer evenings of our youth, there is just the lingering desire for it to carry on forever.