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A Sign of the Times

Things are changing around us all the time and when one lives with and through these changes it can be very difficult to tell when they occur.   Changes are more evident and in many cases more startling when one returns to a scene of bygone years, and this has never been made more clear to me than now as I sit beside a signpost in an Essex lane.   It is a contrast so shocking that it has left me quite numb, and it is difficult to understand how not only the facial character, but also the spiritual character of the countryside can be altered beyond recognition.

Some five years ago, I holidayed with friends who lived in south east Essex.   One morning I crossed the meadow at the rear of the cottage and entered Ten Acres which sloped gently to the woods below.   The full heat of the summer had abated to the mildness of early autumn and great mountains of cumulous, creamy topped, towered above me, their shadows coursing silently over the yellow-grey stubble.   Two glistening sea gulls above the oaks did verbal battle with a colony of rooks quarrelling in the elms and, far above, it seemed a thousand larks were singing.   Blackberries, some bright red others over-ripe and heavy with juice, shaded themselves in the hedgerow, and beside a weathered bale of straw, forgotten perhaps or left too wet for carting, a grass snake basked in the sun.

Gazing down the green slope, there came within me a sudden desire to run, to stretch my legs in great leaping strides, to see the hedgerows flash by in a blur and to feel the mild air stream about me.   I wanted to race the wind that went tumbling down the hill to the woods below.   Twenty years earlier the desire would have been satiated without further thought, but time passes and the unconscious brakes of inhibition condemn these simple pleasures to the memory’s store.   For one brief second I was a young boy again about to satisfy a desire, but then all too soon, I was a man again, and grown men are not expected to behave in such a manner.   To see a child walking along the road in an orderly fashion one moment and then break into a mad gallop the next is an occurrence accepted without question, but many an eyebrow would be raised if I were to do such a thing now.   Such are the many simple pleasures we must perforce leave aside as we grow up.   There are of course many other pleasures which take their place, but even so the illogical, spontaneous desires of childhood every so often burst within the heart and flood the mind with memories.

I had reached the wood and was a boy once more.   Gazing above, I felt a sudden desire to reach up and haul myself into the green branches.   One can climb a tree a hundred times and go up and come down a hundred different ways.   I think perhaps it is the additional dimension which gives tree climbing that extra fascination, for if one explores an area of ground, one has but two dimensions to contend with, but up here in a green swaying arbour, one has a third.   In the fullness of summer, high up in the sycamores and the chestnuts, there are green caverns to explore, and the diverging paths that disappear into the foliage above lure one on to the very top where, in green shrouded secrecy, one can survey the surrounding terrain.

To me, and no doubt to a large number of other adults, these things still hold a fascination and most of us are able to fulfil these old desires in one way or another.   It may be by toying with model railways or messing about in boats; it may be by dressing for the local amateur dramatics or taking part in a sport.   On the other hand, it may be by casting a furtive glance over the shoulder and climbing a tree.

After walking for an hour or so, I came upon a signpost beside an open gate and, finally bowing to the truth that I am no longer a boy, I sat beside the gate to rest my weary legs.   The foliage of the countryside had turned a very dark green, almost brown in fact, heralding an early autumn.   The grass between the drills of faded stubble would not grow much higher now.   It had been an early year altogether and quite a large number of farmers had managed a second cut of hay.   Now the harvest was done and the good earth awaited the plough and the frost.   Hawthorn berries were an abundant red across the headland and a distant skein of Friesians grazed their way slowly across the skyline above.   A tit leapt across my view and into a thicket close by and made the shiny red rose-hips dance.   All around was the gentle yet positive movement of life.   It was something to be not only seen, but felt.   Little did I realise then how all this was to be changed.

Now five years have passed and I am once more beside the signpost, but this year the summer has been short.   Already the trees are bare and possess that clipped appearance of a Hilder autumnal study.   The tall grasses in the leafless hedgerows bend stiffly beneath the chilly winds which have been noticeable this past month.   Gone is the suppleness in their sway, gone is the living green from their stems.   Soon a wintry gale will snap and blow them into the ditches to join the ghosts of previous years.   The lanes are filled with dead leaves, but no longer do they echo with the laughter of children as they wade knee deep through them, for nobody comes this way now.   The gate hangs askew on its rusty hinges and needs to be lifted and torn from the coarse grasses which grasp the bottom rail.   Such action however, is not necessary, for although the signpost once read ‘Public Footpath’, no one walks this way now.   The letters are illegible and covered with green lichen, and around its rotting base a small ivy begins to reach for the sky.   The footpath which ran diagonally across the field is no longer to be seen, not that this matters either, for the tiny lane bears no traveller save that of the drifting mists of autumn.

(R.F. Hilder (1905 – 1993), an English marine and landscape artist and book illustrator).

I gazed at the signpost and thought of the sweat that went into the making of it.   Strong backs bent to dig the hole, strong arms lifted the stout wooden post.   A craftsman’s eye morticed in the sign that is as square today as it ever was.   The painted letters have peeled and left but a ghost on the woodwork.   It doesn’t matter anyway, for no one passes this way now.   But it used to lead somewhere.   For someone the sign pointed to journey’s end; once cows scratched their necks upon it and children used it as a target for throwing pebbles.   But now it merely points to the wind.   There is a strange silence in the sky.   No rooks, gulls or larks can I hear; no animals rustling in the hedgerows.   Never have I witnessed such an empty land, a land so void of life and feeling.   Although the wind is cold upon my neck, I cannot hear it in the trees and the dead leaves, sodden from the wandering mists, make no sound as they fling themselves at my boots.   The ditches have filled with rotted vegetation and the water has spread.   Marsh grasses and wild flock have appeared for a brief spell of life.   And brief it will be, for six months from now, the new town will be born.

                Once I worked among green hills
                And as I worked I sang, oh yes
                I sang mid the trees, in echoing woods
                And o’er the dewy fields.

                I sang with the rising lark, whose voice
                Cascaded from above,
                I sang always a joyous song
                Of those things that I love.

                My orchestra came from the wind,
                From trickling brooks and rustling leaves,
                From earth below and all about,
                E’en heaven’s lofty eaves.

                But now my green hills lay beneath
                A glaring concrete face
                And where once sang the blackbird’s heart,
                Ten thousand people pace.

                So now accompaniment have I none,
                Nor reason for to sing.
                My heart they buried ‘neath the stone
                When marched the new town in.


read the collected work as it is published: here




air & branches & seagull wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – gull circling out at sea
autumn & hedge & leaves & trees & wind wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J Redford – Simon Upon The Downs
blackbird & childhood wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – from arm to nature, doing nothing
brown & grey & path & red & silence & yellow wormhole: hello, luvvey, do you want a cup of tea?
change wormhole: reaching branch
clouds & sitting wormhole: and smile / like a bud
echo wormhole: fresh destiny
field wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – I suddenly / remembered
green & sky wormhole: through the pane – poewieview #34
life & mist & time wormhole: AT-tennnnnnnn – waitfrit waitfrit – SHUN!
oak wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – the soft canticle of the gourds:
skyline wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – autumn
walking wormhole: trying to focus / on walking
work wormhole: travel