We walked through hail on the Cheviots, those rolling hills that straddle the border between England and Scotland. I was on the southern side, in Northumberland, when big, fat balls of hail began to prick my cheeks like tiny needles. Starting out, it was sunny and cold with no sign of hail as we trudged up through muddy tussocks, over stiles and bridges, and along gorse bordered bridleways. Predictably enough, a herd of Cheviot sheep, bounded by a moss encrusted stonewall, bleated like the discordant wind section of an orchestra tuning up before a performance. These sheep were so white and fluffy they looked as if they’d recently been power-hosed. Large sheep, Cheviots are identifiable by their distinctive white face, head and legs that are wool free, and alert ears pointing upwards. The other giveaway was our location – we were in the Cheviot Hills, after all. Having said that, I’m sure a Suffolk, Texel or any other breed of sheep doesn’t need a passport (yet) to make their way up here.
In our four-hour walk S. and I did not meet one other human soul but we came across plenty of other living creatures. S. was on map duty, he was also the pathfinder, bag carrier, binocular-wearer and all round leader. I was the enthusiastic follower, carrying only my constant question of, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s a Charolais Bull,’ S. told me, when I asked about the white muscular beast – it was disconcertingly close. Happily, Mr. Bull turned and moved off in the opposite direction. Later on S. pointed out a lone Exmoor pony in the distance. We had a debate as to whether or not the horse was bigger than the Cheviot sheep. I thought not. S. explained perspective to me. He got a punch. While still on the flat there were primroses and celandines, fresh nettle growth and robin-run-the-hedge, almost ready to do just that (they call it goosegrass around these parts). Three roe deer grazing in a dip fled when they spotted us – their white rumps disappearing off into a clump of scots pine.
The trees glowed slightly as they do in spring when the sun illuminates the early growth: the palest green of the larch, the velvety moleskin of the willow. Frequent grating cries from pheasants were, by now, easily identifiable. Less so was a plaintive call, a single keening noise coming from a bird hidden in the scrub. As we got closer a covey of grey partridge scrambled out and flew away from us, all clumsy, stuttering and stubby tailed. ‘I’ll soon need a rest,’ I told S. but he urged me to climb a bit further, pointing up to a hill fort, towards some strewn rocks – Iron Age, he assured me. The larks joined us for lunch; ascending, higher, higher, higher, chirping all the while. Restored with hot squash, apples, and date squares we walked along the hill’s ridge. Above us, buzzards were circling, at eye level a pair of curlew rose up from an outcrop, and all around squalls of lapwings flapped aimlessly. I loved the startling bolts of white flashing from under their wings as they tugged in one direction then another, as if unable to decide what direction to fly.
From the north we watched the sky darken. The far distant hills became hazy outlines shrouded in a curtain of damp moving our way. It was time to get down off the hill. Hail is less wet than rain, I told myself, as it bounced on the wire fence sounding like a teaspoon on a wineglass calling for silence. Minutes later it had passed leaving a low rainbow hanging in the corner of a vast sky. I worried about a small dog I could see running through the far field — would it worry the sheep? As my eyes fell into focus I realised it was no dog, but a pair of hares reeling through the grass in some sort of glorious dance. We accidentally took the long way home around a wetland, disturbing two Canada geese that were hunkered down behind delicate white blackthorn blooms. What a racket as they lifted, taking flight. If lapwings are indecisive and Canada geese are raucous then sand martins (yes, they’re back) are elegantly understated. Celebrating their return they swooped and skimmed the still water with a ‘don’t-mind-us’ nonchalance.
One thing is for sure, there’s nothing better for heart and soul than to get your boots dirty.
To a Skylark, by Percy Bysshe Shelly (abridged)
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden light’ning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know;
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.