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Thursday, 3 November 2016

On Bell Hill

I had been looking forward to being at Rock Cottage. A solace for leaving beloved Greece. Amy had already sent us a photo via Facebook.
'We can finally see Ross after 4 hours of motorway hell 😆YAY!' Amy and family approaching the Forest of Dean

On FFriday evening of half-term week Lin and I joined the family in a cottage already warmed for two days.
"The heating's working a dream. Your shower is just brilliant" said Guy.
I begin to feel that Rock Cottage, so neglected for over five years, is becoming a home again. Our children knew it as babies and toddlers and now our grandchildren are sleeping here. Our dear friends Martin and Sandra and their son Adam and his fellow workers have transformed the place, which was not only suffering our neglect, but also the cod-work of our ill-chosen builder, Royston, with whom I parted company over two years ago over a series of new windows that he...why go on? The windows are fine now, frames sealed with improved opening. The kitchen and bathroom are in almost full working order, as ditto bedrooms and sitting room.
Amy's second photo - Oscar curled by the wood stove at Rock Cottage

In the morning I inspected Craig's strimming, lopping and uprooting in the garden - clearing a jungle of weed shrubbery, brambles and saplings back to the older contours of three dry-stone walled terraces. We're getting back to the half acre allotment that surrounds us on the steep sides of Bell Hill. I'm bathing in unashamed nostalgia, hoping that we will make this our 'place' again. As enjoyed and loved as Handsworth and Ano Korakiana, by the whole family. So - yes - I was pleased when my son Richard, just back from Vietnam, phoned and asked for the keys so he could come down with E on the evening the rest of us returned to Birmingham.
The grand-children are a challenge. Playing, arguing, noise and mess-making with unabatable energy. On Sunday morning I set out to walk with Oliver - 'wear him out' I thought - up Bell Hill, the tree covered slope that ascends the west side of Lydbrook.
"First we get sticks. You can't go for a good walk without sticks"
I cut and tidied two - smaller for Ollie - from a hazel cluster by our path, as we set out up through the tall slender beech trees on the margins of the forest, the houses of the village receding below.
Oliver, 4 years old now, on Bell Hill

The steeper slope levelled off as we passed the old ruined house. Recalling past stories told me I told Oliver of an old lady used to live there.
"Every day she went to the bottom of the hill and came back with a pail of water. Old Mrs Cook"
He asked questions about her which I dodged and invented. Rather he ask questions than be uninterested in things I point out, or he notes, on our walks. I frame my answers, to keep our conversation going; Chinese whispers over time, amplifying, distorting and confusing, but conveying seeds of history, a scent of madeleines, 'the echo of great spaces traversed'.
Next time we make this walk I'll suggest to Oliver that Mr. Cook was a 'bodger'.
"You see these tall trees. Beech trees. See their leaves all around. See the little nuts, Beech mast. They used to cut these trees before they grew so big to make chairs - wheel-backs, Windsor carvers"
We came to a level stretch, narrow beside a wire fence, broken in places, with, on the other side, the remains of dry stone walls, then, almost hidden behind the remaining greenery of Autumn, the tiers wrecked cars that Nigel Aston has long stored up here, sinking mossy and rusting into the landscape. Then we're onto a lane high above the village with a few houses...
"It's called Uphill Road"
"I'm not answering that, Ollie!"
...before taking the narrow path that leads on up the rest of the hill. Here the trees become forestry spruce, occasional chestnuts, mixed with birch - their small brown-yellow leaves falling like snow when, for my pleasure and Oliver's, I tap the sapling trunks with my stick. Along the path are the prickly husks of fallen chestnuts, marked by the rooting of wild boar. The forest population of wild boar has increases vigorously since the haphazard introduction of about 40 farmed boar to the Forest in 2004.
Two people with dogs on leads walk towards us.
"Get Oscar and Cookie on their leads!"
They pass us with smiles.
"Nice morning."
"Yes it is"
"I'm earlier than I expected. Forgot the clocks went back this morning"
At last we're at the top of the hill, looking over fields, one with sheep; in the far distance horses grazing and a tractor pulling a plough on the slope below English Bicknor. I take my grandson through the rules - the gate rules, the sheep rules.
"A dog that worries sheep can be shot. Always watch out for sheep and other farm animals in the fields"
We see a herd of Welsh cattle - black bullock, or perhaps heifers, silhouetted in a field on our left as we start to walk downhill towards Eastbach.
"Come up! Come up!" I shout and they raise their heads and consider investigating us.
"Can you smell them?"  I can sense their rank from here on a small shifting breeze.

Oliver runs down the sloping road to Eastbach.
"Oi! Watch out for cars!" I shout.
He pauses, sensible. And indeed a few cars edge by us on the narrow road until we come to the old milestone that says, in carving. 'London 122 miles. Gloste'r 17'

We wwalk by Eastbach Court, a house of enviable elegant beauty, about which Lin says "When we win the lottery..." I lift Oliver up to see the manicured lawn, a bronze hind, and swings hung from a tall fir branch.

A public footpath beside the house's northern boundary turns off the road, curving back up to the top of Bell Hill.
"We've come about half way"
There's a small air strip with hangars on the hill top. We can see a wind sock stirring in the distance. At the gate the dogs go on their leads. I half hope Oliver will see a small plane come bouncing in at 40mph. They often fly on Sundays. As it is I let him peer through a tiny gap in a hangar door.
"I can see an aeroplane!"
Another stile brings us to the last meadow before getting back to the cottage. I lift the dogs over; let them free again. They listen to my voice and note my whistle, and seem utterly at home, getting soaked nosing in the tall grass. It's still a time of year for ticks, so remember to check when we get home...
 ...Oliver, fooling around, falls over and cries.
"Get up and stop that noise" I say, giving him a momentary hug. So we come to a steep part of our walk as the fields re-join the hanger woods. In my old age I have to take this part carefully less I fall arse over tip. My stick helps.
"When your mum was about 12 years old she persuaded me to walk home from Monmouth - ten miles away. When we got to this field the light had gone. I couldn't see a thing. She held my hand for a hundred yards."

Oliver and the dogs descend heedless to the lychgate that leads into the path that takes us, in a few yards, to Rock Cottage, where the dogs get a good towelling before drying themselves in front of the fire.
*** *** ***
Richard Pine's latest Irish Times article from Greece:
'....It’s actually surprising that life continues at all, since the heartbeat seems to have gone out of the country. But it is the resilience of the Greek spirit, and its resistance to external pressure, that keeps that heart ticking over, even imperceptibly.
One can only conclude that this is not a brave new world but a global pandemic of fear-driven entropy. To paraphrase Seán O’Casey, observers can confidently say: “The whole world’s in a terrible state of stasis.” To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, politicians can safely adopt the maxim: “Whatever you do, do nothing.” '

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Simon Baddeley