COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
IN THE heatwave that arrived on April Fool's Day, rural reserve split open along with the magnolia buds. There were shorts on the street by lunchtime, and shell-suits (a more dubious blooming) by late afternoon. In the evening country pubs that had been driven close to bankruptcy during the dismal winter were packing dining tables into the bars. And the next day I saw something quite special ambling along the lane under conker trees: a young female walker, togged up in the kind of baggy jacket Laurie Lee walked to Spain in, a shirt, loose skirt, lightweight ankle boots with high-grip soles, and a miniature rucksack that looked as if it had been made out of a gingham napkin. It was not, I swear, just my own sap rising. It was her kit. And her pace. She was out for that rarest of things, a long, uncompetitive, luxuriating stroll.

I have a lot of trouble with country clothes, and don't think it is a trivial matter. Clothing is all that mediates between us and raw nature when we're outdoors, and says a lot about how we view the relationship. The poles of rural chic and sensible, clodhopping functionalism - the insular and the aggressively insulated - aren't very encouraging evidence for our supposed new engagement with the environment. My own problem is that I hate dressing up specially to "go out", I can't stand the labour of getting in and out of wellingtons and the muffling, sweaty bundles that even Gortex tops turn into. As a result, I spend a lot of time scraping green lichen off my leather jacket, and mud from shoes that would be more suitable for croquet than woodland tramps.

Spring and summer would be easy, if only it would stay as fine as it was in early April. I would happily spend the next six months in T-shirts and shorts. I don't even object, if it doesn't sound too perverse, to getting roughed up a little. I like walking barefoot. I take atavistic pleasure in bramble rashes. At least they remind you that a body that can seem not only decrepit but invisible in the winter does still exist, and can still do its own running repairs. I suppose something rather like skin - made-to-measure, stretchable, and drip-dry - would be my ideal outdoor garment.

And maybe none of us show enough of the real thing. We have over the past few years heard a great deal about the corrosive and carcinogenic properties of sunshine, but not much about how its action on the skin helps to generate vitamin D and mood- enhancing hormones, or the fact that throughout Europe, levels of cholesterol and heart disease relate more closely to levels of sunshine than to the so-called "Mediterranean diet".

Either way, that early April stroller seemed to have got the relationship right, as has the extraordinary French "free-climber" Catherine Destivelle, who scrambles up impossible rock faces with no safety equipment, in singlet and climbing shoes not much more substantial than slippers. But I would still like to know what she wears on wet winter's hike in the maquis. 8

Ends 535 words date: 5 April 95

Richard Mabey, 10 Cedar Road, Berkhamsted, Herts HP4 2LA

Fax and tel: 0442-863660

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF SAFE RECEIPT WOULD BE APPRECIATED

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