COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
WHEN a photographer friend - now sadly dead - moved to a patch of wild country in Wales, he tried to get his 30 acres of land allowed as a tax deductible expense, on the grounds that it was really an enormous outdoor studio. His ploy failed; but I still admire his insistence that unquantifiable features of your home patch can also be the raw materials for your work. I've lived in the same patch of the Chilterns for most of my life. I even own a bit of it, a clump of ancient woodland that I blew my savings on 12 years ago. This is my roots country, and I have feelings for it that are more complicated than love. They are territorial, sentimental, busybody, and often irrationally fierce. I pad around some part of it most days like a kind of hedge- squire,checking my estate: trees blown down, liberties taken by farmers, birds arrived, flowers out. Yet I know that I'm hunter-gathering copy at the same time, and that I can't separate my need for continuity from professional curiosity.

I used to meet other walkers on these journeys, but they become fewer by the week. Berkhamsted, our country town, has just been by-passed, and things are different on its boundaries now: footpaths are blocked, lanes dead-ended, and people who once frequented the land beyond the houses now by-pass their customary lives as well as the grid-locked High Street. What I can only describe as rural-urban myths are filling the vacuum. Woods are full of imaginary muggers and rapists. The edible dormice (vegetarians to a soul) that move shiftily out of them are lurking in lofts and allegedly murdering starlings. When I come just a mile down the hill with quite mundane reports from the borderlands, I sometimes feel like an explorer bringing back fantastic stories of floods and prodigious appearances. No one really believes that I saw one of our last real squires shovelling a pile of girlie magazines from the edge of his wood as routinely as if he were gathering leaf-mould.

The badgers have got the worst of the by-pass. They are deeply territorial, dis-inclined to change their setts and traditional hunting routes, and though a few underpasses have been provided for them, they are slaughtered on the road by the dozen. A few weeks ago there was a terrible commotion at 2am in our front garden. We thought it was burglars, but down below, silvery in the light of a street lamp, were three large badgers - one trying to get under my car, another digging up the lawn, the other sitting bizarrely on the wall. Then the three ambled off, reminding me of a closing scene from Last of the Summer Wine. One of them never made it back across the main road.

But I've no cause to be self-righteous. I use the bypass too, as a short cut to my wood, and it occurs to me that getting the balance right between the metaphorical Short Cut and The Long Way Round is what those of us who live in the borderlands between town and deep country have constantly to search for. !

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