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. !Reuse content