Rural: How to catch up with the local gossip

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The Independent Online
There is no better antidote for overeating than a sharp winter walk; but the exercise, welcome in itself, becomes much more rewarding if the route takes in points at which work has been in train. Call it snooping, if you like - but it is always good fun to discover who has been doing what, and how much progress has been made.

Uphill we go, then, across our top field. There the only recent labour has been carried out by moles, but some of the fresh heaps are a puzzle in themselves, being a dark, chocolaty colour, in contrast to the sandier brown of those on other parts of the hill. Does this mean that some of this steep ground was once cultivated - perhaps even that it was a vegetable garden? We know from old maps that two cottages stood on the lower edge of the wood, and normally the only ghosts of former gardens are the snowdrops which burst out in spring. Maybe, these rich-looking molehills are further evidence of former horticultural effort.

At the top of the wood, a local contractor has started thinning. The job is 20 years overdue: the coppiced ash and chestnut have grown so tall and spindly that any trees left will almost certainly blow down in a gale. Nevertheless, they make good firewood. The trouble is that the site is an awkward one, with egress only on to an extremely steep lane. Every time the tractor rolls out of the wood with a load, its wheels spread mud over the tarmac, so that the one-in-four pitch has become greased with a treacherous film, which has car-tyres scrabbling as drivers accelerate in low gear.

A few yards from the thinning-site lies an object which, I am glad to find, has gone nowhere and done nothing since I last saw it. A lump of limestone twice the size of a football and weighing about 50lb, it is rough and broken on one side, but smoothly rounded on the other, with many parallel grooves which look as though they have been carved to represent the coat of an animal. It may be natural, but in my imagination it is part of the backside of a lion statue carved by Romans, who were thick on the ground in the parts early in the first millennium.

In the field beyond the wood, oilseed rape is growing furiously, fuelled by the downpours of November, and has reached proportions outrageous for the time of year. It is already a foot high, which means it will come into flower with the first warmth of summer - a consequence highly vexatious to me, as it means my bees will feast on it early and produce honey that is so hard that it is almost impossible to extract from the comb.

The next field is winter wheat, also growing strongly, and beyond that, round the shoulder of the hill, lies a banky meadow too steep and rough to be anything but grass. Here, a year ago, the farmer-owner - an incorrigible earth-mover - carried out extensive hydrological improvements, digging long trenches and laying pipes to duct water away from a spring.

Until he tackled the project, the spring merely oozed out of the ground, creating a bog all round, and there were no drinking-troughs for cattle. Now an ingenious combination of catchment pipes, header-tanks and overflows has drained the boggy patch, and keeps two troughs full of gin-clear water. The work itself created a hideous mess, but the ditches have grown over again so well that you can hardly see where they run.

At the head of this same field is the farmer's piece de resistance - a small lake that he and his son created. Here it was, while they were trying to clear out a marshy hollow beside the stream, that their bulldozer suddenly began sinking so fast that the driver had to jump upwards, out of his seat, to avoid being engulfed in slime.

Further excavation revealed that they had blundered into the site of an ancient millpond. Here, too, all the mud-pushing created temporary havoc, but today the lake is a picture.

Four mallard rise from the surface as we appear. The stream gushes in over a little waterfall at the far side. At the near end, a yard or two out from the curved retaining dam, a wide-mouthed, vertical pipe swallows the outflow, which disappears straight downwards with a pleasing roar to rejoin the stream. Fresh-grown grass has knitted up the banks, and the water, when seen from above, has that wonderful grey-blue-green tinge that one associates with alpine rivers.

The spring which fuels the stream and fills the lake is running strongly now. But locals recall that, a generation ago, it was a bigger river altogether, and speak gloomily about what abstraction far afield is doing to our water table.

Further round the banks that form the head of the valley, the same farmer has been rebuilding a section of dry-stone wall. In the past few days he has made good progress, and his neat courses reach to within a few inches of the height he needs. But this is a Sisyphean task: no sooner has he reconstructed one stretch than another goes down - evidence of the physical power of the elements. Wind-driven rain penetrates the surface, and frost explodes the stone, reducing it to rubble and causing a collapse.

Now we are swinging downhill, left-handed, through another wood. Back in the shelter of the valley, where the wind is less fierce, we have one last port of call to check. The patch of bare earth at the foot of an oak tree might not strike a stranger as very interesting; but this is a spot on which, for some reason, roe deer like to stand - and sure enough, fresh droppings show that a doe and her kid were here in the night.

By the time we are home again, with three miles behind us, I feel not only stretched, but also comforted by the impression that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of local events.