country Matters:How changed is my valley

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The Independent Online
Most people of a certain age realise how risky it is to delve back into their past, or to revisit places in which they have been happy; but few have expressed the emotional dangers more poignantly than Charles Tennyson Turner, the Victorian poet ( and elder brother of Alfred, Lord Tennyson), whose sonnet "Time and Twilight" begins: In the dark twilight of an autumn morn, I stood within a little country town, Where from a long-acquainted path went down To the dear village haunts where I was born.

An anonymous voice advises the poet not to seek "regrets which are not thrust upon thee", considers him bold to trust his "woe-worn thoughts among those roaring trees", and ends with the warning: ...Is't no crime To rush by night into the arms of time?

Well, this week I took a rush into the arms of time. Admittedly my main motive was prosaic - to help a friend with his deer cull - but also I longed to see once again the woods in which I had spent much of my life.

Nine years had passed since I last set foot in them, and the circumstances of my return seemed to fit the poem with uncanny precision. My friend and I met in the inky blackness of a winter morn, and as we went down a long-acquainted path, the beech treesabove our heads were roaring like the ocean.

But then, as light slowly laboured into the sky, I realised how things had changed. Plantations of larch and spruce - little more than head-high when I last saw them - had shot up to semi-maturity. This I had more or less foreseen; what I had not bargained for was the omnipresent feeling of decay.

The woods had been let go. No one had thinned the plantations, with the result that the young trees had become spindly through overcrowding. Worse, lack of light had killed or fatally stunted the broad-leaves - beech and oak - planted between every fifthor seventh row.

The purpose of the larch and spruce had been to act as nurses, to bring up the main crop; but now neglect had killed the hardwoods in infancy, and a huge amount of effort and expense had been cast away. Everywhere tracks were blocked by fallen trees, andan old wooden shepherd's hut with a curved roof, once used as a store, had collapsed in a heap of planks.

For the fallow deer, on the other hand, the place had become paradise. Lack of work in the forestry, lack of disturbance, unrestrained growth of brambles - all this had made the woods highly congenial to the deer, with the result that the population had gone up ten-fold since my day.

In the first hour of daylight alone we saw almost 50 does and fawns. It was our clear duty to shoot as many as possible; but in the high wind they proved excessively wild and difficult to approach, and after much manoeuvring, midday arrived without a shot having been fired.

With cold, heavy drizzle whistling in on the wind, it was hard to remain cheerful, especially as melancholy thoughts kept assailing me. But when we moved to the lip of a wide grass valley, I began to realise how treacherous memory can be.

The valley had changed. It was still beautiful, but not nearly as steep or deep as I recalled. As I gazed down, I realised how my recollection of it had been exaggerated by the much greater depth and drama of the valleys among which I now live.

What, then, did I remember accurately? The general lie of the land, the disposition of woods, fields and hedges, the texture of the soil, with its myriad flints on the surface, and chalk coming through from beneath - all this was familiar enough to make my heart ache. How can one be so attached to a piece of ground?

I cheered up when I began to remember some of the ridiculous episodes that had taken place there - not least the time when, shooting rabbits at night from a platform built out of the back of a Land-Rover, our driver had taken us over some deep furrows that had been ploughed out of a stubble field by Jim, the farm foreman.

Every time the vehicle hit one, we on the back had the breath driven out of our lungs by violent compression on the metal roof, and after one desperate impact Old Bill, the gardener and gamekeeper, gave a histrionic groan: "Christ, Jim, they furrows'd give sanctuary to a f----g rhino!"

Had we bagged a pachyderm on the day of my return, it would have been cause for celebration. As it was, we got only one fallow doe before giving the filthy weather best; and as I set out on the long haul home, I knew how truly the old poet had spoken.

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