Each year, either by accident or design, I do a Spring Equinox walk. It seems to happen naturally – as the land wakes up, so do we, and it seems to call us out! This year’s walk was very much by design. Since we moved to Stroud three weeks ago, I’ve woken up each morning to a view of a woodland across the town and valley, and I promised myself that I would visit what I could see. With the help of a trusty Ordinance Survey map, I identified it as Standish Wood, straddling the Cotswold Way and a short drive through the village of Whiteshill.
I had an intention for this walk, a purpose. As well as actively exploring a new wood, and seeing if I could find some of the features on the map, I wanted to find a point where I could look back from the wood to my house – or at least where I knew our house to be. I had a notion that this would be part of my weaving, of grounding myself in the local landscape. I’d been feeling also a welling creativity and I was interested to see what response the land would draw out of me. The following is the result – part report, part poem, part spell.
The track I picked actually ran parallel to and down from the Cotswold Way proper. Within minutes I was to enter a beech cathedral, tall, grey-green trunks covering the flank of the hill running down into Standish Valley. I could only imagine what it would look like in autumn, with canopy and carpet of copper, and plan to return not only then but in a few weeks when the fresh, brilliant green young leaves will be ripe for picking for beech leaf gin.
Almost from these first moments, this walk took on the sense of something being afoot, an adventure unfolding, a purpose to be discovered. In these circumstances I have found it best just to let whatever it is unfold as it will. Walking past the gnarled, twisted roots exposed on the sharp-cut path I observe that the woodland is strangely lacking in diversity on the tree front. There’s not much else but beech here and the odd solitary birch – but the ground is covered in shaggy moss. Climbing up each and every shoot, they form moss cones – they look like Rackham’s gnomes! This lack of diversity added an austere quality to the beeches. I saw no-one for the first hour of my walk, and every pathway was an invitation, drawing me further in.
A pause to look out across the vale o the twin grey ribbons of the M5 and the Severn, my Bristol connectors, and I send a kiss and a hello down each of them to my home town. I love their similarities– the way their colour changes with the weather and the season through all shades of grey, their shared characteristics of choppiness, lumpiness and smooth flow. To my joy, I find a steep bank covered in wild garlic. I sit in it a while, allowing myself to sense it, taste it, see if I can hear it. It is spicy, giddy and laced with what I discover later to be the really quite poisonous dogs mercury. I carefully harvest some for pesto making later and wander on nibbling as I go. I hear bleating lambs, buzzards, blackbirds, and a raucous screaming posse of jays.
Circling round the end of the wood I arrived at an area marked on the map as ‘disused quarries’ and ‘longbarrow’. Intriguing! I was halted in my steps by a beautifully lit moss carpet leading to a wooden fence barrier in a wire fence– I assume that this was the site of the quarries, blocked off for safety. The site of the longbarrow was just a few paces further on. In the way of these things, it was surprisingly hard to identify! I found the absence of interpretation boards and signposts refreshing and appropriate for such a place. I narrowed it down to two longbarrow-shaped mounds.
I saw a bench in the sunlight and headed for it. This bench was perfectly placed to look over the valley back towards Stroud, and I realised with a genuine thrill that I looked out onto these longbarrows every night and every morning – this was the sightline I held from my bedroom window.
I wanted to spend some time here, to see what would arise. I whiled the time away by taking some photos, and a rustling in an ivy-covered bush alerted me to a very fine robin, who had come to investigate. We sat on the bench together and shared some nuts as two horses and their humans clopped their way up the bridleway behind us.
With the taste of fresh ransoms still pungent on my tongue I slowly became aware of a sense of great age. ‘Proper old’. The trees were slightly different here – still predominantly beech, but some young yew and holly. I’d noticed a small bleached snailshell wedged in between stones and was struck by it’s microcosm of decomposing strata, flakes of limestone, bits of grit, tiny pieces of twig and leaf and shell. It wasn’t a fossil but it looked like it should be. The longbarrow, the spiral of the shell and the creamy yellow, pale stone grey and dark brown of the earth seemed somehow, satisfyingly right together, and it felt like a magic.
I looked to where I thought my house to be and started to weave. I imagined silver threads running between where I sat now, and where I lay each night, shuttling back and forth to weave us into the land, this new story, our tapestry. I sent out thread after thread – enough to make a binding, but not so many that the land was hidden by their density – I want light here, space to breathe, to let the land in. I did this until it was time to stop, then I cut my threads, tied them carefully and walked on.
I found myself considering the contrasts of the equinox. It’s often celebrated as a time of balance, and of course there is that sense of poised pause, at the brief moment where the earth seems to hang, suspended at the point of perfect equality of length of day and night. But it is also, to me, a time of extremes and even of extremis – of high winds, high tides, sun-warmed shirtsleeves on Friday and two inches of snow on Sunday. Perhaps the message is to find equilibrium between extremes, wherever that may lie for you. For me, I think it’s in the oscillation along these woven threads, between my house and the longbarrow, my garden and the wildwood, my children and my ancestors, the here and the there, the now and the then.
I feel my work and walk is done. I wander back along the Cotswold Way proper. There are other delights, visually and texturally arresting – an improbable bridgetunnel of beech tree roots, a gift of sheets of leathery birch bark on decomposing logs, black and white on the outside and startlingly red on the inside, and I now understand why it dyes pink. I take some for writing and for dying, and it occurs to me that I can draw my binding work on this – a powerful totem.
But the walk now feels more commonplace – beautiful with the joy of finding a new place for sure, and a woodpecker beats out a swift staccato overhead – but that sense of anticipation and otherness and slight uncanny that heralds magic-making has passed. It’s no bad thing, I couldn’t live in that space always, nothing would ever get done! I meet three charming old gentlemen, and have to restrain my inner Eric Morcombe when one of them asks me ‘if I’ve walked this Way before’ (‘I’ll have you know I always walk this way, sir!’). It turns out they’re looking for a particular tree trunk studded with coins – a passing runner points them in the right direction.
From there, it’s a mile or so back to the carpark and the short drive home. I make a tea of nettle and plantain, and my wild garlic pesto using spinach, pine nuts and oils. It is shockingly, vibrantly green – a shout of spring to savour.