To stand here would have been the death of me
Six centuries ago, when Ashdown lay
Sequestered, sole preserve of royalty,
Where kings and noble sporting men might play
Untroubled by the unwashed working folk.
Inside the palisade, the sleek harts fed
At ease: the desperate villager who broke
The fence to feed his family chanced his head.
Today, commuters course across the hill
Unhindered, hasty, heedless of the deer.
The hedge and ditch are gone: we’re free to kill
Two hundred with impunity each year.
So who’s the villain in my bloody tale?
And what, and who, is now beyond the pale?
For some time, I’ve wanted to write about the great fence, or pale, that enclosed the royal deer park on Ashdown Forest. Precise details of when, how and by whom it was built are hard to come by, but it certainly existed in medieval times, when Edward III granted the Forest to his son, John of Gaunt, as a hunting ground, and it became part of the vast Duchy of Lancaster. By the 17th Century, the pale had fallen into near-total disrepair; today, only traces of the ditch, bank and palisade that once ran for 23 miles over the heath remain.
Driving over the Forest yesterday, I saw a sign indicating that there have been over 250 deer collisions on its roads so far this year. It’s a route heavily used by commuters, and such grim casualty figures are perhaps inevitable. Equally predictable is the reaction of drivers and local politicians, who, in the face of such slaughter, are calling not for lower speed limits or improved awareness, but a cull of the deer population. I wonder what our medieval forebears, prince and peasant alike, would make of it all. N.
A curtain drawn across the Sunday sky
North of the town; a storm that brings no rain
As after weeks of cloudless, breathless dry
The Forest flares in fire once again.
A winter’s-worth of fuel stacked up there:
The brittle sticks of heather, long-dead grass.
A cigarette flipped from a car somewhere;
The sun caught in a shard of shattered glass
And hell breaks loose. As wind-whipped flames take hold
And cursing crews watch fifty acres burn
The hills sleep, sure that to tomorrow’s cold
And blackened aftermath, life will return.
Now I must set my tinder heart ablaze –
To clear the ground for shoots of better days.
Inspired by real events on our walk yesterday afternoon.
The forest ways wind endlessly,
Through grass and gorse, by twisted tree,
Far-seeing ridge where wild winds blow
Deep dells where secret waters flow,
And there is no one here but me.
From Camp Hill Clump to Friends I see
No living soul: there’s liberty
And solitude for those who know
The forest ways.
There’s work that I should really be
Engaged in now, but truancy
Stirs in my restless mind and so
I’ll pull on boots and coat, and go
To walk once more, alone and free,
The forest ways
They stop us short
Like pennies on the pavement,
Unlooked-for, standing silent
Like the monstrous monuments
Of some strange, forgotten race.
Still sparkling with this morning’s mist,
Big as plates
Balanced like circus tricks on slim stems
Each ringed with the ragged ruff
Of an Elizabethan rogue.
Fairy castles, flying saucers –
So alien, yet so at home
Here on Ashdown’s sheep-short turf.
More wait –
White, tight as golf-balls –
To swell and stretch in wild extravagance
While here and there
A tiny Ozymandias
Wind-tilted, toppled by a careless boot
(Or speeding whippet)
Crumples in its slow collapse
Into food for its own kind.
A price on their heads
Out on the Forest feeding sheep
Marking time on rented keep
Too meagre for such eager beggars.
Haul out two bales of precious hay;
Enough, I hope, to last the day
And overnight. A sodden August
Followed by a savage winter
Has made barns into bank vaults,
Stacked to the roof with summer’s riches
Bound in bales, tight as wads of tenners.
I slash the strings,
Releasing long-imprisoned scents
Of late July, and shake the flakes
Into the rack with the careful hands and watchful eye
Of a chef preparing Alba truffles
For a visiting head of state.
And the woolly starveling mob crowd in
Rowdy as schoolboys at the bell,
Tearing, greedy, at the pale green stems
Like shoppers in the New Year sales.
I watch them, forgetful of the cost
In their contentment. And long for spring.
I’ve finally managed to return to my shepherding roots in a small way, as a part-time volunteer helping out with a conservation grazing project on the Ashdown Forest. My charges are 240 Hebridean sheep, an ancient breed from the far north-west of Scotland. They’re tough, hardy beasts, but good winter grazing is hard to come by, and they’re on pretty thin pickings at the moment, with the soil still too cold for the grass to start growing in earnest. We’re having to supplement their diet with hay, but prices are at an all-time high, and we’re longing for the day when they can leave their winter quarters and go up onto the Forest and start doing their job properly.