Ever since my childhood, there has been an association between walking around Langdon Hills and Saturdays.
Autumn walks particularly are fixed in the memory, the family – not just parents and siblings – slipping into boots and pulling on coats and setting out into Coombe Woods an hour or so before dusk (Coombe Woods is known to many as “The Bluebell Woods” for its stunning spring carpet of bluebells as far as the eye can see). Five youngsters with over-active imaginations would pass through the gate into the tunnel of trees that lead from Dry Street deep into a darkly magical woodland kingdom that could only harbour wraiths, twisted goblins and other spectres between the creeping shadows and tendrils of mist.
We would march determinedly past the ponds, past “The Woodpecker Tree”, to the edge of “The Valley”. There, catching our breath, we would gaze out towards the pines that that comprise “The Creepy Copse”, standing tall in silent sentry over the winding path – far below them and us – that leads to “The Ski Slope” (what was then a broad and open slope, lined on each side with pines and with a glorious ancient oak at its summit). “The Woodpecker Tree” has long since fallen, but for years it stood as an object of wonder, its bark-less, limb-less trunk giving it an almost prehistoric appearance. It got its name from the holes that punctuated its upper reaches. Whether or not woodpeckers ever dwelt there I’ve no idea.
If we were feeling brave we would run down the valley into the trees, follow the path through its twists and turns, past “The Sandy Hill” (site of numerous stick battles and rope-swing disasters and not to be confused with “The Sandy Hills” of Westley Heights) before clambering up to “The Ski Slope” where we would follow the upper path towards the old cricket ground at the top of Dry Street. En route we would gather chestnuts from the piles of leaves to roast on the fire before heading back down Dry Street. The smell of creosote on the handrail of the newly-created ranger path was a welcome return to the safety of civilisation. The wraiths and goblins slunk back into the darkness, watching our descent under the comforting yellow glow of the street lights from from their lairs amongst the shadowy twist of brambles.
Reaching home and back indoors, fingers clasped around mugs of tea would ache with that satisfying gnaw of heat on bone. The fire would be lit and stoked to a blaze before chestnuts were roasted in the embers and crumpets toasted on an ancient fork and then buttered and piled high on an old plate, itself precariously balanced on a low brass stand by the kindling. Cousins – who despite their gender were all “Men of the Hills” – would plan their next adventure before settling back, bellies full and imaginations fired, to play and draw and, when we could get away with it, watch The Dukes of Hazzard.
Times change, of course, and “The Men of the Hills” are reunited for their walks less often, though I like to think that we all retain similarly fond memories of those childhood woodland adventures.
Saturday walks for me are now more usually taken in the early morning.
Yesterday, having not enjoyed such an excursion for quite a while, I decided to get up at 6am (something of a feat as I had only gone to bed at 3am!) and head out into the hills. Porridge and tea delayed my start, but at about 6.40am I set out from Gernons, wellington boots on and staff in hand and Radio 4’s Farming Today on my headphones. I walked across Eastley green and used the cut-through (that really must become an all-weather path – it is used by so many), heading down the college entrance road to Nethermayne. As I walked past St Luke’s Hospice and Basildon Hospital, the clouds above the estuary were a spectacular and angry inky swirl against a dark steel blue sky that only lightened towards the horizon.
Despite the day and the hour, traffic was already heavy and it was a relief to turn into Dry Street, the reassuring forms of Dry Street Farm – where so much growing up was done – quickly coming into view. From Dry Street I headed up past Dry Street Memorial Church towards One Tree Hill.
The view from One Tree Hill across the Thames to Kent and then up the river to London is one of the most spectacular I know. We too often take these places for granted, but such open and sweeping vistas are rare and, when the air is clear and the sky light, the views are inhibited only by the quality of your eye-sight. From One Tree Hill I headed through Northlands Woods, before picking up the bridleway through to Hall Woods. Here, switching off the Today Programme to listen to the morning chorus, I could hear a woodpecker drilling and I felt a thrill to be outside in such beauty, the sun now throwing a low and soft golden light on the frosted fields that I could see through the trees.
Walking the unmade roads past the settlements and farm buildings, I headed into Coombe Woods, past “The Ski Slope” and “The Creepy Copse” and stopping at the head of the valley – “The Valley” – to admire a beautiful sunrise on a now cloudless January Saturday morning. Finally, I headed down to Dry Street and the familiar outline of “Hillcroft”, detouring briefly around Northlands Approach and Coombe Drive so that I could enjoy the garden on my way to Mum and Dad’s back door.
As I opened the door I realised I had seen no-one at all until Coombe Woods, where I met a ranger making his way past the ponds, picking litter.
I am going to make the effort to walk this more often through the year, enjoying the very different ways it feels, looks, sounds and smells as season slips to season.
Even at 37 I realise that there are still adventures to be had for the “Men of the Hills” in their old hunting grounds – have your own and see what an incredible place we live in.
Below are the pictures I took as I walked.