Return to Tocil Wood

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I arrive in a summer storm.  The landscape is blurred with rain; rain that is like a Flamenco, drumming away the sticky heat.  I came here a year ago for a work event and never expected to return.  A year ago, I found secrets here, in the shade of Tocil Wood.

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This is a place buffeted by trees and run through with water.  And it’s a place of fowl: a gaggle of Canada geese grazing on the grass, mallards, moorhens, coots and Greylags.  Geese honks are like clanging buckets in the distance.  I expect a colourful meadow of poppies, buttercups, ox-eye daisies and viper’s bugloss, in contrast to the greens and whites still dominant further north.  But the meadow is gone, replaced by the construction site for a new building.  I can see only a cluster of ox-eye daisies and buttercups fringing a muddy pool of water behind metal barriers.

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This meadow path was the track that led me to a small swing in an enchanted glade, but if the meadow is gone, perhaps the enchantment will be gone too.  I find another way around, into the watery landscape, through oaks dripping with rain.  There was a broken tree here last year.  It formed an arch that beckoned me on, but the arch too has vanished.

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I struggle to find the track to the glade.  There appears to be no way in, but it’s just a matter of easing the eye into the shapes of the undergrowth.  I push through and there is the swing, still hanging in the darkness of the dell.  Lying right beneath it is a single blackbird feather, like a welcome.  I take it with me.

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I walk further into the shaded glade.  It was always a dark spot, but today it is fogged with rain.  The ground is slippery: thick red mudstone that has been gathered for clay here since the 1st century.  Part of the steep slope has been roped off.  But a little further in, two more swings have appeared.  The first seems to have been made by the same hand as the original, fashioned from slatted wood and rope.  The second is bright blue plastic.  Both wait, empty, for small bottoms to fill them.

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And though my original arch through the trees has gone, there are others here, trees bent and twisted, beckoning me along the tracks.  One leads to a den that has been created in the trees.  A child’s toy lies forgotten, colourful plastic among its dead  branches.  There are ropes fixed into the hillside.  This unlikely spot has become a place to play.  A slightly wild place, the kind we might wish to have inhabited as children.  I follow the path further into the trees.  The ground is choked with young ivy and  campion, there are oaks and hazels and fallen trees.  I emerge damp but satisfied to have reclaimed a little of the magic.

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Later, I return to the woods.  I find the clearing of trees that I discovered a year ago.  Another secret space in the forest that spoke of enchantments and stories yet to be revealed.  I wonder if the heron at the edge of the pond is the same bird that guarded the threshold to the woods last year.  A place has many stories.  In one story it remains the same as the first time we met it.  In another, builders put up barriers and change its landscape.  In yet another, children take over and make it a place of play.  My story of Tocil Wood is all of these and none of them.  I was only here for a moment but I am part of the story too.

Along the tracks

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There’s something exuberant about the blooms of August.  As though summer, knowing it is on its last legs, throws all its efforts into a medley of colour before its time is over.  It is the season of vivid purples and zesty yellows: great tangles of willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bordering knots of ragwort, great mullein and weld.  And the lush white bindweed trumpets creeping nefariously over them all.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than along the tracks.  This is railway country, the place where the ‘father of the railways’ was born.  George Stephenson built his first locomotive to transport coal down these tracks.  The county is scored with the remains of the old lines, waggon-ways that ferried coal from the Great Northern Coalfield to the river Tyne.  It was first carried on wooden tracks in horse-drawn carts, then on metal rails by stationary steam engines hauled by ropes and finally by steam locomotive.

SAMSUNG CSCThese days, no locomotives pass this way, except perhaps in dreams in the dead of night.  The rails are long gone, replaced by paths.  Lined with hawthorn hedges, abundant in wild flowers.  Birds, hares and other creatures inhabit these tracks now, burrowing into the banks and flitting through the hedges.  Whereas once they were noisy with heavy industry, now they are peaceful trails in the midst of towns.

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In this topsy turvy and unsettled year, my creativity hasn’t followed its usual path.  I struggled to feel the celebration of summer and bring my box of dreams to fruition.  Yet something strange has happened in the last few weeks.  When I venture out, all I see is potential.  Fat, glossy rosehips, scores of blackberries, elderberries and haws.  Most still green, some beginning to turn, but only the potential of what they will become.   And my creative energy has suddenly revived: I find myself fervently writing, reading and submitting before the final harvest comes.  Like summer, I am giving the season my best efforts before the autumn tide takes over.

Unsettled

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It has been a season of fits and starts.  I struggle to find the rhythm of creativity.  There are moments when I catch the thread of it, begin to weave it into the trace of a pattern.  But then the design is lost, strands abandoned on the loom or fading into incoherence.  This is not a fallow period, nor a fit of the doubt doldrums.  It is something altogether more insidious than that.  Anxiety haunts my mornings and the year is vexed by a mercurial bleakness.  And the poverty of creative inspiration disquiets me.

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The weather too can’t settle into a rhythm.  Languid days fretted with heat, the air thick, close and stale.  I struggle to breathe in the treacly heat.  Rain of every kind: heavy splodges, misty drizzle, pin-prick hail.  Moments of storm-quiet, those rich, still moments when you feel the coming of the storm in your blood.  And magnificent rumbles of thunder, moaning across the sky as though they never want to end.

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The summer meadows are blooming, but already the flowers look crisp and ragged around the edges.  The Dene beds are empty of water, the ponds stagnant.  Wild cherries jewel the trees and lie abandoned on the grass, unwanted by the birds.  But small creatures flutter everywhere, over clouds of ox-eye daisies that invade the land like delicate occupiers.  The birds are quieting, as they do after the hard work of spring.  This is weather to seek out a patch of grass under the shade of a tree and to feel its cooling balm.

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I struggle with this part of the season.  My body feels the turn of the solstice, the inconspicuous move towards shorter days.  I begin to long for autumn, for curling up and turning inwards.  I dislike the heat and the excesses of summer, my least favourite season.  But we are just moving into the most extrovert months of the year, long hot days filled with the voices of freed children, the acid tang of barbecue smoke and the waft of music.  It’s a paradox that my spirit battles against.  But this, like every other season, like every state of mind, is transient and perhaps this year, the pattern is an acceptance of that.

The essence of a house

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Old houses are filled with stories.  We live in them knowing that others, long dead, have lived here before us.  We may never know exactly who they were, what their lives were like, how they lived and died.  But we know that their history has soaked into the walls, their voices have filled the rooms, their journeys have helped the house become what it is today.

I remember the autumn evening, ten years ago, when this house became our home.  We hadn’t yet moved in, so it was empty of furniture, but we lit the fire and sat on the floor in the sitting room.  The décor was dark and ugly, there was much to do to make it ours, but I remember the feeling of contentment at knowing this was our home.  When we moved in we set to with paint before we even settled, divesting the house of its last occupants.  But over time, our enthusiasm to complete the many jobs and overcome the many quirks of workmanship waned.  Over time I became disconnected from that initial contentment: the weight of unfinished jobs, nuisance neighbours and the routines of life made me forget the promise the house once held.  I dreamed of moving away, to a rural retreat by the sea.  But lately, I’ve begun to re-connect to this old house and its history.

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It was built in 1879, an old terrace, its footprint much the same now as it would have been then.  The kitchen and bathroom are recent additions and it’s difficult to see through the modern appearance to the house it once was.  But the ghost of a door blocked up in the sitting room, traces of old hearths in the bedrooms, parquet flooring in the hall and a disused chimney at the back of the house hint at the way it would have been originally.

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For many years, this was a street of craftspeople, business people and ‘gentlemen’.  In its first three decades my house was inhabited by a draper, a fitter, an accountant’s clerk and a ‘water boat’ owner.  But the residents that I feel most strongly connected to are two widows who lived here in the first half of the twentieth century.  Catherine Cowen Gray lived here from around 1917 until 1927.  Edith Wilberforce Culyer moved in after Catherine’s departure and stayed until 1939.  Edith’s husband was a butcher from Woolwich and he died in the year she moved here.  She had two daughters, Constance and Nancy and a son Henry, named after his father.  We know little more about Edith than that, but we have more of an insight into events in Catherine’s life.  She wasn’t a widow when she arrived.  Her husband Adam was a warrant engineer in the Royal Naval Reserve and they had three children: James, Margaret and Thomas.  Both Adam and James died in the local asylum as a result of World War One.  Adam’s injuries aren’t known, but we know James was discharged from the Scottish Rifles after a gas attack in France in 1917 and died aged 21 ‘after 12 months suffering from gas and shellshock’.

I think of Catherine and Edith often, these two women similar in age to me who cared for this house before me.  And although they’re long gone and neither of them died here, I like to think that something of their spirit remains.

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The houses we live in affect us, infusing our memories.  If we’re lucky, they’re the place above all others that is our sanctuary.  We can leave the world and its tribulations at the door.  They can stir our creativity or hinder it.  And we leave our mark on them, not only physically, but by the way we live, what we take with us and what we leave behind.

Home isn’t only a place of slate and stone, it’s the fiery centre inside us where our creative force lies.  Vesta is the guardian of this space.  She is the goddess of the hearth: the sacred fire that is the source of life.  Vesta was a powerful goddess, protecting not only the home, but also the ‘hearth’ of the city of Rome.

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I believe a house has its own essence, with a temperament that either welcomes us in or repels.  After ten years, my house and I are still getting acquainted, but when I’m alone and the house is silent I know that I was meant to call it home.

The wonderful La Sabrosona over at My Spanglish Familia nominated me for the Encouraging Thunder award.  Although I don’t ‘do’ awards, please take the time to visit her eclectic, entertaining and passionate blog.

Fledging

Sometimes, the earth conspires in gracious serendipity so that you think it’s sending a message just for you.  On the week that I begin writing again I witness so many tiny wonders that it seems like a sign, dovetailing with my newly awakened inspiration.

The day after inspiration strikes, I am greeted by the first goslings of the year.  A pair of Canada Geese stand guard as their brood peck nonchalantly at the grass.  Later, they slip into the water to pirouette around the pond, the parents heads bobbing, as though pointing the right direction, a gentle honk calling back any stragglers.  On another pond, the punk orange heads of baby Coots and Moorhen chicks peeking through the reeds.  The smaller birds are harder to see at this time of year, but I can hear their ardent songs and glimpse them high in the trees.  And at the end of this enchanted week, the first of the swallow family appear: sand martins flitting around the cliffs at the coast.

Overnight, new life has appeared.  The pinks have begun to join the yellows, with an abundance of campion lining the paths.  A handful of delicate cuckoo flowers contrast with monstrous butterbur leaves.  I see my first orange-tipped butterflies and a comma feeding on the dandelions and watch cabbage whites dance together in delicate spirals.  It is blossom season, but this year I’ve been more attentive to the subtler flowers of the trees.  The flowers that we don’t always notice: the broccoli like florets of the ash and the tiny green sprays of the sycamore.  I saw my first hawthorn blossom at the rubbish dump, of all places, brightening up the wait to get rid of our clutter.

This year I’ve struggled to re-balance after the winter.  I began the season with a box of dreams sown in the dark months and an impatience to bring them to life.  Instead, I fell into a fallow period that persisted for the first quarter of the year.  Spring has been slow to come, not in the earth but in my spirit.  My creativity has gone, not into my craft, but into my home.  An extended period of nesting: weeks of wallpaper, paint, carpets and curtains.  Bags and bags of clutter divested, clearing a space for other things to come in.  But now I’m fledging the nest.  Beltane is the start of summer, the first big festival of the light half of the year.  It came and went without much ceremony.  But I was waiting, I think, for the earth to let me know it was time to give birth to my plans.

In another moment of serendipity, after writing about ruins, I have cause to visit the 7th century priory that broods over the mouth of the river.  I wander ruins overgrown by Alexander flowers, unconsciously absorbing history and landscape.  And it is the ruins that wake my creativity, insinuating themselves into the half-written second novel that has waited for attention since last year, taking it into a more satisfying direction.  So as the signs of new life flourish, I find myself in that magical space at the beginning of a creative adventure, at the point where ideas might take flight or never leave the ground.  I hope they soar.

Re-balancing

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When I leave the forest, part of me stays there: the part of me that is like the deer, slipping silently through the trees, glimpsed if you’re lucky.  The deer are usually elusive here, but when we arrive, a doe is nonchalantly grazing a few metres away in the early evening glow of the sunset.  For four days, deer grace us with their presence at dawn and dusk, their cotton fluff tails like beacons in the half-light.

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Before the equinox, it’s not uncommon for life to seem chaotic as nature fights for balance.  And for me, events conspired to enforce an unexpected pause from blogging: a virus that gave me blurred vision, dizziness, nausea and fatigue; a bereavement and family illness.  There were stories to be written, pictures to be painted, blogs to be read, but I found I couldn’t act.  I followed the spiral down, deep into the doubt doldrums and I began to think about giving up, almost to spite myself.

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But before doubt overwhelms me, I retreat to the forest to find that it is re-balancing too.  Spring is definitely on its way.  The dawn chorus is deafening.  The forest dances with movement: the flutter of chaffinches and tits; pairs of blackbirds, jays and woodpeckers.  A single squirrel multiplies into three, sinuously moving along the forest floor and leaping through the trees.  On our first day, a tiny death.  I cry for the waste of a colourful life, as I carry the soft, still-warm body of a blue tit into the trees.  Later, a crow circles curiously, before carrying the corpse away in its beak, as if to remind me that no death is wasted here.

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Then early one morning, winter appears.  I’ve longed for snow but had to wait until I came to the woods for it to find me.  And this was serious snow: fat flakes falling heavily and quickly, transforming the forest into a wonderland.  We walk through the snowy hush while others are still sleeping, following tracks of deer and hare.  But by afternoon, the snow is gone and the forest glows with sunshine once more, as though this magical interlude had never happened.

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I leave the forest channelling acceptance, realising that unconsciously I’ve been fighting against the season.  I was trying to force action in the season of incubation.  Action comes later, at Ostara, the spring equinox, when the spring energy sweeps in and calls us to movement.  I didn’t follow my own lesson and that’s where I went wrong.

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I haven’t quite left doubt behind me.  I’m ready to get back into the world, if only tentatively.  I’ll accept the doubt and accept the troubled feeling of my emotions fighting for balance, ready to take action when action is ready to be taken.  And this spring equinox felt particularly auspicious.  Not only were the hours of darkness and light balanced, but so too were the sun and moon, moving into alignment to form a solar eclipse at the new moon.  The crocuses that tentatively appeared a few weeks ago are in luscious bloom.  The first daffodils have blossomed to herald the equinox and, if I’m lucky, an end to doubt too.

I’m looking forward to catching up with you all soon and reading your latest posts.

Suspension

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Winter is flirting with us.  She visits fleetingly leaving a sprinkle of ice-white powder.  She stays for breakfast, but by lunch she is gone, only a few rimy traces remaining.  Leaves are preserved in a sugar of frost crystals, giving clarity to their design.  Ponds freeze over, in clear geometrics.  The wind moans constantly.  Raw air freezes us.  But winter never quite delivers on her warnings.

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This winter has been very different to the last.  Last year the mud arrived and stayed for the season.  This year the frosts have come.  The glitter of ice in the mornings and that raw cold that comes as the day begins to die.  It’s been two years since we had more than a flurry of snow.  Our spring was bountiful, our summer warm, so it seemed we were destined for a hard winter.  But the cold has been interspersed with mild, sunny days.  The leaves took their time to fall and occasional flowers have bloomed through the season.  There’s still a chance of snow but it’s only a matter of time before winter withdraws altogether.

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Still, winter wants to give us notice.  She lets us know that she is a possibility, just before Candlemas heralds the first stirrings of spring.  On the day that winter visits, I see the first spring bulbs, thrusting through the snow-dust.  Buttery crocus flowers waiting to open and a handful of daffodils in green bud.  A day later, winter is gone and the crocuses have opened their whorl of petals. There are hazel catkins everywhere, featherlight fingers dangling.

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I’m in suspension.  Like a half-frozen pond.  Still and dormant on one side, unruly ripples on the other.  The two parts are in tension, caught between dream and action.  My box of dreams has germinated and the front runners have emerged.  I’ve honed the dreams into seeds, ready to be planted now Candlemas is here.  But at the moment, those seeds are like that frozen pond – paused.  I have no desire to do anything with them.  I’m waiting for that ripple to set them off on their journey.

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