For some reason I always walk in the same direction around the old railway. From Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, I stride out down my road, past the Victorian terraces adorned with hanging baskets and window boxes bursting with pansies, and keep going until I reach the railway crossing. Even on this rather domesticated part of my route it’s not uncommon to have encountered countless sparrows darting in and out of gaps in the hedge around the allotment. Jackdaws disrupt the still morning air, hopping from tile to gutter and back again on the houses that line the gently curved street. Starlings from one TV aerial reverberate small pockets of air, like oilslick metronomes transmitting their agitated and futuristic code to the four birds on the front lawn.
The last stretch to escape the suburb is the long straight concrete road that cuts between the open meadows of the country park on the left and the wheatfields and dogkennels on the right. Great tits hop tirelessly, descending the young maple tree in coils like a disconnected helterskelter. Blackbirds probe the damp grassy roadsides, flicking their beaks hurriedly out of the earth before half-flying to safety under the beech hedge, sounding the alarm to the rest of the hedgerow with an agitated chook-chook.
The stile marks the beginning of my walk proper: a faded sign indicates that bicycles are not allowed, and that dogs must be kept on leads.
I glance, curiously, into the few cottages huddled at the end of the road beyond the locked barrier, wishing I might one day own one. I won’t be seeing any cars for a while. I cross over the railway bridge and turn left onto the footpath.
The density of the vegetation takes me by surprise. The last time I walked this way, the indented pathway worn by fellow walkers was clearly visible down the middle of a narrow grass corridor. It’s framed between the embankment of the railway I’d just crossed and the barbed wire fence marking the boundary of a farm, stretching out ahead of me. As I took careful stride after careful stride into the long grass that was heavy and hunched with the weight of morning dew, I noticed that the rape had been cut already, with patches of green wheat blocking-out chunks of land to my right, beyond the outstretched pylons that lead to the M1, six or seven miles to the South.
On my last visit, my presence had startled rabbits aplenty, and I’d done my best to get photos of them on my phone before they’d pounced – bodies narrowed and elongated with panicked energy – into their burrows that run like trenches along this path. I find an entrance to one burrow, unintentionally: my ankle rolls and I swear at the overhanging horsechestnut. Standing on one leg I rotate the damaged ankle to alleviate the pain before continuing with renewed caution, unable to see the ground for the grass and nettles and brambles that have collapsed overnight.
I see little wildlife on this part of my walk. The monoculture that dominates all of the flat visible land of the farm bares only the odd, defiant poppy by way of diversity, and as I move further away from the brick-arched bridge, the pathway drops down in relation to the railway that stands tall and levelled by the stone embankment. A magpie rests on the nearest rail, dipping its head up and down as it investigates an old Evian bottle. The sky is overcast and as the tall, straight embankment is sheltering me from the North-Westerly breeze, my only measure of its intensity being the tops of the isolated trees that stand like gently-swaying sentinels along the barbed wire to my right.
I gaze up into the underbranches of each tree as I pass beneath, spotting the silhouettes of abandoned nests against the grey sky.
A mile or so down, I cross the railway. It’s quiet, and I know for a fact that the steam engine does not run on weekdays. The railway is straight and not electrified. I take a moment to bask in the novelty of standing in the middle of a train track, reminiscing about a similar place my friends and I would go as teenagers to escape our parents and share cans of newsagent-bought lager. I decide to walk down the railway until the river rather than crossing and following another overgrown path. I can follow the rails and climb down before the bridge over the water to rejoin my planned route further down.
In the silence of that open space, atop the raised railway with open tracts of agriculture to my left and right, my footsteps on the timber sleepers sound out flatly before being carried off by the wind.
As I approach the brick-walled railway bridge across the river, I move carefully, keen to peek over the side without disturbing what might be sheltering beneath. A grey heron takes flight, its enormous wings beating rhythmically to initiate flight, but at a cadence that does not seem enough to generate lift. I stand motionless watching the bird rise up out of the reedbed that is nestled in the steep man-made banks of the river. The heron begins to follow the tight meander in the river until its increasing altitude frees it from the lateral confines of its feedingground. It banks right and then left to disappear behind a row of old oak trees that mark one farmer’s territory from another.
I wait by the river, patiently, for another hour. Modest amounts of sunlight penetrate the thick cloudcover, sufficient to keep me warm in that exposed position on the edge of the bridge where the weathered bricks reach up out of the lush and fecund embankments below. I wait for the heron to return and hope for another glimpse of the kingfisher I saw in early spring. Unsettled by the weather, I sit on my coat among brambles and read for a while, silent and barely moving save for the turning of a page. I read about soil and carbon capture and wonder at what time the course of this river was decided by those who own the land of its banks. I can see a school of minnows in the clear water before it runs through the heavy shade of the bridge. I fold the corner of my page.
My walk back is quiet and unremarkable, save for a family of goldfinches and a pheasant lurching into the sky as I round the end of a hedge, only to plummet back to earth with a haphazard competence deep in the field of wheat behind me. There was probably much more to see, and my unwillingness to adjust the aperture of my gaze must surely have prevented me from noticing life near and far. But I was lost in reverie. I completed my walk via the footpaths that skirt more fields, some swaying with the breeze and some now barren that were sulfuric with rape on my last visit. At the end of the footpath I meet the concrete road again, and make my way back home, with a head full of ideas and a thirst that only tea can satisfy.
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