Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day, so I decided to go for a walk. I had a route in mind, and drove a few miles to the large, flat expanse of Greenham Common. This former military site – synonymous with anti-nuclear protest camps in the 1980s – once contained one of the longest runways in Europe. Happily, it was converted back to grazing and recreation land about 20 years ago. It’s now a fantastic community resource, and I walk and cycle there a lot. But it was only my starting point this time.
I headed off on a path leaving the common. It follows a wooded gulley which runs down into the Kennet valley below. I love this path – with huge mature trees looming either side of you, and a small stream winding down, it’s like entering a little pocket of another world.
This area is unusually rich in history, even by British standards. Nearby is a site where Palaeolithic hand axes were discovered – the tools of nomadic hunters who camped here as early as 13,000 years ago. Other evidence suggests the possibility of continuous habitation in this part of the valley for the last 10,000 years, though it’s difficult to prove conclusively.
My plan was to get to the canalised river Kennet, then turn west along the towpath, eventually coming back up the hillside on a different footpath which I’d noticed on my OS map, but had never walked before.
Following the river, I started to hum a tune that I’d heard on Radio 3 that morning. It was the folk song Green Bushes, from Percy Grainger’s orchestral setting.
I already knew (and loved) a slightly different version of this tune in The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. The lyrics start with the narrator going for a walk in May, and having a chance encounter with a young girl. He then proposes she forsake her true love and marry him – somewhat hastily, it must be said, but that’s folksong for you.
When I had first seen the tune in my book, I imagined it as a gently flowing melody. But the Grainger version on the radio treated it so energetically, that at first I didn’t recognise it. It sounds slightly demented: a psychedelic spring, bursting with life and libido.
In fact, if you look through an English folksong collection, you’ll find that a remarkable number of them begin with a variation on this theme: walking out in the spring and having a chance encounter. What is it about that scenario? I suppose spring is a metaphor for youth – one reason why poets idealise it. A fine spring day is like discovering life afresh. The land is awakening. No wonder it seems ripe with possibility, romantic or otherwise.
But while instant marriage proposals are mostly the stuff of fiction, spring is certainly a good time to find nature. Last year I heard a cuckoo calling along this stretch of towpath. It was tantalisingly close, and I stood for several minutes trying to spot it among the trees – all in vain. It’s still too early for their arrival this year, so on Sunday I had to make do with the laughing ‘yaffle’ of a green woodpecker, wafting mockingly on the breeze. Meanwhile a wren flitted among the dry reeds, firing its bullet notes beside the sparkling water, a tiny ball of cock-tailed aggression.
When I found the footpath heading back up the hill, I was surprised by a startlingly long perspective: the far end of Newbury Racecourse, its length extremely foreshortened behind a wire fence. On my other side, an enclosed field was bedecked with signs warning me it was ‘not a play area’ (it hardly looked like a plausible candidate for one).
Such sights only remind you how much of Britain’s countryside is enclosed for one private use or another – whether military, agricultural, or moneyed recreation. The colonisation of south-east England by golf courses, for example, is one particularly rampant and much-discussed phenomenon.
This makes the rare instances of public reclamation, like Greenham Common, especially precious. Because in the English countryside you’re always under suspicion of over-stepping a boundary. Any spring walk will almost certainly include chance encounters with the signage of paranoid landowners: Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. At least we can deceive ourselves that birdsong is joyful – this ugly human territoriality only sings a sour note.
Thankfully, a happier discovery awaited me further up the path. It was the entrance to a nature reserve I never knew existed before: Bowdown Woods. Here was a more welcoming sign, showing several nature trails that dip through the wooded gullies carved by streams flowing down to the Kennet.
It was clear that this was a more scenic route back to my car, so I took the diversion. The gamble of trying out a new path paid off, and the ramble up and down the surprisingly steep gulley sides, with glimpses of valley views through the tall trees, was delightful.
I look forward to coming back here again as the months progress. As it happens, I made a firm new year’s resolution to finally spot a cuckoo. If I’m successful, perhaps I will see the same one I heard last year – returning to the Kennet’s side from his African winter, singing in hope of his own romantic liaison.
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