It’s always the wheels that take us there. Wheels that seem incongruous with a stride through the countryside. When the wheels have stopped and our boots are on, the day takes on a different pace and atmosphere. A different meaning. Time slows and becomes somehow more livable, somehow more rational.We carefully cross the quiet winding lane at Lowdham Grange and feel the stones and mud under our boots. The welcome and watery winter sun is bright with little warmth, twinkling down through bows and branches through to the tree-lined lane and down to the old church. We are not alone. Ahead of us lies a large limousine with its young driver leaning against it, quietly, respectfully, passing the time, fingers clasped formally in front of him. His suit tells of a duty he is carrying out. It is a sad day for one family and group of friends as a small, muted service is conducted in the ancient faded yellow stone building.
A brave and sturdy carpet of snowdrops line a meandering stream, burbling gently as we silently pass the old building, a sudden skirl of sound reaches us on a breeze. The sound of a piper. A sad and plaintive, yet dignified and proud sound. The threadbare February Maythorn lining the graveyard betrays the silhouette of a lone figure standing erect by an open grave, playing, waiting for his soon-to-be company. This is a sound I grew up with, one that resonated through my family home and one that penetrates my feelings like no other sound possibly can. It is carried along by the thin wind.
We emerge from the trees as the sound of the music decreases and is left for others, climbing, climbing up the steep footpath and past the strangely-built home that is visible from other villages. A home that few understand. A broken down style awaits us at the windy zenith and offers a view past a pronounced thicket that helped name Woodborough. They call it a three-sixty view. I think of it simply as seeing all around me. Behind us drifts a surprising amount of low-lieing mist. Coating the rural villages of ancient Lambley, Lowdham and Viking steading, Gunthorpe with a subtle cloak of silver-grey mystery.
Long tracks of ridged mud are stepped past as we negotiate a narrow Nottinghamshire twichel and over four grey lanes of modern road. What approaches us is a white-emulsioned mill, looking odd, looking curious in its situation. The twenty-first century roaring past it’s front doorway but a more gentle and less rushed era indicated by adjacent empty stables to the rear.
Ours is a walk though several villages today. With ourselves hardly warmed yet by exertion we approach a third village already , Epperstone. The village reminds us of a Roman past, a history that precedes The Domesday Book as does neighbouring Woodborough, with its Celtic beck and historic and naturally fortified positions. Coins from Roman times have been discovered in Epperstone and earthworks still endure where the remains of a 2nd/3rd Century Roman villa lay. Our footsteps are in those of giants indeed.
Ours is a trudge today. A day of sinking into treacherous mud and weighed-down shoes that make us smile and sometimes laugh. Our path has been visited earlier however as the tell-tale claws of a badger print draw our eyes closer to study and wonder. Sun has not visited this path at the foot of the trees. This we know through the thin scrapings of translucent ice still clinging to the grey-brown shallow puddles. Is it always a temptation to step on the ice, why? More slow relentless steps follow as the vista along to Thurgarton looms into view from our vantage on the ridge by the lofty field.
More modern history tells us of less happy times at the village below. Whilst our sight is dominated by St Peters and the Priory, a darker time not long enough ago urges its tale. It was here in laboratories that the testing of Beagles was carried out in the hope of a greater understanding of the effects on health by tobacco. A shudder and a thought of those days of angry protest
We are back in the present day as our walk meets the main road which passes hastily through the village of Thurgarton. It’s many a walker who will enjoy a respite from the mud and elements of a winter’s walk and avidly we walked towards the ominous-looking front door of The Red Lion. The pleasure was not to be ours this day, a tightly-locked door – thwarted! All the more disappointing as The Red Lion is one of my favourite country pubs. Set on several different interesting levels with quiet alcoves, or alternatively more sociable seating, the pub caters for different needs. The sloping lawn of a back lawn to the rear is also a pleasure come the warmer, more hospitable months.
After some work removing the clods of wet earth from our boots we are to be disappointed on this occasion however and move on alongside Thurgarton’s pretty streams towards the village of Hoveringham. Treading over the Nottingham to Newark railway line near the old signal box we veer across the fields and keep a parallel path with the railway line. The Hoveringham landscape has seen much change over the decades being an area of gravel quarrying. Happily a yacht club fed by nearby River Trent water sits on a major area of previous work. It’s a tranquil place and as one might expect, attracts its share of bird life and wildlife in general. These days there are newer sizable bodies of water that have been created from more recent workings. We pause awhile at one of them and at this time there is little but bleakness to be seen under the thin February sun. For some years this may be the case but nature will undoubtedly and inexorably find its balance back on these pastures once more. This is a gratifying thought as we head off directly dazzled by the low sun.
Talking, talking and sometimes not observing is a sociable weakness I often own in the countryside. My friend does however notice a small scuttling under a hedge row and from his point I focus on a tiny creature. A shrew? Maybe it is a mere field mouse but surely all such sightings are to be grateful for on days like these?
I love the word hamlet. It’s such an evocative word, one that offers tiny thatched cottages and windy lanes with a dusty quiet. Whenever I think of that word the next one that comes into my mind is ‘Gonalston’ for that small community seems to be the one I know best to describe such a place. A pleasing old blacksmith’ smithy is quickly approached with its large horseshoe motive surrounding the wide doorway. A red postbox stands sentinel to its left. To the rear lies the original stabling that still somehow manages to look at home in present times.
Long gone thankfully are the days of child labour at the local Cliff Mill, now a luxurious yet still somehow foreboding large private home. The mill is a dominant thought of mine when I pass through the otherwise gentle-looking Gonalston. Its story tells the tale of very young children being transported uncomfortably by train from London to literally work fingers to the bone in the old Nottinghamshire building. Many young people perished, so much so that it was decided in those days to begin burial of them in other districts as far away as Derbyshire in order to distract inquisitive people away from the high mortality rates of the immature workforce. Those days are gone but perhaps a thought for those children should still be considered when passing through the lovely lanes of Gonalston.
The winter sun has turned a burning red and is dipping lower through a skeletal framework of dormant trees up ahead. A herd of cows has milled at length around the style in our path leaving a familiar island of mud-hopping to traverse in order to climb the wooden and weary structure towards home. Some far-off rooftops of nearby Lowdham appear on the skyline to our left. Modern housing and a skip down the main village road and a further loosening of the thick mud collected on our boots once more.
It’s the last dregs of that welcome sunshine that mark our way to The Old Ship situated beyond the village bookshop. Three steps and up into a quiet and warming small lounge and a more than welcome drink or two. It’s rare to enjoy a drink more than after a good walk in my experience and this occasion offers similar enjoyment and satisfaction. The walk is almost over, our cheeks burn and muscles relax, it is time to rest for half an hour, for an hour.
Slipping down the three steps we cross the road and enter a narrow back lane. Noticeably it is now winter again. The sun has gone, the daylight has indeed left us a clothing of darkness. A mist approaches even. The wheels are still. They take us back to where the day began.