Monday, September 06, 2010
Walden, feat. Gainsborough
Autumn’s very sudden this year. Two weeks ago was summer. Now the flowers are dead, the sky is the curious burnished blue of the inside of a limpet shell, and the fields have turned to plough. Red plough. I’m further north than usual. I’ve been visiting the boy, who lives in a part of the country renowned for food and foxhunting.
The quickest way to represent Fenland topography is to draw a pen along a ruler. For detail, colour above the line grey, and below the line green, tan, or black, depending on the season. Often, there, the only rounded feature of the wide scape that meets your eyes is cloud.
But up here is different.
First, this is not a world arranged around water, but arranged for livestock and leisure. You know those delightful watercolours by Gainsborough? Of watered silk and breeches and spaniels? Here is the landowner and his wife, or sister, or family, sitting before their estate. The farmed acres behind them are a paradise for social capital and hunterly, bloody delights. That’s what the country is like here.
These are the landscapes of Kingsley’s Ode to the North East Wind (I still giggle uncontrollably at all the bits about softening the pen"). And in the late eighteenth century this landscape, up here, where the boy lives, was THE place to be, in the right season.
Second difference: the soil here isn’t that black cake-crumb of the fens.It’s rust and clinker, friable and not sticky at all, and it stains your boots with iron. At every field’s edge are hedges precisely the right height for a hunter to jump, or a little more, and I’ve never seen so few crows. Not a single magpie in a day’s walking.
But that one day last week I must have seen a good ten thousand pheasants. They were in every place we went: jumping up spring-heeled to snap beetles from mustard flowers, wandering across the roads, hundreds of them in each bosky fragment along the rides. In early September the pheasants are particoloured and short-tailed, still adolescent and silly, and half can hardly fly.
Walking in a landscape this full of game soaks into some deep part of the mind, perhaps that part concerned with miracles; for long nights after, my dreams have been full of pheasants. Pheasants ducking and running through sheepfence, squeezing under brambles, through nettles, into hedgebottoms and ultimately into the huge sheafs of purposely-planted cover. In that hot afternoon the whole field of maize on top of the far hill crackled with partridges and pheasants as if it were charged.
Needless to say, this is not a public landscape. The boy and I walked down a tiny, private, muddy track for a couple of miles, and at the end of the track was a vast lake hemmed by pines. Here the track got less muddy and became a lawn. It wasn't edged by hazel scrub either, but with ancient lilacs.
It was a very strong and strange place. By the dam we stopped and sat. Part-gilded by the September light a buzzard swung across the sky above, mewing angrily. There was a dead jack pike rotting on the outflow. The water was gauzy, white under the trees. This was Walden Pond, feat. Gainsborough.
This world of private lakes and follies and neo-classical houses and foxhunting hedges and brakes and copses and holes is so peculiar and so reeking of mythical Englishness that I would not have been surprised, at that lakeside, if a small, muddy unicorn had trotted out from the shallows and wandered away, briskly, into the woods.
There was no unicorn. This was mildly disappointing. But my new need for figures from medieval romances was fulfilled fabulously by what I saw later: wild boar. Which are not, I was astonished to find, anything like pigs. More on that, and on them, next post...