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Drawing Down, Tuesday 4th September 2007

"And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds."

Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth, September-October, 1917.

Yesterday was the last day of the holidays, so I headed for the "Delectable Mountains" of the Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire border to pine for Chale and chine; and draw consolation from lynchet and lane.

Though a more strenuous circuit I haven't done for a while, except perhaps from Compton Bay to the Needles. And that was fortified by Sunday lunch at a Michelin-listed pub, not a dull ploughman's sandwich in cardboard and plastic film from the newsagents in Harlington.  Though I was grateful enough for that.

It wasn't until I began to climb the chalk escarpment that the penny dropped.  I'm not sure whether it was the sunshine, the Downs ahead of me, the stubbly fields at my feet, or the water babbling down the deep field ditch. I was not across the Solent, but across the Channel.

In the noonday sunshine there is no more beautiful time of year. For a short while neither entirely summer nor entirely autumn.  Just beauty and abundance. Hay bales and tall tales.  A double high tide.

But a closer look reveals some of the fruits already shrivelled. The maple leaves tarred with black spots. A detour into longer cover scrambles air-borne seeds. But there are no children to catch them.


After a semi-circle via Ravensburgh Castle (actually an iron age hill fort  typical of the chalk, here mostly obscured by trees and with no public access) and the villages of Hexton and Pegsdon, I gained the ridge again at Telegraph Hill. I heard an owl on the way up but only saw a kestrel which voted against my presence with its wings.

From the Icknield Way I peeled off south across Gally and Warden Hills, skirting the ubiquitous suburban golf course, and descending to river flood plain and new build spread like middle age against the Chiltern chalk belt.

Nearing the train station, I began to feel chilly in a t-shirt and I wondered how the source of the River Lea on Leagrave Common could also be its grave? I would later find out, via Google, that grave possibly refers, perhaps a little prosaically,  to a grove or coppiced wood. But I was too tired to look for myself. The well-head could wait for fresh legs.

Draw down is such a new expression that no one can agree whether it should be one word or two, or perhaps hyphenated. It seems to be a euphemism for withdrawal, one that perhaps sounds rather more assertive and positive. Like pulling the curtains or sweeping under the carpet. It doesn’t carry the whiff of undignified retreat.

A well known writer on the Hertfordshire countryside, I recalled, famously regretted reporting July 1st 1916 as an unqualified military success. But then language has always been used to muddy and obscure as much as reveal and enlighten. Part fountain, part graveyard. Not unlike the source of a chalk stream as it begins its contested course through landscape and history.

© Richard Shepherd, 2007


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