Coulsdon, June 2016
Britain has descended into political turmoil, but out here on the downs normality persists. Summer’s flagship species are on the wing in the form of the marbled whites, meadow browns resting low down in the grass, feeding on hawkbits, hawkbeards or whatever these large yellow daisies happen to be. Yellow rattle flowers in its prime, this nationally rare flower in full voice on Farthing Downs. Now is the time to seek orchids, but so very many of them can be found in the right place it’s more a case of avoiding them. Pyramidal orchid, common spotted orchid and common twayblade gather in great number on one slope. Crab spiders cling conspicuous to florets, waiting for their moment.
The birdsong has not yet come to its end: a whitethroat sits atop scrub not yet cleared, singing, preening and dropping down to safety, a skylark and a yellowhammer distant. The plaintive piping of a raptor can be heard and a kestrel with feathers lost skates across, disappearing beyond the brow of the hill. Crows raise an alarm, I scan the now open downs for a bird of prey. Crows, ragged and worried, fly across the roof of woods, and more alarm calls are made. A scuffle ensues, the brown of a buzzard’s wings, like melting milk chocolate in this light, is followed into the trees by crows. It’s usually where the battle ends.
Trundling on in the growing heat, I pass through an area of oak, ash and bramble. From the long wash of pale grasses high as hips, a young deer bursts free. It jigs and jumps up, not so much running as bouncing along the sheltered belt of trees and bushes. It seems almost naked, in body and spirit, free of all sense. It ranges to obscurity. Soon a man dressed in a trench coat passes with his dog and their dwindling shapes swim in the overpowering scene of breaking sun and flowering grasses.
Moving through the quiet of Devilsden Wood, the clamour of school children’s voices behind me, I quietly question the decision of motor cross riders to drive back and forth for half an hour along Ditches Lane. There is a sense of a hollowing out, the opportunity to express oneself without remorse now, at least since Friday morning. I walk through these woods, ancient, growing, and think of all they have lived through. The world wars, Napoleonic war, the Magna Carter, what about the Norman Conquest, the Roman invasion, even the Neolithic revolution of 6000 years ago? I don’t know.
I leave the woods and its splintering blackbird phrases. Why do they still sing now, is there still time to breed? The meadows have thickened with grasses in one week, I rue their itchy monotony. We have experienced rainfall on an unprecedented scale, 40mm of rain in what Londoners call ‘the Brexit storms’. There are so few butterflies, only really the meadow brown, a creature that seems to endure rain, moves amongst the flowers. I feel ripped off, dispossessed. I dream of these meadows in winter. Now they have been reduced. Heading back I see a figure on the hill with a guitar. In five years I’ve never seen someone like this here, a place mainly of dog walkers, horse riders, retirees exploring the London Loop and the weekend charge of cyclists. I approach him.
He has dark hair in a ponytail, I don’t think he’s English. ‘Hi, can I take your picture?’ I ask. ‘I’ve never seen someone with a guitar here.’
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Usually I play the piano but I want to busk in London so I am learning to play the guitar. I am Italian, from the north.’
He begins playing a song but can’t remember who it’s by, someone American, slapping his wrist against the hollow body of the guitar. When he finishes I ask him what he thinks about the referendum.
‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it. Now I am here and wow,’ he says. ‘My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here.’ He opens his arms to the sunny downs. ‘And I love it.’
I thank him, Marco is his name, and point him towards Happy Valley. You can go that way and walk for weeks, I tell him. It’s something I always dream of doing, ambition reduced by its likely pain and lack of time to do it. I leave him to practice, flecks of struck guitar strings ringing out from the crown of summer downland.