Photographs by Harry Whaite 1912 - 2011

 

 

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The Winter Ramblers In England

Joan Ellwood

from The Sydney Bush Walker 1935

 

Now with the decline of the year begins the best time for walking. Spring is delightful, and on winter days when I am pent in a chilly office, I think wistfully of that day last spring when we wandered into Kent, by orchards of young trees, each crowned with dazzling blossom, through copses shining grey and green, where the tree-roots had been hidden by the spreading of countless white anemones, past hedges of blackthorn, banked and topped as if with snow. Indeed, "spring goeth like a bride . . ." But, then, I want to stand and gaze, to breathe the scented air, to stretch in the unaccustomed sun; and in summer, I know, we long for water in which to bathe or dip our feet, and then, oh! for a shady pine wood, we cry, wherein to laze till tea-time.

But in September and October, just as the robin and the seagull now make their appearance in town and country, the winter ramblers become obvious, and our motto, "We won't go cosy," calls with meaning to the spirit of the more adventurous. The summer walkers, the fair-weather folk, drop off and those who are faithful throughout the year, wet or fine, hot or cold, are to be seen in the full glory of their plumage—shorts of khaki and jackets of leather, suede and blanket, all in more or less sombre hues, relieved by the brilliance of socks, gloves, scarves and caps of every conceivable hue. An added touch of radiant colour is given by the purple knees peculiar to this most interesting of the winter fauna of the southern counties of England.

In winter, then, we wake at seven o'clock, or six or five, if we belong to that ever-to-be-lauded body of stalwarts who live on the other side of the metropolis, and in the dark of a fireless Sunday morning, prepare our solitary and uninspiring breakfast, pack the Bergan without which no winter rambler is complete, and trudge through bitter winds and chill rain to the meeting-place. Not a cheerful start, think those who lie snug a-bed, and with the inevitable afterthought: "They must be mad," the Sybarites fall asleep again. But ... to be climbing a slope of the North Downs at ten or eleven of a frosty morning, and to halt at the top for coffee and the other blessed comforts carried in those much-maligned ruesacs, and if the day be kind, to pick out familiar places across the Weald, out into the countryside during the winter, can feel more deeply the return of these things. How can he tell, if he sits in an armchair awaiting Persephone's return, whether or not the chestnut buds are swelling, whether the first orphan'd lamb has raised its cries from a frost-enchanted farm. Indeed, he does not know. But he who has seen so long the black smitten trees, whose eyes have grown wearied with the colourless hills, is quick to see a mist of green on a wood, the indication of sunlight over a valley, and to note where amid sodden leaves, the "faint fresh flame of the young year flushes" into life the primrose roots. Soon, spring bursts forth and he who sits indoors cannot help but hear, and timidly steps out to see if it is true. But we, we know it is true, and we share just a little of the pride, for we have watched over the flowers in the making, companioned the trees in the budding, seen the miracle in its preparation.

          "For winter's rains and ruins are over, And all the season of snows and sins; The days dividing lover and lover, The light that loses, the night that wins; And time remembered is grief forgotten, And frosts are slain and flowers begotten, And in green underwood and cover Blossom by blossom the spring begins."

                JOAN ELLWOOD. (Southern Pathfinders, England.)

Leith Hill, Box Hill, Colley Hill, and, perhaps, if we are a little further south, the first ridge of the South Downs—a magic sight— like a wall set straight across the path to the sea . . . that is but one reward. And even to wander all day in a damp and penetrating fog has its excitement, in that it is not such a common phenomenon as is generally supposed across the seas surrounding us. And to tramp through rain on a particularly strenuous ramble, and totter into the station waiting-room in the evening feeling as though we will never cease to lift up our feet in a mechanical march, then are warmth and rest to be appreciated, and we are thankful for our homes and beds in a way that we have never been before.

We hear much of "the glories of autumn," but, I wonder, how can they who venture not into the open between September and May, know and appreciate the real splendour of the trees. To see a solitary tree dropping its gold on a suburban pavement is truly a happy sight, but how much more enviable it is to look over the roof of a forest, where every kind of tree is putting forth its best endeavours and the soft-rounded heads weave an undulating tapestry of copper, saffron, tawny and silver.

We swing along, ten, twenty or thirty of us, and feel vigour replace the lassitude of summer. Our pace quickens, and we talk at our fastest and loudest, of dances and Youth Hostel tours. Easter with us is generally an unpleasant time, between the seasons as it is, tricking us with false promises of warmer weather and then sending a fall of snow or an icy wind to damp our ardours for bathing and short sleeves. But we continue to arrange our week-end tours at Easter and Whitsuntide, and as each one is drawing to an end, we look ahead like children, to the next. Thus we come to the erstwhile haven of our dreams, a public house, or very occasionally, a cafe; here we gather round the fire and create as stuffy an atmosphere as possible, transact Club business, perpetrate atrocious puns and jokes which call forth groans and, if we have both piano and pianist, indulge in ear-splitting community singing, to the great interest of the regular patrons, who emerge from their chimney corners to inspect us at closer range. That is the companionship of winter. In the summertime you would have found us scattered and inert, four lunching in a field, half-a-dozen in the saloon bar behind their manly pints of Burton, a few more drinking tea in the front parlour set at their disposal, and sundry others, enthusiastic photographers and archaeologists, wandering around the silent church, the deserted street, the timbered charm of the houses with their Sunday expression of blank dignity.

When, too, we set off after tea in the dark, linked arm-in-arm, in twos, fours and eights, we are seized with something of the same spirit that thrills us at the age of six, when we venture into the strange dark street to sing carols or explode fireworks. Torchlight, headlight, window-light and the incomparable light of the moon, what flashes of beauty they segregate and set before us for the delight of the moment! Corporeal bodies cease to exist, except when we stumble against each other, and our companions are noisy ghosts, and if we feel averse to noise at that moment, we drop away to the rear and feel more keenly the content that the earth breathes out. A hasty blowing of whistles intrudes on dreams and with a somewhat guilty mind, we "close up the gaps, please!" and proceed once more with the jocular shadows who are by day substantial ramblers.

There are few days in England when we cannot ramble with enjoyment and perfect safety. This I have on the authority of an Australian who has walked in both countries, many years in each. He who has known warmth and beauty and the sun, and has gone