Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.
It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.
I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion. It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig
And so to dinner. To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular product range with the endearing brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.
‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets. ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’. It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey; but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.
It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost. So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.
WHAT GOES IN A BLOG? Judging by the practices of an established host incomparably more knowledgeable than myself, the answer is anything.
Jostling for attention on the World-Wide Web, unsleeping, unstinting in their largesse, long-serving veterans with multitudes of faithful followers make us party not merely to their most intimate cerebral ruminations, but even to confidences concerning their most private colonic functions. Compulsive communicators all, advertising their views upon every topic from the Eurozone debt crisis to ectoplasmic conception, fluent in the ingenious illiteracies of Twitterspeak, they are the aboriginals of an exciting new world of publishing in which no challenge to established custom, decorum or grammatical discipline exists to cramp one’s style
To the aspiring byliner it is a liberty more promising than the Arab Spring, an opportunity of boundless possibility. Eight months ago, for example, I yearned for a column such as that belonging to the great W.F.(‘Bill’) Deedes of the Daily Telegraph in which to write about anything I pleased, including polished gems from the infinitely rich diggings of country life. Had I been so equipped I would have been able to share with my readers the drama of the rooks which for the third year running were in solitary possession of the very top of the tall maple tree that overlooked my garden. Then, I was painfully frustrated in my instinctive desire not to squander the stuff of potentially great journalism on my solitary self. Now, there is the blog, and I propose to give ‘Tales from the Downs’ (Or something like that. I live in Sussex)) a whirl.
The rooks had been a source of infinite pleasure. To say that I saw the placing of every twig and other piece of material that went to the building of their nest would be untrue; but day by day, almost hour by daylight hour, I observed the process of the original construction and the subsequent annual repairs. Twice, I witnessed through my field glasses the progress of their offspring from clamorous beaks raised above the parapet of the nest to scrawny young, teetering on the brink of first flight. This year, disaster most foul threatened. One day in late spring, when Arctic winds and equinoctial gales had been survived and the weeks of selfless parental devotion must have been almost at a successful end, the vicious din of a mechanical saw ripped through the early morning air. Starting from my desk, I was appalled by the sight of men in hard yellow hats and slung about with climbing gear, swinging with simian agility from limb to limb, engaged in a hard and comprehensive pruning of the very tree in which my valiant friends were installed.
By lunch time they had half completed the task. By four o’clock, when the sedate neighbourhood’s usual quiet was restored, it looked as if another hour or two would see them finish the job. All evening I grieved. Next day, the discomforts of a dental session were dwarfed by the dread of what was certain to confront me on my return home. Imagine, then, my near incredulity at finding not a well-shaped, albeit severely (and for my rooks catastrophically) lopped maple, but one in which, grotesquely, Daliesque, the bare but unbeheaded trunk rose clear above the neatly barbered canopy like a mainmast still bravely standing after a devastating naval broadside. And almost at the summit, secure still in its fork, for all the world resembling the maintop of a ship of the line , the nest that I had given up as cruelly lost, and one of the owners at work
What solicitude! What humane consideration! What compassion upon the part of the proprietors of the maple! Contrary to my residual fears, dauntlessly, the birds stayed to raise their customary brood of two. Some time at the end of May, unobserved by me, they left. A week or so later the men returned with their saws and arboreal symmetry was finally achieved.
Where are they now, my rooks? How will they fare next year? Whatever the answers, I like to think that they may have acquired at least a fleeting affection for the human race.
So there is likely to be a good deal more in this vein. Nature is indefatigable and the countryside is very large.