May climbed cold into June. Grey skies abounded; thin drizzle fell. Then came a period of sun, warm enough to coax us outside. Yet the overarching chill remained, like a vaulted roof high over everything else. In the shade silver birch catkins trembled; people shivered and clutched themselves, looking awkwardly at the skies.
I parked on Peak Lane, abandoning the car on a field margin, hoping nobody would mind. The land rose sharp and wide before me, cresting into a beech wood still dense with anemones and the flattening stalks of late-flowering bluebells. Beyond the wood was a series of interlocking fields, bordered by tall blossoming cherry trees in the canopies of which jackdaws squabbled and bombed. The air hummed.
In one of the fields, hidden from sight, there’s a great hollow in the ground – like an eye socket in the skull of the earth. Its origin is uncertain. This area was quarried extensively for London clay in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, so perhaps this isolated spot was rich in clay and abandoned once the supply had been exhausted. It does have the feel of an excavation. Or perhaps it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, an arena for unknown forces, unknown geological pressures.
During the colder months, when the surrounding meadows are balding and brittle, the cavity puffs cold air, drawing warm bodies to it. You stand in the updraught at the southern brow, the hole yawning beneath you; to the west it falls further away, ending in a great beech and hazel clothed bank, choked with flint; to the east there is a gradual incline upwards, the earth rising to meet the level of the fields around it. It’s probably no more than a 100 metres long but has the impact, due to its incongruity, of something much larger. I keep coming back.
Now, on the first warm day of the young summer, I had to wade to the site, through meadows that were thigh high with grasses and dandelions. The southern lip was dense with spring growth, barring entry. I found a gap at the eastern end, and entered into an impassably dense nettle den, amongst which flashed small stands of yellow archangel. To the north of me, through the low forest of nettles, were great washes of flattened ramsons stalks, as if they’d been trodden down by some lumbering mylodon; but here and there patches remained in flower giving the sense of a hovering blanket of mist. And then there was the smell – over everything, contained and intense, hung a pall of garlic, the air raw with it. I backed out of the tangle and headed along the eastern lacrimal wall of the socket, spying a desire path cutting through the grasses in front of me. The path led into the cool interior again, but now I was beyond the forest of nettles and into a clearer space, dominated by a rising bank out of which rose an oak and two massive ash trees. Around the base of these lay strewn the remains of the ramsons carpet. The stench was, if anything, even more over-powering here, scouring the back of my nasal cavity and reaching into the pit of my stomach. The silence was total, punctuated by the what seemed incredibly loud drumming of a woodpecker and the soft flutey trills of a greenfinch, high in the branches of one of the ashes. I sat in a cradle of exposed roots and waited. And waited.
What draws us back to certain places? I’d found myself thinking about this curious hollow at various times, feeling its pull, its promise. Even now as I sat, plagued by dancing columns of gall midges, there was the sense that something was going to happen. Time passed. Nothing came – nothing beyond the midges, the woodpecker and the distant bubbling conversation of a tawny owl. I decided to leave, but instead of following the desire path I went the other way, and clawed my way up the steep bank and along the northern ridge using exposed roots as handholds. As I approached the western end, the hole now opening deeply beneath me, I heard the muted chaos of what I assumed was a blackbird, rootling in the underbrush for grubs and worms. It was darker now, and as I squinted into the cool gloom I saw there, no more than 20 feet away, a young badger, snuffling in the flattened stems of the ramsons carpet. I can only assume that due to garlic scent blindness, and my position high above him, that he simply didn’t know I was there as he paid me no attention whatsoever. I sat for 15 glorious minutes, watching his progress through the green garlic shagpile. Occasionally he’d stop, either to wolf down a bulb or a grub, or stop for air, sneezing softly, dog-like – but not once did he look up, or give the slightest inkling that he knew I was there. It was like a short period of unexistence, something akin to JA Baker’s wish to blend into the natural world and ‘to let the human taints wash away in emptiness and silence.’ Eventually, obeying some unknowable Delphic patterning of pheromones, he changed his direction and hoovered off in the direction of the eastern shore. I had a vague notion to follow, but preferred the idea of simply sitting for a time and slowly creeping back into existence. The sun had set, and in the shadows it was like sitting inside a cool silvered chamber. The hollow had given up a smattering of its secrets. I’d be back.