“My biggest aspiration in life is to not know what day of the week it is.” Sam Hamer is not alone in wanting to slip the noose of clock-time and lose himself in the rhythms of the natural world.
We were sitting on the almost-finished pavilion boardwalk down by the river at the Kingcombe centre. Flushed with the recent rains, the Hooke River danced alongside us, while up high, rooks squabbled in the treetops. The birds didn’t know what time of day it was – at least not beyond the broad brushstrokes of dawn, day, dusk and night – and although time has been likened to rivers throughout human history, the Hooke didn’t care. It just flowed on downstream.
Visitors come to the Kingcombe centre for many reasons – to do a bit of birdwatching, to see what’s on in the art gallery, to have some tea and scones in the tea room, to walk the dog or get the children out of the house – but for most it is partly for the thrill of stepping off the calendar, away from the regulated, rigid, mechanistic march of minutes.
Every time I come to Kingcombe, it feels like I’m playing hooky. Setting off up Butt Lane, I decided to go fully off-piste, and explore an area that I had not been to before. I followed the signpost up Mount Pleasant Lane – a flinty, muddy streambed overarched with now-leafless hazel and ash forming an atrium-like tunnel up the hill. The light at the end opened to a wide rise of rough-tufted grass.
I followed Jubilee Trail footpath across the field. By the time I got to the other side, my socks were jammed uselessly in the toes of my welly boots. I stopped to pull them up a couple of times, but it was no use. I extracted the socks, stuffed them in my pocket, and set off again, bare feet rattling around in my boots.
According to the map, if I swung a left, I’d end up at ‘Fuzzy Hanging’, which sounded like just the place to be on this clockless day. Although I love the shady lowlands – the boggy meadows and tree-clumps nestling in the valleys – there’s something exhilarating about the high grounds of the Kingcombe nature reserve. The hills seem to draw back from the sky, as though they are the curtains and it is the main stage. And today, the sky is a total scene-stealer. Fat, towering cumuli with polished edges above trailing gauzy trails of beige rain across the hills; fingers of God making the earth blush gold; flashes of blue in between downpours. On the drive over from Wellington that morning, I’d been graced with not one, not two, but three rainbows in succession.
At Fuzzy Hanging, I hit a road, so I followed it until I came to an L-shaped block of fields that ended in the disused railway line that runs along the northern edge of Powerstock Common – the other ‘wing’ of nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust here.
I clunked along in my roomy wellies until I reached the soggy bottom of a field. Beyond me was the old railway cutting, and beyond that, Powerstock Common. I wanted to carry on but it seemed that all the mud of Dorset had slowly slipped down the hill and collected in the corner, like ill-fitting socks in this boot of a field. My left wellie had sunk into the mud almost to its top, and every time I pushed down with my right, that sank a bit further too. I flailed my arms a bit.
The good mulchy earth did finally relinquish its hold, and I scrambled back up the hill. Inside my boots, my feet were muddy, but inside my pockets, my socks were dry. Things were looking up.
With a silent fanfare, the sun came out. Most of the trees had lost their leaves and assumed their statuesque winter poses, but in a corner of one field, an old oak lifted its branches, still thick with ochre-brown leaves, clear of the ground.
The tree stood in a low bowl – the ground a good ten or twelve feet lower than the surrounding field. It was not unlike the hollow amid the ferns where Sergeant Troy beguiled Bathsheba Everdene with his dazzling swordplay and stole a forbidden kiss. I skidded down the side of the bowl and stopped at the base of the trunk. This was Hardy country for sure.
I lay back on a carpet of sweet nutty-smelling oak leaves and looked up at the tantalising brocade of blue, white and gold. Sky, cloud, leaf, sky, cloud, leaf; the lobes of the oak leaves echoing the rounded mounds of cloud; everything tessellated together. In this cup of earth under this canopy of tree, I was for a moment both hidden and held. No clock could tick me off here, no satellite could spot me. I was alone, AWOL and a bit deliciously lost. A jay skimmed across the glade from right to left. And then, my stomach told me, it was time to go home.
Photograph by JUHI SAKLANI
Illustration by ANITA ROY