Neil Ansell was born and raised in Hampshire but has not lived there since he was seventeen. He is the author of Deep Country (Penguin 2011) and Deer Island (Little Toller Books 2013).
Deadman Brook winds lazily along the valley bottom, sometimes pausing to form a deep pool, sometimes broadening and splintering around little turf islands capped with thorn bushes or a tangle of heather. In places it even disappears altogether, dissolving away into a bog of almost luminescent green sphagnum moss before emerging again, reforming and commencing its slow progress, its waters clear and acid. I look around the deserted valley, seeking familiarity, seeking memory. It is over thirty years since I was last here. High gravel ridges rise to either side, coated in heather dulled by winter and collapsed bracken, studded here and there with still-green gorse bushes. The ridge to my north is capped with pine trees; Deadman Hill to the south is sheathed by a stunted forest of gorse, in places burnt a skeletal black by bush fires.
It is a cold January day. The sky is a uniform grey and an icy drizzle is falling. The valley seems bereft of life; no bird calls, not one solitary crow is in the sky. Even the ubiquitous New Forest ponies have sought out more sheltered ground. I had found them earlier on my way here, downstream in the woods, beneath the trees. There, a cock blackbird was scratching away at the dead leaves under a holly bush, and a little winter party of long-tailed tits wavered unsteadily from tree to tree, one bird at a time, but out on the open heath all is still. It is a very different place from when I first came here, on an early summer’s day when I was thirteen or fourteen. I had come here to search for shrikes. There were perhaps only fifty pairs of red-backed shrikes in the whole country, so they were not an easy find, but I had been guided here by someone in the know, on the promise that I would keep the location a secret. It hardly matters now; for years their range had been steadily contracting for reasons not entirely understood. Each spring fewer and fewer would return to our shores, until within a few years of my visit they would disappear from their final outposts and become effectively extinct as a British breeding bird.
For the first time that day the sun fleetingly manages to breach the cloud cover and momentarily lights up the hillside, and I am whisked back in time to my thirteen year old self. I realise that I am standing in just the same spot, looking at the very same clump of gorse as where I first saw him. He was perched erect on the topmost sprig of the bush, in all his finery, his chestnut back, his slate grey head. He looked bold and piratical with his barbaric hooked bill and rakish black eye-stripe. They are fierce little hunters, known as butcher birds for their habit of impaling their prey, mostly beetles and lizards, on thorn bushes to keep as a larder. I saw three of the birds that day, two males and one much less showy and more reticent female. The following year I came back to look for them again, but there was no sign of them. The year I found them was probably the last year they ever bred here. I can come back to the place, I can tease out memories, but I can’t relive the experience.
I leave the valley floor and begin to climb the flank of Deadman Hill, and into the burned forest. Above the scorched ground the thin blackened trunks corkscrew sinuously, while the outer branches are a tangle of jagged angles like something from a bad dream. As I squeeze my way between them the branches leave streaks of charcoal on the sleeves of my coat. I ponder whether this had been a deliberate burning to clear more ground for grazing and replenish the soil, or whether it was wildfire.
There is a narrow road that runs all the way along the ridge of Deadman Hill, but today there is almost no traffic at all. I cross the road and look down into the next valley. Black Gutter Bottom is bigger, deeper, wider, and still more bleak. It was here in wartime that they conducted the very first tests of the celebrated bouncing bomb of dambusters fame, before they first tried them out over water. There is still a litter of debris scattered across the heath from the dud bombs that fell here, even now after seventy years have passed.
I had been told that just the previous day there had been a sighting in this valley of a great grey shrike. But all I see is a vast expanse of heather and bracken, half-hidden by drifting clouds of fine rain. If it is here at all, it could be anywhere. I had half wondered whether there might be a little cluster of men with telescopes to guide my way, but the shrike is not really rare enough for that – there are perhaps fifty sightings or so every year. The two shrikes would be unlikely ever to have met up; the red-backs were summer migrants, while the greys are sporadic winter visitors. Their paths would simply never have crossed. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think how apt it would be if I was to see one, here, on this day of my return.
As I look down over the rain-lashed heath I decide that it is not worth the effort of a search that would most likely be futile. The bird had probably moved on already; I couldn’t see much here to keep it. Wild creatures, like the weather, follow their own paths; they do not comport themselves for our convenience. If from time to time they afford us a moment of resonance, it is by accident, not design. Instead of going on, I decide to retrace my steps; back across the road, back into the valley. As I work my way down the hillside again to Deadman Bottom there is a sudden furious chakking as a solitary bird flushes from amongst the heather and takes cover in a straggle of gorse. It is the first sign of life I have seen in an hour. For a brief moment I think I have it, but no, this is no shrike but another winter visitor, a fieldfare. It takes flight again as I approach, and as I follow its pale rump bobbing away from me up the hill, I notice a pair of fallow deer hinds feeding on the hillside. Their russet backs are a perfect match for the dead bracken; they are almost invisible, and I wonder how long they have been there without my noticing them. They raise their heads to look at me ruminatively, but evidently decide that I am too far away to constitute a threat, and after watching me for a few moments they relax and return to their grazing.
I am thinking about the dead man; the dead man after whom this hill, and this valley, must surely have been named. I wonder if anyone knows who he was. I wonder if anyone ever knew. I suspect not, for if his name had been known then surely the valley would now carry that name, or something else entirely, rather than that anonymous tribute. I picture someone long ago, stumbling onto the corpse of a mysterious stranger. I picture a weary, dishevelled traveller, staff in hand, staggering through the valley on a harsh day like today, on his way to an unknown destination, or perhaps to no destination at all, then as the weather worsened seeking shelter from the elements beneath a clump of gorse, somewhere to rest a while, from where he would never rise.