The following are extracts from Maryanne Grant Traylen’s book A Ring of Downs, a book of words and photographs which reflects on the North Downs Way’s eastern ‘Ring’ as a mandala, linking place to psyche. This area stretches from a fork on the North Downs Way at Broughton Aluph/Lees, south-east through Folkestone Downs to Dover, and north-east through Canterbury to Dover.
1. Showerless at Tolsford
If a skud is a quickly passing shower, the one I can see as we begin an ascent towards Tolsford Hill from the Postling side, had better stay in the distance, I say to Dog, trying to gauge whether the direction of the wind is for or against us. But if it is a virga – a visible shaft of rain that evaporates before reaching the ground – as a clearly delineated grey chunk of cloud in the distance descending with feathery bits hanging down from it, as it looks to be, it shouldn’t strike us.
But there is too much going on in the sky, and winds seeming to come from one angle, then another, make it difficult to be sure of anything. It’s not dintless, (cloudless), but nor is there any sense of dropples – large drops of rain. It looks like it could be gleamy, meaning showers with fitful sunshine, but all we have at the moment is a bright sharpness that lures us upwards through lush green September grass.
We turn left to go up the western slope that skirts Tolsford’s wood, scrambling under hawthorn and chalky inclines till we find a path sunk into the terracettes that looks inland on this side of the Hill. But instead of following this contour Dog decides to go through the stile on to that side of the Hill that looks over St Mary’s Bay to Dungeness, following round the other edge of the clump of trees that we could call a toll or a pett. The grey sky hanging ‘thing’ which I’ve decided to call a virga is still there but is floating seawards rather than towards us.
We scramble along some deeply etched tyre-marks through more lush grass and sheep, steering clear of a blood curdling shriek that after a few listens I decipher to be a person’s, not cows’ or sheep, and chancing upon a nonchalant family of three out black-berrying with a ladder, decide it must have been one of them, the teenage boy perhaps, rather than a murder victim.
The virga, as we start heading back towards the toll or pett, still hangs in the sky, closer towards the sea now, its feathery trails as light as ever. It hasn’t eclipsed the sun which shines bright and sharp with an autumn intensity over the Tolsford Hill side which looks down over buttressing scarps to the full trees that gather above Postling. The scarps’ shadows are deep; hawthorn bushes bright in the sun.
We have travelled this little way through sharp and brightly-almost-blinding weather that hasn’t hurt us, and rounded the same bend back to the car, feeling a little transformed in our lungs by fantastical sky worlds with the virga still kindly at bay. We have had a proper soodle or a prole – a (very) pleasurable short walk.
2. Existential Etchinghill: December
Ok, I say to Dog, time to go out. But, as he who is always at the mercy of humans’ indecisions suspects, there’s one more thing to do, write down, think about, gather up, before going out becomes reality. Sometimes I feel sorry for him. All he can do is trust, and trust again if necessary that his trust will be reborn: that my procrastination will come to an end. That I won’t turn into an ogre. All too easy against a dumb, trusting creature.
Only a temporary glitch of a thought. All I’ve said is time to go out, but not gone yet. Look at Dog and me. What matters to him matters to me: simple things counting to our simple natures hell-bent on this outing even before we know how it will change us.
But it’s hard work walking, or hard working over the walking mud. It slides under feet and paws like a conveyor belt that’s gone askew. All is grey. Yet the fallow woodland floor once bursting with bluebell and garlic still excites Dog, and me too. The cracking twigs, Dog’s rasping, excited breaths. Throw me the stick again he’s saying, again and again and again. For through The Beeches, as these woods are called, spidery tracks forged through brown twigs and green leaves, hidden in summer by dense foliage, now stretch their tentative fingers out across the floor. Now there are spaces to throw a stick, a winter glade strewn only with a fallen horizontal trunk of curling, once vertical tree. Dog skids through the brown beech and oak leaves, flinging them and their dust up into the air as he stops to twist and return, disturbing the damp, underneath, but retrieving the stick.
Whispering woods. Whispering words. The susurrating wind whoops them up, rushing from an unseen distance in an unknown ether. Voluminous spinneys of beech trees with mazes of high branches play host to itinerant winds. Dog keeps snapping the brittle but flimsy branchlets and dry leaves under paw as he chases one whim after another over a million seasons that have laid down their ever-compressing layers of underlay beneath this carpet.
The glitch returns. Humans starting out happy, enthusiastic, giving their all, then by slow degrees allowing themselves to feel quashed, let down, one thing then another neither valued nor wanted taken out, trodden underfoot. The human heart brought down, disappointed, growing cold. Yet the sounds and presences of wind and snapping twigs in this woodland are not of people, and this decomposing forest floor is recomposing into something new that’s alive and bursting on a grim winter’s day.
Within this long but narrow toll, a pett, perched on the edge of a scarp, a brent on the brow of the hill, is fallow land resting before spring. A humble nab on one side of a horseshoe spur dropping steeply down one way, flowing gently down another, from which we glimpse sides of the Downs and sloping fields, also sleeping, that we won’t be following today.
For the uneven, rain-sodden paths have been turned to stew, totts of otherwise solid grass reduced to high mounds that sink like putty under wellington boots squashling through slappy dough. A zam-zody (if we were in Exmoor), our spandled foot and paw prints too widely dissolved and loose to be recognisable. I’m tired of it, I say to Dog again, trudging and repetitive in thought and body, with the exhaustion of perpetually having not to slip and find myself face down in mud. So he comes up beside me to lend support and I cling to his neck for steadiness. Then we’ve rounded the bend, avoiding sheep to our left, and Dog takes off chasing rabbits in and out of the prickly gorse bushes, leaving me clinging now to the fence, my stumbling, fumbling feet seeking out the steadier grassier edges of the quagmire, tottering towards the totts.
I feel weak I say to Dog, oh how he yawns, and we look again at the shapes of coombes and spurs in the grey winter light that have inspired us in the summer, the steep inclines that we won’t do today, but will instead keep focussed on the level to avoid the ascents and descents for those not feeling strong.
We cross a field with a little domesticated hawmell (a paddock) separated from those inspiring curving slopes of wind-rustled long grasses that we’ve luxuriated through on balmy sunshine days and can still glimpse through the open trees. A flisk, a shatter of light rain, touches us, the wind still suthering through the distant trees more loudly than the fizmer, which is visible as well as audible as it shifts and ripples through the gossamer grasses, much as it does at times every season in this place we love. The drizzle fizzles, the skud passes.
On the way back through those whispering, windy, wonderful woods, I release a neat little stick into the large spaces between trunks. It spins wildly out of control, bouncing off a tree and landing at its feet. Down on it as if he were killing a rat, Dog imprisons the thing, clamping it into his quivering, jaunty jaw, tossing it into the air, turning it around nonchalantly in his mouth so it twirls as if he were a cheer-leader with a baton.
He never stops to ask if the abandoned leaf really can be cheered to know it’s part of the forest’s regeneration. If the disappointed human heart grows colder than fallow, Dog’s doesn’t. In as much as I take a long time about it Dog trusts I’ll carry on doing what I do, and I’ll do my utmost not to let him down.
3. From Holywell to Arpinge Heights
The field from Holywell Avenue to Holywell is muddy, but not as muddy as the path. The noise of traffic from the base of Sugar Loaf Hill is distracting and as dirty as the mud. Not alarmingly loud but just taking away all possibility of calm, as if every peaceful air molecule in this protected horseshoe combe were instead amplifying sound.
Only, in flits of occasional sunshine, the almost thick foliage veiling Holywell’s water is a relief counterbalance to the stagnant stench and feel of mud as it glues itself to my boots and Dog’s underbelly.
But Holywell can always hold its own, even though the traffic still gives no relief, nor the mud. Known as St Thomas’, its well is said to have provided respite for pilgrims on their way to Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury. Other rumours suggest it was a sheep-dip, a mill-grinder, even a steam-roller fallen from a road. In spring Holywell is carpeted with wild, white garlic flowers, ramsons, poised over fresh green, lily-shaped leaves.
We are on our way back to the car. I stand for a second looking up at Sugar Loaf Hill. To one side of it the Canterbury Road carves through the chalk escarpment, above and behind us roars the A20 about to pierce into Round Hill, its concrete stilts upon the field, I have to say impressive, but closest of all is the A259 roaring also, more prettily perhaps at the base of the Folkestone Downs as it makes its way towards town and harbour.
This is a significant place. Go to higher ground it whispers. Before the sun sets. Take the significance there. And we can because we’ve got the car, that very thing that’s ruining the peace here.
And so we wind along the Downs past Castle Hill, Cherry Tree Gardens and Cheriton Hill, stop over the White Horse where sunbeams shoot from behind a cloud, past Peene where we turn left and park at our usual place beside Shearin Bungalow.
Dog is ecstatic to be here. It began when he was a puppy. We shared some moments of tussocked joy in the grass round the base of a skeleton hawthorn that rose into the sky. He runs to this tree looking for a stick to play with. It amazes me he has such a memory of that moment six years ago. That each time we come back here his anyway unbounded spirits lift so. Be it denuded, this is his tree still. Our place on the ground. Our breath-taking relief. Our summit of Down brimming with silence.
Dr Maryanne Grant Traylen is scholar of Blake and Jung, commissioning editor of Stella Maris and Transitions (a journal of crossing real and metaphorical), writer of fiction Twenty Stories (set in the South East), Climbing Sea, Silk and Sound, and poetry, Sea Saw Sea. A Ring of Downs is to be a sequel to A Dog on the Downs (published 2017).
Photographs by the author.