13 April 2011 § 6 Comments


Pass in under the wood’s eaves
And take the right fork past the tall lone ash
With the hole high up where the nuthatch hides.
Four steps down to the silted stream
Its banks revetted with iron roots
Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand.
Five back up to the field corner
And a sinuous trail, just shoulder-wide,
A winterbourne of mud between low branches
That pluck at clothes like nagging children.
Four ways shake hands in the trampled clearing;
Follow the one that rounds the rim
Of the deep pit dug by long-dead brick-makers.
Into the coppice, over twin ditches
The hunting-dog hurdles in two long leaps.
Past the great fallen tree, worm-holed, beetle-bored,
And weave through the birches down in the dip.
Hug the wood’s edge where it fronts the field
Home to rabbits and cows in the warmth of the day
And the fox in the evening. Up the short steep slope,
Sandy, seamed with burrows, to a broad, level ride
Under spreading oaks, where the bluebell scent
Hangs thick as smoke. Pause in a soaring hornbeam hall
High as a church, with a floor of beaten earth. Call the dog.
Over a young tree, still bravely bursting into leaf
Though laid low by a curl of wind a dozen nights ago.
Down the slope where the squirrels sprint
For safety in the tangled trees. Three steps down
To the sleeper bridge, then the last drag up
To the wood’s front door. Close it behind you.
Keep the key.

I got the idea for this poem from the wonderful ‘Britannia‘ atlas of England and Wales – the world’s first-ever nationwide road map, published by Scottish polymath John Ogilby in 1645. It consists of a series of 100 strip maps, drawn at the then-innovative scale of one inch to the mile, each describing a section of road, such as ‘London-Bromley-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge-Rye’ (plate 31) or ‘Oxford-Buckingham-Bedford-Cambridge’ (plate 80). It bridges the gap between modern cartography and the medieval means of navigating across country, which basically involved following directions from one town to the furthest extent of local knowledge, then asking again.

For my poem, I simply followed Ogilby’s example and wrote notes as I walked round our nearby woods. (Incidentally, Ogilby claimed to have surveyed over 26,000 miles of roads in order to compile his atlas, measuring distances using the intriguingly-named ‘Wheel Dimensurator’; about 7,500 miles’-worth appeared in the final version) Sadly, I can’t draw, so I’ve created a ‘strip map in words’, which I hope gives some flavour of what you might find if you ever chance upon our corner of the country.

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§ 6 Responses to Directions

  • Brendan says:

    A map like this is pure topography — the leys and lolls of a land which the 2-dimensioned map can’t approach. And the contours are everything alive you passed on your transit — so many details that won’t be there for the next traveller to follow the same compass. What did Heraklitos say — “Ever newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.” It’s a new world every time. Yours forever fresh in this poem.

  • belfastdavid says:

    One of the benefits I found from buying a camera was that it taught me to be more observant on my walks but this is even better – you capture the detail in a way no camera ever can.
    And your poem reminds me that it is the time of year when I must make a pilgrimage to the bluebell woods near Ilkley.
    I still have the key from last time I was there 🙂

    • gonecycling says:

      As I said in my reply to Brendan, I don’t (can’t) draw – and even if I had a decent camera, I’d forget to take it with me! Pleased to hear I’ve painted a passable picture in words – and that you’ve got a key to your own bluebell wood. Everyone should have one.

  • slpmartin says:

    What brilliant metaphors you use in this one (e.g. “Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand”)…just a perfect snapshot of the walk.

    • gonecycling says:

      Thank you, Charles; I’ve just retraced my steps and had a completely different walk! That’s the real beauty of it, and something I never tire of.

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