Today has been sunny and almost warm. It is a pleasure to be out; we take our time, we smile at everyone, even those who are in such a hurry they haven’t noticed that they share the planet with other sentient beings.
In this momentary spring day, Ruby and I can afford to be magnanimous.
T S Eliot famously wrote, in The Waste Land, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land”. It was a cynical parody of the opening lines of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but he had got it wrong, for we all know that the cruelest month is, in fact, February, with its warm days that entice us to linger on the bench at the summit of the road, at New House, and that reveal the waxy snowdrops in the brown leaf-litter, only to hit us with a frost and flutter of wet snow.
I can remember, one far-off February day, when I was 20 and living in a strange city, self-consciously learning to be a Poet ,scribbling a poem about the warm roughness of new, earthy potatoes in the grocer’s shop, knowing, even then, that February could suddenly turn to burn with the heat of frost, and we would be, once more, lighting our cigarettes on the one-bar electric fire.
It felt wonderful, those February days, pretending to be Allen Ginsburg, feeling the warm earth on the potatoes.
And now, in a different place and a different century, these early spring days are still working their cruel magic.
From the bench at New House, the valley snakes away in long lines of drystone walls, in true Yorkshire style. I could be nowhere else – the blackening walls, the flat-topped hills, the piling clouds in the blueness.
My spell-checker keeps telling me it is not drystone wall, but dry stone wall. But these are not stone walls that are dry; they are walls, often very wet indeed, that are built with stones that are dry. Walls that have been held together for centuries without any mortar or lime.
They tell the old, old story of the slow winning of the land from the Waste and the Moor, and the Fell. The fields of rough pasture are small and irregular, tracing the labour of a family, to bring the moor under some kind of precarious control. The walls were built with the very stones that were thrown up from the new field, the wall looping from rock outcrop to rock outcrop.
It would have been hard work . . . each little field stacked up against the weather and the thin soil.
No fields of barley and beans here; just sheep and small, black cattle.
I wouldn’t have it any other way, for these walls net the spirit of place. Hedges, even if possible, would be too soft, too flexible.