Maybe. Sometimes. It was 38c, and now it’s raining again. But the sun still blazes whether we feel it or not.
We have come to that languid not-quite-anything time, past the moment when the flowers are at their peak, yet some way off – one presumes – the edgy energy of autumn. Many birds are enduring their annual moult and are hiding, while foxes trot through the woods in coats so short, they look as tight as skin suits.
And then there’s the clouds. They cannot decide whether to tower over us or augment the scenery down below.
The North Downs Way is arguably south-east England’s premier hike. This happens to be my local part of it, but the whole 153 miles spans the breadth of Surrey and Kent, following what is reputed to be the traditional route of pilgrims visiting Thomas à Becket’s grave at Canterbury Cathedral. I’ve walked a good distance down it, meandering between meadows and downland, vineyards and forgotten castles.
History is a major theme. People have been travelling here for a long time.
But the hills themselves have a past. You can feel a little bit of it standing on the high Surrey ridges – the view stretches from the Chilterns to Tonbridge and Hampshire on good days. It is the ramparts of something older, the crumbling bones of a giant chalk dome which was forced skyward in the same tectonic movements that built the Alps. If I had walked here in the early days, I would have been at the same altitude as Scafell. But time has lowered it, and scooped out the middle, and all that remains are the steep chalky rims: the North and South Downs.
The hills are old. This summer is not. It still has resting to do before autumn can greet it.
I know a meadow where every step makes the air sweet with crushed thyme.
This is not Surrey, although it greatly resembles it. We do have some precious fragments of untarnished wildflower meadows in the North Downs, and I’m fighting to protect them. One of the things that gives me energy in that battle is the memory of another, wilder meadow, one where I was privileged to spend eight weeks last year, tracking wildcats and bears through fields that have never known a tractor’s fumes.
This is Romania – to be exact, Transylvania, the horseshoe of farmland ringed by the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. It is almost the last place in Europe where farming is still genuinely environmentally sustainable. Tiny, family-owned farms grow a few vegetables, and there’s still time to take cattle for a walk.
Harvest needs a horse.
At Transylvania’s heart are the 12th century Saxon villages, built by the kings of Hungary with fortified churches to hold back the Ottomans and Tatar invaders. During the project, I stayed in seven of them, learning the landscape while collecting data on carnivores who leave fieldsign as blatant as this:
The scratches are the handiwork of a brown bear, Europe’s largest carnivoran south of the Arctic. Transylvania has a widespread bear population, and although I don’t trust Romania’s official figures for wildlife, bears are certainly doing far better in these orchid-rich meadows than in the rest of lowland Europe combined.
So, I’ll recount my stories from all seven of the Saxon villages over the next few days. Travel back in time to a world where horses outnumber cars and wildcats drink from unnamed streams…
Hear Time beating on these walls – march forward, forward, forward…
See stones laugh at so many feet – they were building blocks of hills, carried here by Vikings, and humanity is a light burden compared to the sky.
Nature creeps into them.
They protect York’s markets.
They are watched by York’s grandest towers – pause there, for ‘grand’ is a shallow cry in this most mighty of shadows. Few buildings anywhere soar into your spirit like the Minster.
Within it are books close to their 1000th birthday.
Under it were found the bones of the even older Roman building – and the footprints of a dog, running across a Roman roof slate.
The Romans left wolves here, too.
And foxes are enthroned in glass on the great Eastern Window, celebrated in this modern sewing.
The organ notes resound and music echoes with the Minster’s vaulted arches. The tune rolls forward, like Time, like the rolling of the becks in the Vale to the north.
Travel with it, restless under the tempestuous autumn skies.