On Sunday I walked with K. up to New Yatt, a small village some two miles from Witney. We were hoping to tramp from there, across fields and the A4095, to Cogges Wood. But as we sat down in the centre of the village we were both already suffering from the heat, and our water bottle was nearly empty. There was a pub in the distance but we both reasoned that it had to be closed on Easter Sunday; surely, it had to be. I also felt a little lightheaded from the cold I didn’t yet know I had, and sitting down brings trouble to a long ramble anyway, as calf muscles stiffen and knee joints start to swell. All in all, if there’d been a bus service at that point, we’d have been home within the hour.
Eventually we raised ourselves on creaking limbs, with hot heads and sweaty necks, and set off over the fields, soon sporting big grins at the prospect of being far away from the traffic on New Yatt Road. We passed through a set of paddocks with temporary fences between them, and then turned off into a small, protected wood that had a vaguely elvish feel to it. It was thick with young trees; around their spindly bases frothed grass and a healthy mix of wildflowers; fat rabbits hopped into these thickets in the far distance, big enough to be mistaken, briefly, for muntjac deer. Even the A-road, which we were heading towards after all, was quieter than it had been in New Yatt: a long line of fir trees at the edge of the wood muted the buzz of the passing cars. It was all surprisingly, suddenly still.
Sadly, a hundred yards after the wood there was a sign that brought us and our romantic notions up short. It declared, in rather wobbly red letters, something like “STOp! Private property no right of way”. With typical rural aggressive-passive aggressiveness it managed to ward off the accidental trespasser, yet be tight-lipped as to the actual route they were meant to take; hence it generally as well as specifically discouraged rambling, in any form. We’ll make sure you’re afraid of making a mistake, it implied (and there’d been shotgun noises as we walked up the New Yatt Road as if to add weight to this argument), but we won’t help you find your way, or indeed do anything except turn around and go home. This isn’t Scotland, you know.
With the heat beating down on us we eventually gave up and returned to the village. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, though, as the pub—the Saddler’s Arms—was actually open. We watered and we lagered. By this I don’t mean that we were laid down in cool conditions to mature before bottling. The pub was shelter from the unseasonable weather outside, but I can’t say either of us matured particularly (although from the heat I was by now a little yeasty). We filled our water-bottle up slyly in the toilets and took a different route home, past Job’s copse (the Biblical pronunciation reveals you as a city-dweller, as I discovered when we asked for directions) and the homesteads that make up Poffley End.
It was on this part of the journey that we saw rabbits and lambs that we might not have seen in Cogges Wood; further on was a horse, hilariously performing the back-scratching dustbath act that the office dog sometimes indulges in, only on a heavier, meatier scale. The larger the animal, the harder it is for it to writhe on the floor for a minute or two then rise onto all fours with its dignity intact. I can’t say our dog really manages it, except when an ear turned inside out by the exertion lends him a raffish charm.
Seeing us both stood pointing and giggling by a gate, the horse wandered over, hoping for a scratch on the bits of its head that it just couldn’t reach. I obliged, and it turned its head from side to side like a birthday balloon filled with powerful sinew and lead-heavy bone. I stood as far back as I could, chin tucked well away from the horse’s long, bobbing nose.
In the end I tired of petting the horse. K, who’s slight enough of frame to blanche at such muscly, ungainly animals close up (she only married me because I convinced her I had leg extensions), had already backed away a little. So we said our good-byes and headed off down the bridle path, but I don’t think our new friend quite understood. Just before we moved out of sight it hollered the loudest, longest whinney I had ever heard. Come back, it was saying: my left ear is still driving me crazy….