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A Walk in the Woods

Warmed by molten light

Walk where the long shadows linger

Kick through the fallen leaves

Of summer dreams

Still bright with memory

----

A simple Sunday walk has to be one that involves no travel; it has to be one where you can linger over your waking and coming round to the day. Whatever creation myth you subscribe to, I'll warrant it allows you one day of rest in the week…one day upon which to take it easier than on all the others. In the affluent world we've somehow sunken into a mire of over-scheduling, so that even our leisure, our days of ease, are planned and regimented.

I've always struggled with the question 'what are you doing at the weekend?' because the honest answer of 'I don't know' is never quite believed, is taken as code for 'not telling, don't be nosy, mind your own', is resented almost as a refusal to engage.

It never was. It never is. It was and is simple truth. My weekends have rarely been planned before Friday night.

And Sundays are rarely planned at all.

Sundays are not great days for public transport. During the summer months you might get lucky with seasonal additions, but for most of the year, it will be reduced timetable – not great when both weather and daylight might conspire against the idea of lingering by a country bus-stop idly watching the world go by. So I've always un-planned Sundays, kept them for the kind of excursions that involve walking out the front door and simply continuing on foot – exploring my own neighbourhoods – if indeed I get out at all.

Sometimes Sundays are for hunkering down at home.

But on golden autumn days they are definitely for getting out…for taking a walk in the woods.

Despite living in the city, I have an embarrassment of choice when it comes to woodland, within stepping distance from the door. This day's choice was Mousehold Heath, one of those places that feels far older than it is (at least in its current incarnation) and one of those that you have to worry might be managed back into something scientifically more laudable, but less pleasant to be around. I'll enjoy its current form while I can.

A diversion from my normal route led down Heathgate, down further into St James' Hollow. Once known as Vials Pit (presumably after its owner) it's a large sculpted out marl and gravel pit, recolonised by nature. Internet searches hint at references to a lime kiln in use in the mid-19th century, no remains of which are visible today. What is visible today is a graffiti'd and unloved skate park, echoing not to childish laughter rather haunted by the stage whispers of the morning drunks.

I've often wondered how this hollow links up with the main heath, if it does. I didn't find out .

What I did find out was exactly how grippy my trainers are on steep slopes of sandy soil…and at which point of inclination I do get completely fazed and decide a turnaround and run-down is the better part of not making a complete prat of myself and getting injured in the process!

OK. That's one way to get the heart racing…but I'm not giving up just yet…another ascent is made, another 'path' (which is probably just a rain-wash route from the road above) is tried… with the aid of a few tree-root-steps, the occasional vine-clad trunk to hold on to, and memories of doing this on bigger hills, with scarier drops, I finally make the roadway.

Nothing like a burst of adrenalin to start a nice gentle stroll in the woods.

Back to the drawing board on that one, probably stick to my normal route in future. In the meantime I have discovered that this little patch is an SSI, so designated for its marine reptile fossils, notably Mosasaurus – a sea-going lizard from about 60 million years ago, apparently. Who knew?

Back in the modern world, my normal wander is a free-form combination of whatever paths I stumble across. Accessing the heath up the long formal Beech Drive, I take in parts of the Valley Drive loop, aiming to emerge at the corner of Heartsease Lane & Gurney Road, crossing over the road I head into the northern half of the site and from there on it's any-body's guess. I rarely take the exact same route in a row.

This particular Sunday was a golden autumn day, blue skies dripping sunshine through the trees. Dry leaves underfoot, the ground and fallen trees, rich with sprouting fungi. Oyster-coloured cups catch chestnuts and beech-leaves like some elven altar, spore-sprinkled with fairy dust.

Thinking about my sky project, I take the time to look straight up and catch the sky blazing white as the tree-colours drown out the blue shift.

"And the forests will echo with laughter…" (Led Zep)

Today's laughter is from a tiny tot amazed at leaves falling like snow when her dad shakes a tree branch, and some manic-pre-teen siblings haring after their collie-cross pups playing hide and seek (but of course non-human animals don’t actually play!?!).

I'm just here for the air and the light, but this is also a place of hidden histories.

I'd been walking these woods for years before I discovered that some of the humps and bumps and rocks are the ruins of a church. It is known as the chapel of St William in the Wood. William of Norwich was about twelve years old when, in 1144, his body was found on the heath. At the time his death was claimed to be a ritualistic murder by the local Jewish population (though notably no real evidence was offered and no conviction ever made).

Nevertheless the boy was shortly afterwards acclaimed a saint, with miracles ascribed to him. The facts of the case are few and many theories have been posed down the succeeding centuries – a Jewish conspiracy being the one that holds least water. The poor tanner's apprentice may well have been murdered, or he may have come to some accident. No-one really knows. It is said that the chapel was built on the site where his body was found. Whether this is true or not it seems that it was originally dedicated to St Catherine and was only dedicated to St William in 1168, long enough after the event for the stories to have lost and gained much in the telling.

Overlooking the Cathedral and the City as it does from the relative safety of the other side of the river, the Heath has been associated with various uprisings. A "King of the Commons" was entitled here towards the end of the Peasants' Revolt in the 1300s and two hundred years later the same land provided a stronghold for Kett's Rebellion. Like much of Norwich it is riddled with pits, the result of sand and gravel extraction, and probably earlier chalk workings. Brick kilns and clay pits probably account for other bits of scattered brickwork slowly sinking into the ground.

It's easy to fall into flights of fancy. I see a slow dance of Ents in the multi-trunked beech and wonder what it would be like to camp in the glades where I imagine Kett's men hiding out in scenes gleaned from Robin Hood fantasies rather than any real history of the grimy existence it must have been. There is something about woodland that makes a place feel truly ancient. I doubt any of these trees would have been here in Kett's day. Mousehold was almost certainly a proper heath back then, scrubby with bracken and gorse, not remotely picturesque at all.

When it was given to the City in 1880 it was certainly open heathland, a commons used for grazing and the collection of animal bedding and fodder, and scraps of fuel for home fires. The woodland took over as such practices died out, but in recent years the Conservators have started to open up patches back to scrubby heath.

As I say…I'm sure it's laudable, but as for me, I'll enjoy the woods while they're here: watching the leaves fall and seeking out the fairy toadstools.

© Lesley Mason

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