The Smoke in the Wood
It was one of those magically still August evenings. The sun had baked the landscape all day. Trout were lazing in the cool clear waters of the nearby Itchen, shading themselves under the overhanging boughs of willows, barely visible amongst the water mare and crowfoot’s weeds. The world breathed a gentle sigh of relaxation. A few miles away, folded in amongst the final, most westerly undulations of the South Downs, stood the ancient beech, ash and hazel trees of Crab Wood. It was there I chose my evening walk, watching the mites performing their everlasting dances in the golden, sun-soaked air.
Although I saw no other soul, I sensed I was not alone. He, or maybe she, had been following me for a good mile, as I wandered along my usual track, cutting past the supposed site of the Roman Villa, and down towards West Wood. My plan, as ever was to continue on, down to the Sparsholt Road, and then enjoy a concluding pint of Wadsworth's best in The Plough.
Man has worked these woods for generations, coppicing the hazel to make hurdles, tool handles, thatching spars and charcoal. The seasons regulated both human and woodland life here. Where the hazel had been coppiced, the sunlight spread itself across the woodland floor, energising habitats for plants and animals, until the cut hazel resprouted ready for harvesting again and a new generation repeated the cycle. Within the woods, sunny glades came and went as the coups were harvested and regrew. So it was that beetles, butterflies, birds and man gradually moved through the wood, in a constant cycle of life, death and regeneration.
A rustle in the undergrowth, behind me and off the left, made me think again of a follower. I spun around – but I could see no one. Stepping off the path, I took a dozen quick steps in the direction I thought the sound had come from. A pair of woodcocks rose from the thick grass tussocks of the forest floor, clattering the wings as they tried to climb as fast as possible. Embarrassed at disturbing them, I returned to the path and walked on, but the sense that someone or something had its eyes on me remained. My breath now seemed a little faster than my walking pace demanded. Once again, I turned, and this time I did not stop after a dozen, or two dozen or three. There was a blur of motion on my left, and two sharp barks and a large dog stood in front of me. It had a thick tan and black coat, its mouth open, its tongue dangling as it panted, perhaps to cool itself, perhaps in anticipation. We locked eyes for ten or twenty seconds. I had no sense of threat, but equally, the dog showed no sign of subordination. He barked once, then turned and trotted a few paces back up the path, looking over his shoulder to see if I was following. As I did so, I heard noises in the undergrowth to my left and right. Two more dogs, identical in appearance to the first had emerged. They followed slightly behind me. No, they were not following. It was more like shepherding.
After about a quarter of a mile, the lead dog turned off the main track, following a grass path leading up a gentle slope, and vanishing behind several coppiced stands of hazel. I was surprised I had not noticed this track on my way past earlier, as it seemed to be a well-trodden path. I looked behind and the other two dogs were still there. They cocked their heads on one side and then on the other, looking straight at me. I could have sworn they were saying ‘On you go, follow the track’ but they were of course silent. Perhaps I read my thought from the intelligence in their eyes and the way they first looked at me, then at one another, and then looked up the path.
As I stepped off the path, I sensed a change in the air. It was colder, sharper, and there was an unfamiliar taste in my mouth. Not fear, nor even surprise. Just some faint sensation, of something woody, perhaps something burnt. Then I caught the faint whiff of charcoal smoke in my nostrils, and I realised that someone was ignoring the Woodland rules and was having a barbecue. Curious to see who it was, I increased my pace as the lead dog rounded the last coppice stand. I followed and found myself in a small clearing. There was no barbecue. Instead, a large mound of turf sat in the middle of the clearing, with tendrils of smoke emerging, wafting upwards to what was now a darkening sky. A man, dressed in a rough tunic, with leather sandals, was dressing the turf with a large wooden spade, sealing the places where smoke leaked out. One of the dogs behind me barked, just once, and I felt the hairs on my forearm prickle. Unlike the first dog's questioning, introductory bark, there was something different about this bark - guttural, animal, visceral, perhaps something of the wolf.
The man looked up, and seeing me, stood fully upright. Holding his spade by his side like some ancient spear he said:
Salve, viator, habitaculum meum. Dii tibi faveant itineri.