this tame wilderness

A bus journey through Hertfordshire is a pleasure. Scaling the steps to sit at the back, you’re raised to a position where you get a better appreciation of the architecture going past the window. You even get a fresh perspective of your home town as you peer down over the walls and hedges rather than up at them and down at cars and the caricatures that drive them. You see without being a part of – it’s a detached way to observe.

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The tour can feel like you’re an ambassador being taken on a reconnaissance trip of humanity. From an exalted throne you look down at the ivy-sprawled homes of the well-off as they line up for inspection. You gaze down too at weathered grey estates that seem to weep from the breeze blocks. The country pubs display their country hours on sandwich boards – open midday to 3pm. Some of the flint-clad village stores that squat under sinking masonry are so cute you could just shit.

Hertfordshire might have the tamest landscape in Britain. The word wild or wilderness cannot be ascribed save for the microcosms in which it’s allowed to prosper: the ancient hedgerows and the cultivated shrubbery of back gardens where greenery runs riot. These are the only oases of wilderness out here. You realise just how managed the landscape is.

The slopes around this county aren’t natural – they’re the result of centuries of ploughing down towards the source of life: running water. Mountains are levelled out in this manner. You make out hillsides for what they are – scored hides from the drawing of the plough – cut marks on bone.

The abated hills descend to the threads of Hertfordshire’s rivers. Though I live in it, Hertfordshire keeps taking me by surprise at how deep some of its valleys are. The plunge down into Wheathampstead is a case in point – it’s like descending into a canyon.

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More passengers donning flat caps get on. They’re not hipsters and care nought for post modernism. Old women in floral dresses grip the rails securely as the bus lunges off. It scrapes through buildings, kisses the wing mirrors of parked cars and frolics over pot holes. When the vehicle swings around in a turn, it always looks like it’s going the collide and take the wall with it.

Branches hit the side with a sound like musket fire as the bus charges into hawthorn bushes to give a tractor room to pass. I wish this carriage came equipped with a roll top bar like a tank as I look into the eyes of rooks on the plough-lines. They bob, readying for flight in case the machine comes crashing down on them.

Skulking pheasants. Placid lakes of green crop. Trees’ stark naked outlines hug the hillsides as the Pathé film hedgerow flickers past. Dramatic fly-pasts over rivers. An airborne wood pigeon high in the blue vault beats its way from copse to holt.

You pass the ghosts of pubs reincarnated as country homes. Sometimes faded lettering or the sign brackets endure, but often it’s from a lifetime of recognising pub buildings. The hunch always turns out right in retrospect.

Onward down the hedge-flanked tarmac aisles of Hertfordshire. Ivy and holly compete to throttle the trees that line the road with the former being in the vanguard. Sunlight picks out the silver boughs of birches and dyes them violet.

Outside the Boot Inn, more white-maned travellers alight, punch their tickets and grab at the poles like liana vines. The engine whirrs again and the bus takes off into an uphill hurtle before sudden breaking causes the passengers to contract at the hinge as the bus tangoes with a lorry at a corner.

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When it’s wet, the rain striking the windows of a bus is one of the most life-affirming things to witness. The water is sentient. The runnels seem to try and work out a route across the glass, pausing to decide on an angular or curved passage towards the corner the momentum is pushing them. They can forge their own straight line, suddenly fork or go on a number of hesitant turns. When one collides with another stream it disappears – swept away by a rip tide. But there exists the loner; the introvert that maps its own way across the glass expanse full of doubt, full of lull, edging its own cautious path to the other side.

In early summer, fields of golden rapeseed are radioactive; the glow is magnified through the window and bathes the face. When you shut your eyes, the capillaries in the eyelids are etched out like a crimson relief map.

When the bus crests the hill and breaks from the uterine tree cover, the landscape rises in a standing ovation and centre stage is a titan copper beech or horse chestnut – majestic in its own field, ablaze like an open brasier casting shadows across the earth from the flames.

And as if to calm me back down, there is comfort in pylons. They’re the charming sentinels of the countryside and remind me how connected up the land is.

Sometimes our labours culminate in chance coincidences where the cosmos just seems to come together. I frequently have this experience driving up the M1 from London to St Albans and for a while, I and the train to Bedford align and travel shoulder to shoulder at the same speed in the same direction like pilgrims on a joint venture. Something inside me stirs.

On a train from Hitchin to Letchworth Garden City, it passes over another track from which a second train issues – two gleaming metal convoys radiating out, for a time tracing a diagonal cross before parting ways – the composition is sublime – somewhere between art and choreography.

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In Letchworth Garden City, I attempt its Greenway hike. With partial success, I commute back to Hitchin and am seduced by beer. I miss the last bus and decide to walk back.

I start okay but overshoot the road forking south and take a long detour to Langley before turning back. Two hours are lost and it’s now dark. However, the landscape’s just as beautiful.

Near Whitwell I hear a tawny owl call from a hillside copse to my right – if you’re not sure, it’s the to-wit-to-woo refrain used in every film. To my left, a barn owl’s shriek tears out as well. The next time it shrieks, it’s to my right in the same territory as the tawny owl. I see a shape drop from a canopy. I’d love to be able to see that scene played out in night vision. These two species are rivals and won’t suffer each other on the same hunting patch. From further on the left – out in the swampier parts of the field I also hear the kazoo-like burblings of a lapwing and a bit further on, the celestial sound of a redwing in flight – it’s the most fragile of calls: both a single note and a flourish on the brink of hearing. Manifold tiny threshold mammals make roadside nettles quiver in their scarpering. In the dead of night, life goes on.

I’m aware of an aircraft passing overhead. My time working in central London turns it into a Police helicopter by default until I start getting deja-vu. It only travels in one direction across the sky each time and discover I have an unlikely guardian: it’s an aeroplane – each a different one on the same flight path down.

I watch as the acres ahead of me give up their secrets to the soft light of its undercarriage as it makes its descent towards Luton. The darkness seeps away into the landscape’s crevices like water draining from a rock pool at low tide. It’s brought down to sit equal with me – exposed in the night. The planes arrive with a conveyor belt regularity – about every eight minutes or so.

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I used to spend a lot of time on the ridgeway – the prehistoric spine running across Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I’d gaze down at the A34 road at night and it was gorgeous. From that elevated aspect, sunk in the distant man-made valley – an incandescent necklace of constant motion.

I could’ve been air-dropped anywhere on the downs and found my way home as I could piece together the land. I now need to rekindle this skill in Hertfordshire just two counties east.

I see a tree in the dark that has been toppled – probably by storm Doris. It’s leaning against a naked older tree that supports it in the nook of its branches like a crutch. It reminds me of an elderly veteran cradling the body of a young soldier but it worries me because there is absolutely no way I wouldn’t have noticed this pair from the bus on the way to Hitchin. This means I’m not walking along the same road back.

Oddly, walking along unlit rural roads at night carries with it a safety: you can both hear and see a car coming from a long distance before it catches up with you and climb up onto the bank or make love to the hedge as required. As the headlights make my shadow spill out like fluid on the tarmac before me, I usually just stand but occasionally like to splay out my fingers as my hands hang at my sides. This gives the effect of Nosferatu’s silhouette.

I haven’t flown in a few years but recall looking out of the window on the descent into Luton. Underneath is the black carpet of England in slumber with only the roads and villages picked out in dots of light. Now I’m in that inky realm looking back up.

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Even I’ve come to accept I’m lost and it’s the middle of the night. Home is maybe fifteen miles away but I don’t actually know because I don’t know where I am. Google maps hasn’t loaded on the phone the entire day. There is a single bar of charge left.

The road opens out and there is civilisation and a sign: Peter’s Green. Where the hell’s that? I strike out towards it. It’s a quaint manicured triangle acting as a roundabout with rows of houses describing each side. On the far side is a large building which is illuminated. It’s a pub. I approach and make out the name: the Bright Star. Fittingly, it’s my saviour. On the green itself is a stooped bus stop. I plonk myself down on it the same time the lights go off in the pub but that’s okay – it’s fulfilled its role. It has just gone eleven o clock.

Using the light from my mobile phone, I discern that this bus stop is for Stevenage. I don’t want to go there. Even in a time of crisis.

It’s still warm and I lie on the seat which is a real luxury – one of the sloping wooden ones. No part of the inside has yet been vandalised. I’m not even wearing my coat yet. There could be worse places to spend the night than this…..

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postscript:

I’m actually missing the stench and comfort of my own nest. It’s been a quarter of a century since I last slept rough in a bus shelter. The experience took the lucre off the romance of sleeping under the stars. I remember vividly shivering in the early hours, not sleeping but pacing up and down the seafront in Dover to stay warm. This night ended differently. With the last bar on my mobile phone, I ring my wife who is sat at home with the internet. I have a place name and a landmark and make sure she listens carefully. She books me a taxi and rings me back after a couple of minutes. She’s googled Peter’s Green. The world has changed, 2017, technology and all that.
“you’re in bloody Luton!” This is an exaggeration. It’s a fair way out.
“Oh. Thought I might be. I could see the runway.”

I cross the green to sit on one of the outside tables of the Bright Star. The taxi arrives within ten minutes and edges along cautiously. His passenger could be a total drunk but the driver sees in my gait I’m sober and I get in. He keeps his car tidy. It honks of pine. Our faces are lit up green by the animated fuel hybrid graphics on the console. The night countryside glides past. After a while we come to a roundabout, turn right and suddenly I know the area again as I descend for the second time that day into Wheathampstead.

As we pass the Wicked Lady pub some mischief grips me.
“Don’t let the wicked lady get you on the way back” The driver looks at me horrified. “you know this is the most haunted road in England, don’t you?” He starts freaking out and I try and assuage him by saying I’m massively overstating things which I am. Safely back in St Albans I get him to park on the main drag so he can just do a u-turn rather than join the traffic system.

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