At this time of year, the field below my garden is home to about twenty bullocks. They’re two years old now, and though they don’t know it, this is their last year in which to enjoy life on the pasture. They’ll be here for a few more weeks, then the farmer will move them to give the grass a chance to grow, so he’ll get a crop or two of hay off it. The field slopes downhill, into Great Wood. There’s no fence or wall between the field and the wood. It begins suddenly with a row of oak trees, all about twenty metres tall, and not yet past their prime. The cows go there to cool down on hot days, and they keep the undergrowth in check. When I walk down from the garden, through the field, and into the wood, the distinction between field and forest is as stark as day and night.
Last night I was home alone, and decided to spend it out in the woods. Why did I wait until there was no-one else around? I don’t know, really. Perhaps I was embarrassed. Perhaps I didn’t want to have to explain myself. I think I liked the idea of no-one knowing where I was. It was a clear, still evening, after a hot, early summer’s day. I read in the garden until the sun set and my eyes began to strain at the page. In the twilight, I walked round the edge of the field, out of sight of the lane, out of the way of the bullocks, and into the wood. The noise of my boots crunching the leaf litter startled a deer, as he cantered away his hoofs thudded into the ground with the sound of apples falling from a shaken tree. A minute later I heard his barking call, and an answering call from a nearby field. The stags will be fighting soon.
It was much darker under the trees. The forest is almost entirely oak, all of approximately the same age and size. I suppose it can’t be healthy in the long-term for a forest to be grazed this heavily, preventing any saplings from establishing themselves, but for now the open woodland, a high canopy ceiling supported by thousands of tall pillars, has an architectural quality that I can’t help but find beautiful. The air was cooler now, the smells of the forest condensing like dew, the sweet smell of sap, the earth, the dry leaves, mixed with an animal smell, cows, yes, but also fox and deer.
I found two trees a good distance apart and set up my hammock. I was out of practice at keeping the right tension whilst I tied the knots, and I had to redo both ends before I got the hammock tied tight enough to be comfortable. There was no threat of rain, so I didn’t bother setting up the basha sheet, which can be tied between the same trees above the hammock and stretched out to make a kind of roof. I laid out my sleeping bag, took off my boots, and jumped up. This part always makes me slightly nervous, no matter how many times I do it. I was sure the knots will hold, and I’d tied it in a way that the knots don’t even have to take much of the strain, but I was nervous all the same.
Soon, though, doubly cocooned in my sleeping bag and in the hammock, I was warm and comfortable. The evening chorus petered out, leaving a space for the strange noises of the night. Some noises I knew, owls hunting, lambs searching for their mothers, the last train from Exeter to Barnstaple chugging in the distance. Bats, on the extreme edge of sound perception, quieter every year. Other noises I could only guess at. I worried that the bullocks might come and try to eat me, before realising I was half-asleep already. Rustling and pattering in the leaves. Above me, stars glittered in the gaps in the canopy.
I woke up at about 2am, cold. I pulled the hood of my sleeping bag tight around my head, but slept lightly for the rest of the night. At around 4am the dawn chorus started, mostly birds, but also sheep calling for lambs that had wandered off in the night. At 5am it was almost fully light, and I decided to get up. Half way through getting out of my sleeping bag (a clumsy business in a hammock), I saw a male roe deer staring at me, not twenty metres away, bewildered. His short, three-pronged antlers looked like twigs. I froze, and he wandered off. Behind me, there were more deer, a hind and her kid. It was less than a month old, clumsy and shy. They wandered slowly deeper into the wood, and I got up, packed up my things, and left. I walked back up the field as the sun rose from behind the clouds above Exmoor. Early morning sunlight is like amber, turning everything golden. In the valley, mist curled along, blanketing the sleeping River Taw like a duvet. Foxgloves, red campion, and ox eye daisies, and the golden green of the grass. And I the only one awake to see them.