On my walks around suburban north Swindon I often reflect on what this area once looked like. In my minds eye I see the footpaths and bridleways – still optimistically signposted amongst the urban sprawl of modern development -passing through open countryside, following pristine rural streams lined by mugwort, willow and aspen, and barely a sound but for the call of song birds in the hedgerows and the cry of buzzards in the sky above.
As I meditate on this lost piece of rural peace – which existed until barely 10 years ago – I recall my own childhood and how close we were to nature and open fields and country then. I was born in a small side street just one road south of the busy Oxford Road in Reading, though it was nowhere near as busy as it is today! I can recall waiting for the trolley bus into town, gazing along he road for what felt like miles to me with barely a car in sight, and seeing way in the distance the bus appear. But for the sound of tyres and the hum of the electric motor it was perfectly quiet, and yet in the folly of the late 60s and the 70s trolly buses became unfashionable, and the overhead cables deemed unsightly and so were dismantled, as they were across all the towns and cities that still operated them. Today that seems like madness. But I digress.
Barely a couple of hundred yards from where I was born I could walk along the small gravel unsurfaced lane leading south towards the railway and the river, and having passed just one house on the left and some allotments on the right, I would be in open countryside. Low lying meadows would surround me, with a few hawthorns on the verges of the stony lane. After some rain the puddles would be wide and deep and it was great fun to either try to avoid them after stormy days, or simply splash recklessly in them, risking the wrath of Mum when I got back to my Nan’s house (it was Nan and Grandad’s house I was born in, but we moved out before I started school, though were regular weekend visitors right up until they both died).This lane followed the twists and turns of a meandering stream that (presumably) made its way quietly and serenely down to the Thames some mile and half hence, and at the right time of year I could find masses of frog spawn laying in pools where the waters had rise and later subsided. Tadpoles followed soon after and there was nothing better than spending an afternoon with a jam jar, scooping them up and watching them swim around before returning them to their watery home, only to repeat the whole exercise once again when the mood took me. Wild flowers were always abundant, and I would spend ages watching bees and butterflies flit from blossom to blossom on hot endless days.
I began these adventures before I was even of school age, being allowed from around 4 years old to wander ‘down the lane’ as often as I wanted as long as daylight lasted, and I spent many hours watching nature unfold, seeing the seasons turn, and listening to the sounds of birds and the distant cattle.
Further along, if I followed the lane as far as I dared, I would come to the main railway line from London to Bristol, perched magnificently high up on an embankment, with what seemed like an enormously long deep dark tunnel running underneath it, which in my memory was perpetually muddy. There was a farm the other side, south of the railway lines, and the smell of manure and other farmyard waste was overpowering on hot summer days! If a group of us had wandered this far, we would play ‘dare’, to see who was brave enough to venture all the way to the other end of the tunnel and continue on through the farmyard down to the river. I confess now to being terrified of that tunnel, and can still recall the feeling of dread at the tales of Billy Goat Gruff and other stories of monsters and trolls living under bridges or in tunnels and other dark sinister places. I would only venture further if I was with my Nan, or more often, with Grandad, who would grip my hand tightly to help me through the terrifying ordeal.
If I was allowed to go this far at around dusk – probably when I was a little older, though I cant recall exactly how old I would have been – I can remember there would be scores of bats rushing and flitting through the air, swooping low over my head as they hunted in the fading light. Oddly, they didn’t scare me in the least, and I always looked forward to being allowed to wait until the bats came out so that I could experience the excitement of their appearance.
To the right of this ‘terrifying’ tunnel there was a cinder pathway that led up to the top of the railway embankment, and from time to time my Grandad would take me up to the top of this track to stand within feet of the main line, to Bristol heading west, and London heading east. Before nationalisation of the railways he had worked for the Great Western Railway, and so by this time he was working for British Railways. I recall being amazed by the way he would recite the destination and times of the trains as they rushed past feet away.
Beyond the four tracks of the main line was the shunting yard of Scours Lane sidings, and so even when there were no trains rushing past I would stand there with Grandad watching the little tank engines puff up and down moving wagons here and there, and listening to their incessant clanging together. But there was nothing that compared to the excitement of an express train thundering by. There was a ritual to be observed for each train, with the shimmer of the cables and the clunk of the signals that stood close to where we would wait, followed by the appearance way in the distance towards Reading of a column of smoke that signified the imminent approach of a train. Next the rails would begin to sing, and then the train rushing past, a blur of shining green engine with billows of steam and smoke, the sound of the carriages over the rails, the chocolate and cream carriages streaming by and then the train disappearing away into the distance to remote and romantic places. There was something wonderful about that experience, shared with my Grandad – though in later years I would still sometimes wander ‘down the lane’ to remember those times.
Today, the lane I once walked through those meadows and alongside those streams is paved and covered with tarmac, busy with vans, lorries and cars, and the meadows and fields a vast industrial estate. I’m reminded of Richard Jefferies and his writings on Coate near Swindon, close to where I now live, and his books on the countryside around London, detailing a landscape full of small fields and streams, and rustic wooden bridges and meandering lanes leading nowhere in particular, of tall ancient Elms standing proud in the middle of small fields, bordered by ancient hedgerows.
Today those sorts of places, ones I was still able to experience as a child, no longer exist. Suburbia and industry has intruded on and destroyed those ‘edge’ places once so close and accessible to our homes and those meadows and small fields, edged by miles of hedgerow, have for the most part been replaced by huge, vast, characterless acres of intense farmland with small provision for nature. The ‘edge’ places have gone, or are disappearing under the incessant need for ‘progress’ and ‘development’.
Yet it seems to me we have lost something important with these changes. We have lost the opportunities to find nature kore easily close to our town and cities, and we have lost, or at least are losing, a more connected way of living. I still recall the sense of freedom and joy around those days, with no cares or worries, exploring as I wanted, and providing I was back at my Grandparents house before dark all would be well.