Country diary: the contested land and airspace of border country

Mitchell’s Fold, Shropshire: Battles over territory are never fully resolved, not according to the skylarks anyway

From tiny lilac flowers of heath speedwell, white heath bedstraw and yellow cinquefoil, up though springy turf, the eye follows the flight and song of an ascending lark. Into the sky above Mitchell’s Fold circle of standing stones on the high plateau of Stapeley Hill Common, the lark’s song ties to another until the air shakes.

From up here the view swoops westwards over Severn Vale into the Welsh hills and east to the shattered quartzite ridge of the Stiperstones. Here, as skylarks proclaim, is the contested land and airspace of border country. The looming Corndon hill is in Powys; Shropshire claims Mitchell’s Fold, the line between the two may be a narrow road, a hedge or something more ephemeral – a distant curlew cries, a bird passing into myth.

The battles over territory are never fully resolved, not according to the skylarks anyway. On a warm, still day, when the air is clear and a splash of sunset opens above the ruck of hills, this is a floating world. Free from attachment to history and geography, even though both are extraordinarily rich and vivid, where the hand can touch the bronze age and the eye travels miles over the terraforming of glaciation; free from fact and fiction, where stories about hunger, witches and a curse fold easily into the ground; the listener is transported by a dreamy mood between realities. The lone hawthorn is in full bloom. Strange white loaves of puffball fungi open in the turf. Stonechats flit between gorse clumps. Lambs run to their ewes and above it all the skylarks cast a dome of song.

Will you walk the stone circle clockwise or widdershins? Will you leave something or take something? Can you see into the misty valleys where anything may happen? Slowly, almost as a rumour, a sound begins to grow from a wooded hollow below the steep banks of the common. It takes a few seconds to sink in but once it does it seems to gain confidence in its own existence and rings louder than the skylarks – a cuckoo. The call feels like a visitation from the past, an apparition, a ghost. Between countries, times, meanings, the cuckoo calls until it’s getting dark.


Paul Evans

The GuardianTramp

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