Country diary: there's solace to be found walking down a rural lane

Crook, County Durham: It is impossible to overvalue access to nature in the edgelands between town and country

Thanks to coronavirus and physical distancing, we’ve seen some glorious sunrises lately. Early one morning last week, while few people were about, as the sun crept over Rumby Hill, we walked a mile from home to Mown Meadows or, as they’re known locally, “the back lanes”.

This network of narrow roads and footpaths links farms on the western margin of our little market town. About 25 years ago, some fields became an opencast coal mine, gouged by bulldozers and draglines, but they’ve since been returned to pasture and arable crops. Miles of new hedges, tree shelter-belts and dry-stone walls restored field boundaries and linked surviving copses and old hedgerows. The land has slowly healed and softened, and wildlife has returned.

A yellowhammer
A yellowhammer. ‘We counted six pairs of these sulphur yellow buntings.’ Photograph: Phil Gates

Within the first half hour we were serenaded by a robin, watched male lapwings’ reckless aerial courtship, gazed skyward under the cascading notes of skylarks and heard bubbling calls of curlews on their way to breeding sites in the high Pennines. Best of all, we counted six pairs of yellowhammers, Emberiza citrinella. This recovering landscape, with its rough grassland, broad road verges and patches of scrub, seems to suit these sulphur yellow buntings.

We paused at the top of the hill, under a group of sycamores that used to be known, when we first came here 45 years ago, as “the 12 trees”. Age and south-westerly gales have since reduced them to five. The westward view, towards the North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty, is as heart-stirring as it was when we settled here; its eastern boundary lies just two miles away, down the hill.

The landscape we had just walked through is neither natural nor outstandingly beautiful. But now, when so many will be confined, in mind and body, close to home, it is impossible to overvalue such access to edgelands between town and country, within easy walking distance.

The overnight frost had melted. We passed a few more walkers as we headed home down the lane known as the Mile Lonnen, exchanging cheery greetings with strangers at a respectfully safe distance. No doubt, during the daunting months ahead, some are likely to become familiar though distant acquaintances, as we all seek solace in nature.


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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