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Living among trees

Kev Reynolds describes life in his old home in Kent, where the trees surrounding the house obscured the view of Ashdown Forest, but that was just fine. Illustrations by Clare Crooke.

Of the 23 properties along our lane, ours was the only one without a view. All the others looked out over the Weald to the wrinkled blue line of Ashdown Forest in the distance. One with a panorama to die for was a 16th century farm hanging from the steep slope like a mountain hut. We’d stay there when the owners were on holiday and wake some mornings to discover the valley hidden in mist with distant hills floating on it – just like the Alps.

great spotted woodpecker
Great spotted woodpecker

Not our cottage, though. Our cottage was almost completely surrounded by trees. Well, we did have a partial view through a gap that showed a farm on a hill 2 miles to the east, but even that was restricted, and unused stables blocked any possibility of a view to the south. There were trees beyond the stables anyway. But that was okay. We like trees; always have.

We like the bare outline of oaks in the winter, the subtle shades of green in springtime when the beeches unfurl their leaves, the almost sensual fullness of a lime casting summer shade. Best is autumn, with the rust, tan and gold of sweet chestnut and its more bullish cousin, the horse chestnut turning the woodlands to gold.

If we ever felt starved for a view, we had only to walk to the bottom of the 11-acre garden of what we called ‘The Big House’ to gaze on a panorama as good as any in the southeast, with not a building in sight. Or we could romp to the summit of the hill above the lane to bathe in its healing gift of space. It would only take five minutes. That’s all.

Trees were our friends. Just as well, because the cottage was overhung by them: ash, elm, sycamore and beech. They embraced our living space; their branches supported the choir of songbirds that banished silence when day broke; our gutters filled with their leaves and seedlings; the roof grew duvets of moss ten-togs deep, gifted by trees that shared their moisture.

There’s not a lot of time to sit and watch the world go round when you live among trees. Not if you want to grow vegetables for the table, have some flowers for colour, and enough space in which to breathe. Living among trees with fields nearby invariably means open house for wildlife. Not just house mice in the loft, but fieldmice and dormice eating the juicy new shoots in the garden; squirrels that dig up the spring bulbs (unless you first rub the bulbs with chilli powder); rabbits taking whatever you fancy for dinner; pigeons pouncing on what’s left, while deer eat your roses.

open house for wildlife
It was open house for wildlife

We could live with fox and badger, they just passed through. A cock pheasant came calling round by the kitchen door. He was okay. And Bill and Coo, the two love-struck doves that sat on the garden fence gazing at one another like a pair of teenagers on their first date. They were our neighbours; we were happy to share our space with them. During the day buzzards would circle and call. There was usually a pair patrolling the sky above neighbourhood meadows. Sometimes a fork-tailed red kite would sail by. Owls and bats haunted the darkest of nights.

At night we’d lie awake and hear a massacre going on in the meadow next door. Often it would mean a young rabbit had been caught by a fox; in springtime it might be a new-born lamb snatched from its mother with the after-birth still steaming. Sometimes deer strayed into the garden: mostly tiny muntjac, but also the handsome spotted fallow deer. Coming home one winter evening I drove slowly down the drive with snow falling, to see three fallow deer standing together a few feet from the kitchen door. They looked at me as if to say: ‘Just wait there, we haven’t finished our conversation.’ So I did. I turned off the engine and waited until they were ready to prance away into the trees.

Mornings were best; especially spring mornings and early summer when our breakfast would be interrupted by the dawn chorus and its echoes. We’d abandon our cereal bowls and stand outside beneath Nature’s own Royal Albert Hall where the almost liquid trilling of arias were being sung at full pitch by blackbird, song thrush, chiff-chaff and high piping wren.

We hung feeders from the gutter outside the sitting room, and there we’d watch as a great spotted woodpecker prodded at the seeds and nuts in nervous bursts of activity, its crimson under-belly and blotched wings destroying any hope of camouflage. Waiting in a disorderly queue for their turn, blue tits and great tits played tag among the bushes, while the robin –always one for the main chance – took its place on the ground beneath the feeder hoping for something to fall.

Sometimes there’d be a sudden thump on the window, and looking out we’d see the feeder swinging wildly to and fro with not a single bird in sight; just a flurry of feathers. We knew then that a sparrow hawk had swooped out of nowhere to snatch whatever had been enjoying a free meal.

In the meadow beyond the fence, just beyond the spinney that threatened to steal our morning light, three large ponds attracted Canada geese. Moorhen and coot had built their nests in the largest of these long before the bullying geese arrived, so they moved up the slope to settle among the reeds that grew round the smallest pond. It was in that pond I had to wade one summer Saturday to rescue a ewe that’d fallen in and was about to drown. With water above my waist, I managed to steer the ewe to the bank, then got my shoulder beneath its rump and pushed until it scrabbled ashore. Before running off, it stood and shook the water from its fleece, spraying smelly green strips of pondweed all over my head.

Badger passed through

Cold and damp in winter, the cottage cost a fortune to heat. Ill-fitting metal windows let in the draughts and ran with moisture, but during the hottest of summers we’d leave doors and windows wide open to allow a breeze through while we slept. In the snowiest of winters we’d be unable to get the car out. And during those wild winter storms when the trees groaned as they rubbed one against another, we’d lie in fear lest one should fall on the cottage and we’d be crushed.

Yet every single time I came down the drive during the 15 years we lived there, I felt an uplift of spirits and a sense of amazement that we should call such beauty ‘home’. It’s not enough to look back with misplaced nostalgia at something that made you happy unless you knew you were happy at the time. Living among trees gave us that certainty.

But it became time to move on. Three nights before we left, I walked home in the dark and was aware of a movement just ahead of me. It was a badger, making its way towards the fence leading into the meadow next door. It couldn’t get through, so waddled down the drive, pausing now and then to check that I was following. Drawing level with the kitchen he made his way to the fence where he found a hole and managed to squeeze though. And there he stood, looking back as if to say: ‘Well, are you coming to join me?’

I should have said ‘yes’ and stayed.

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