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{ 83 } 50. THE PATH I daresay you have heard of gritty urban walks to football grounds. One is the wildest of the professional leagues. First-generation stadiums were raised a century ago in industrial heartlands and expanding suburbs. Lately a new migration, relocations to town edges, changing supporters’ travel patterns. This blue-and-white one is on the northern limits of the first Roman capital, and now we park on village street and walk a mile up green lane, across fields, over bypass bridge, joining others strolling up from the town itself. Mist was in the valley. A groggy swallow swerved by a tribe of starling. The gray gutters were filled with crushed acorn and beech mast. A sallow man in singlet sat by tall grass in front garden, beer in hand, the lawnmower defeated. A small boy ran circles in the pale sun, waving his arms at greenfly. The hillside lane was flanked with hedge elm and blackthorn sloe, a white horse padded across a paddock . Two animals shave the land: horse and outdoor pig. In the time of the draft horse that stumbled and nodded, they rarely grazed, the land too precious. The mildewed wheat had been plowed. Beyond the shaky stile, the old right of way angled from field edge to far corner. Each year walkers tramp a route through stubble or young wheat, beans, rape. Now, the dusty field was harrowed down, a path emerging as feet scuffed up regolith. It skirted the top of the embankment, where traffic was becalmed, drivers staring blankly. The slope was dense with yellowing maple, yet a shredded lorry tire had spun to the top. Under sycamore with fungal tar spot were excavations of badger. A sunken lane switched back to the bridge, was dark and silent. The crowd called for a sermon, a lesson for life, for once not disappointed. On return, the stamped path was clearer. Last year, it had a wandering kink, first trod under evening moonlight. Everyone follows the path, and so it stays, until the plow returns. Footpaths were once peopled, places to walk and talk. Ronnie Blythe has written of country paths thronged with men, women, and children walking to work, to see friends, to church, to the shops. SEPTEMBER { 84 }     The East Country Next morning, Webs of garden spiders dripped with dew. The air barely moved yet tugged at silver silk. The webs had twenty-one or twenty-two radial strands. At each hub was a tan spider darkly striped. Yet their time was done. A web collapsed in whirr of wings, Folding away. Blue and great tit continued swooping to the feeders. In nearby Assington a dozen cars were parked at the village hall, the teams ready for ritual, rubbing hands, stamping boots. Thirty thousand teams play football weekly. At the flinty church where sheep had gathered under parkland trees, there were few cars. In days gone by, religion was equipment for coping with endless poverty, the ceaseless lack of hope. Now pews are mostly empty. In the garden, butterfly flitted over buddleia, the whole valley filled with the kitchen scent of onion harvest. 5 51. MUD BIRDS Westerly gales brought drenching rain. Dregs blew over mid-morning, the coast calling. In the mid-nineties, holes were punched in a seawall that for a thousand years had protected dry fields of Essex, and crop evolved to salt marsh. Tollesbury is famed for its fisher-sailors who raced the marshy tides and crewed America’s Cups. A red lightship was tethered to the olive marsh. On the far side was a decommissioned nuclear station, beyond Baker’s peregrine-haunted lands of the Dengie. A paved lane passed by sewage works, and quartering the sticky field, just twenty feet away, was a buzzard, coverts the color of cloud. It hunted the margins of farmland and salt. The horizon was rimmed by a bowl of hills, church towers rising from inland trees, to the northeast was Mersea Island and its mast forest down on the front. In the Essex archipelago, islands shimmer offshore, ships neither arriving nor departing, culturally apart too. You are always on Mersea, on Canvey, never in. There was the tang of sea on the crumbling seawall, warbling waders and warmth of sun. Marsh samphire was clumped in flower, by mauve banks of sea lavender and green glasswort. At the wall terminus was a cushion of grass, water dashing on the ebb tide. The fastest person in the world can swim at...


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