The Roundabout

It’s an ancient-looking structure cresting a high hill. The stone was formed in the Silurian period, 400 million years ago. It was gathered from the surrounding hilltop quarries and assembled into a head-height circular wall for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The people around here like to celebrate their queens. When Elizabeth reached the same milestone a few years back, they created a lane of fire going from the bottom to the top of the hill. It burned long into the night, watched only by roosting ravens and mad-eyed hares.

Inside the circle is a little copse of trees that shouldn’t be there, pines mainly, twisted and blown over, growing at strange angles. The wall protects them a little from the winter gales but, once they reach a certain height, they get blown over and have to regrow tilted, like old men adapting to a crooked life. Normally I don’t like places like this. They’re frankensteinian habitats badly stitched into the landscape. But this place has been a shelter and a playground for my children since they were tiny. The trees were staircases and climbing frames, the understorey a soft bed they could stay warm in when the snow was coming down. It’s the place where the ravens keep watch over the valley. And the place where the wind talks clearest. I come here most days.

It’s the 22nd September and they’re already back. Sometimes the year’s circle winds tighter. The golden plovers usually arrive in late October. They have a favourite spot on the hillside, just below the Roundabout, a shallow indentation sheltered from the westerlies and exposed to the scant warmth of the low sun. Mostly they stand still and invisible, blending into the bronze of the shaved bracken stalks. But when you approach they start to nervously skitter, pinballing from one patch of cover to another, trying not to give too much ground before there is a single peep and the flock rises in a whirr. They rise and rise, then circle the hill, plunging big dipper style, sometimes only a few metres above my head, before finally, after many revolutions, they come back to land where they started. I don’t like to see them leave in the spring. For the few weeks after they go it feels like the clock hands are moving backwards, that winter has returned.

At this time of year the farmers cut the bracken down and roll it into large drum bales. They stand for a few days or weeks like monoliths on the hill before they are stacked and loaded onto trailers, then taken to barns where they will be used for animal bedding. Baling bracken is a beautiful process. When first cut it lies on the ground in rows which are never straight like the plough lines in a field, but instead are like a contour map of the land, a series of undulating waves. The waves turn from green to gold in a few short days and then the bracken is picked up and rolled tight to create the bales. If you look closely at the circular faces of the drums you see a pattern like that made when a magnet is placed near to iron filings, straight lines forced into circles, a diagram of the farming year with its births and deaths, seeding, reaping and replanting. Farmers understand circularity more than the rest of us. They are keepers of the old routes through life.

Lately my father has been turning up in the strangest places. In March I sat beside him and watched him quietly pass away, his face gradually disappearing into the structure of underlying bone. A few minutes after his death I didn’t recognise him at all. But in the months since, I’ve seen him staring from my son’s ice blue eyes. Most of all he’s been walking beside me when I pass darkened shop windows, his face in the tail of my eye, just behind the glass. Vision is circular. We’ve been looking out of the same eyes for two hundred thousand years at the great circles of our horizons, at the turning earth. We’ve deeply understood the cyclical nature of everything. Life continues. Lives do not.

I’ve been lost plenty of times in these hills. Sometimes the mist comes down so thick that all you can see is the turf at your feet. I zig-zag and go backwards, retracing my steps. I stand still and wait for something I recognise to shift into view, a familiar thorn tree or mawn pool. If you were to trace my path from overhead, it would look like a random scribble. I’ve never gone round in circles when lost up here, but it’s something I’d love to experience, a proof perhaps that human beings are not meant to go in straight lines. In an old copy of National Geographic I came across a story of Idaho cowboys who, when they got lost in winter snowstorms, simply let go of the reins and lay across their pony’s necks. For the warmth but also for guidance. The ponies always found the way back home. Horses think in circles. When the rider lost the trail, the cow pony found the way back because it had not travelled from one point to another. It had stretched the radius of its circle and then returned to its centre, magnetically. It’s the way animals navigate. Perhaps, in the past, we did too. Perhaps we still do.

Around here there are many roads going nowhere, narrow lanes ramparted with high hedges and guarded by sentinel oaks. They lead through gated farmyards and up onto high commons where they come to abrupt ends or turn into grassy tracks. Others lead to tumbledown houses, some still containing the possessions of the departed: old tables and chairs, dusty pots on shelves, rotted carpets and cracked linoleum, mouldering books, curtains blowing next to shattered windows. Birds, bats and rodents own these places now. There is an old woman who lives on the same hillside as me in a static caravan parked in the shadow of her house which, every time I pass, has crumbled a little further. It would have been a beautiful place, a big farmhouse made from stone quarried from the hill. Its sagging roof is clad with hand-split mudstone tiles. She sold most of her land years ago, but still has a few acres surrounding her house, land containing one completely collapsed barn and a few small fields of brambles and sedge. I don’t know why these places are left this way. Old farmhouses in remote locations fetch a lot at auction, even in ruins. These houses are where the circle broke, where the generations ran out. For now the places want to hold onto their memories a little longer, before they crumble away.

The old farmers on this hill have lived circular lives, growing up and growing old on the same piece of ground. Their responsibility to their land is to leave it exactly as they found it. Surrounding them all their lives are the many beings travelling along their own arcs. The bracken on the hilltop, puncturing the ground and uncurling from tight spirals each spring. The harebells and foxgloves with their short, spectacular flowering and rapid fading back to the earth. The golden plovers, curlews, wheatears and swifts travelling endlessly in loops inscribed from here to the sea and farther out, to distant continents. Even the crumbling walls which trace their own cycle from sediment to rock and back to sediment over a million years.