What you notice, as you step alongside the stubbles, after the grass-healed old railway bridge and the muddy slide of the bridleway and the lack of clear signage which seems to have brought you here – instead of somewhere else – is a wash of colour.
The stubbles spread across more than one field, and seem to shimmer like some fragment of Africa with an impression which is subdued though striking. Amongst the paler, bleached-out tones of the stubbles – the stumps left behind after summer harvesting of the crop – inumerable grasses have wintered into an overall glow of warm golds, pinky-reds, yellows and greeny-yellows. What the crop was is impossible to know now, unless you are a farmer or some other expert, but what is not in doubt is the extent of the stubbles, their stretch. Extending laterally into a sweeping acreage and out ahead until a far-off feathery edge of trees beyond which the road divides more farmland. A stubbled breadth.
Before you found the bridleway, you had crossed another road. This is a zone of farmland in the midst of two A-roads, hardly likely to be peaceful. But this place does possess a strange feeling of peace, though perhaps less Africa and more a small uninhabited island in the midst of busy shipping lanes. It is likely the farm was here before the roads, and you are the only soul here this afternoon, and you do not seem to hear the traffic. Perhaps because your attention is elsewhere. Or perhaps because this is just one of those places with some inexplicable power to surpass ordinary expectations. Or maybe it is because it is Spring and the sky is blue and the sun feels warm and beneficent and positively clarifying. Perhaps it is all of those things.
The stubble fields are not that common. In this fairly conventional lowland agricultural landscape stubble fields occur relatively infrequently so each time they do it appears to be something almost rare and special. Autumn-sown crops have become conversely more ubiquitous in modern farming systems, replacing many stubble fields with early sowing of ‘Winter’ wheat, or other crops. There are arguments on both sides, though I am not here to debate that.
That odd, magnetizing quietness – yes, it is still present. There’s a feeling of containment, composure. Descending from higher ground, you passed through a rolling, tussocky, rabbit-holed area of rough grazing, empty of livestock today. Naturalized garden daffodils grew up a hedgebank on the other side, amongst primroses and celandines and rambling vegetation in the fresh green shades of salad leaves.
Right here, there are small birds singing from nearby scrub – a scruffy margin where uncharismatic yet functional, vigorous nature is busy with its own brand of ‘rewilding’ amongst abandoned farm equipment and a defunct lorry trailer still claiming to be the bearer of ‘fresh St Michael foods..’ But otherwise, apart from the birds, and the knowledge that plants are busy growing, the feeling here is of calm, and settlement, of a fallow plot, for now anyway. The world outside carries on whirling. You just stand and stare.
In a moment, though, you will become aware that brief though this experience has been, the moment has suddenly come to leave, turn back. Before you were drawn towards the stubbles you had only intended to go for a short walk. To walk ‘down the road’ a bit, and then home again. A bit of fresh air, that was all – but instead you just kept on walking. And now you have been walking for more than an hour, now. And there will be more than an hour to walk back again too.
But first – perhaps – there might be more to see. Lifting your binoculars, as you always do ‘just in case’, a loping, light brown animal the size of a small dog, with tall upstanding ears and a tail which hangs down and hugs its bottom with a smudge of black over a flattened swatch of white, enters the sight of your lenses at a run. The hare runs towards the road. And then it switches back, tearing through the stubble at even greater speed. The vision of the hare moving between the grasses, back and forth, is bewitching but is also a rebuke to you and the road for the presence of both. In entering the hare’s territory, you have brought it only fear, whilst you have felt surprise and delight at seeing it.
You should leave now. It really is not fair to linger. You walk slowly, aiming not to frighten anything else. The hare also makes its way back, its pace more measured than before, to an area near the start of this field, where it is joined by another. The two hares move towards each other and then, a few feet apart, they cross together and not far in front of you until they have disappeared into some sunstruck distance. There are partridges too. Ground birds. You hear the soft chuckling calls of the red-legged partridges first and then their cryptic yet obvious forms – there are three of them – scattering closely amongst the stalks and grasses. The plumage of these partridges is well-defined, grey and chestnut and black and white, and barred, with a black ‘gorget’ like a extravagant jet-choker arranged around the front of the neck. And of course, the red legs. The grey partridges are subtler in their own varieties of greys and browns – but their vocalisations – which is all that makes you aware of them this afternoon – is unequivocal. It has been described as ‘tern like’ and perhaps it is, sharing some of the springy, scratchy, wheezy qualities of the calls of the Common tern. But it is distinct from that agile bird of the air and water because its sound seems entirely of the earth, the soil and the sward where both species of partridges prefer to remain as often as possible. They are reluctant fliers.
Your attention has been distracted, again. But the partridges and the hares have perhaps confirmed something else about these stubble fields, making your lingering seem more worthwhile for the gaining of this knowledge, and that is in seeing some evidence of their value for wildlife. In particular for the hares and partridges and skylarks and yellowhammers and other species typically associated with arable farmland. Stubble fields like these can provide both cover and food, in spilt grains and weed seeds and grasses during Winter and early Spring, when that support is needed most.
But before you go – actually go – you loiter just a minute or three longer and stare out one last time at the stubbles in their carpets of apple-skin tints. Ridiculous really to be so enraptured by a few crop fields left over the winter months to do what they might naturally do once the combine had done its work and literally taken its cut. Whilst some plants still grow, others are dormant or dying or dead. It is an individual, plant-specific thing – the shifting, varying pigmentation-patterns of chlorophyll, anthocyanin and carotenoid, alterations in the processes of photosynthesis according to light-levels, environment, species. Fungal infection, even. Ironically, what might explain the ‘warmth’ of these hues you find so attractive and intriguing is to do with coldness, stasis, decay – winter phenomena. But perhaps that’s what feels good about this place. It’s a sigh of relief. It is a place, at least for now, which just is.
Being here for a little while was like stepping into a pause in time – walking through this liminal, wintered space, this island between roads, where you have enjoyed a short though unexpected period of solitude, and something which felt like peacefulness. An honest kind of peacefulness, existing, somehow, between places ripped by rushing traffic.
You walk home and feel the stillness all the way back, stopping on the way to notice the tiny white Sweet violets which have flowered at the edge of a spinney.