Ian Hill is a writer, bookbinder, printmaker and lover of wild places. He lives in Cumbria, with a view of the hills. His blog is The Printed Land.
In the chill November sunshine, I am cutting wood. After a day at my desk, it is comforting to feel the swing and heft of the shaft in my hands, the pale warmth of the sun on my neck as the split logs tumble around the chopping block. I can smell cooling air, leaf mulch and the resinous scent of the logs. I take pleasure in identifying the woods as they splinter beneath the axe; the red coarseness of the douglas fir, the ochre density of the larch. My breath clouds the air around me, which is chilling to evening like a vespers blessing, and I am thinking about my father.
In my memories, it is autumn. I am walking with him across fields of tilled stubble, our boots heavy with clayed soil. Or it is early in the winter, ploughed ribs emerging from the first of the season’s snows. We are walking towards a disused railway siding, a pile of sleepers which are waiting to be cut into firewood. He is carrying a long saw, a two-handled cross-cut, the one which now hangs in my own garage, rusted and unused. I can still feel the chafe on my palms of its oiled and stained wooden handles, how big they seemed in my child’s hands. He has a measured stride across rough ground, so that my shorter legs must skitter to keep up with him, my breath pluming in the cold air.
As we walk, he talks. He had a way of telling stories which made them seem so unlike stories; they were laid into the space between us as something to consider, a small part of a larger puzzle that was his life before I knew him. He would tell me of dusty airfields in the north of Pakistan, of shuttered Spanish villages in the afternoon before a bullfight, of stories from this railway line by which we kneel, before the closure of so many branch lines and sidings. Railway work was in his blood; he came from a family of railway men, and seemed to take an almost sensuous pleasure in the arterial geography of the rail network, the litany of station names, the network map on his office wall like the nervous system of an ancient beast.
Many years later, I came to realise why there were so many railway sleepers available to those who knew, to the men who worked for what was then British Rail, many of whom, like my father, had joined the London and North Eastern Railway Company in the years after the war. Lines were being ripped up, and they would pass to each other hints about where sleepers could be found as a cheap and dependable source of firewood. At the time we were struggling with the cross-cut saw, branch lines across England were being closed as part of Dr Beeching’s programme of cuts and improved efficiency; rails were being removed and melted down to be re-used, leaving heaps of blackened sleepers discarded on the tracksides like war dead. What I saw was a small part of a process of gradual change; for the landscape, for the people who worked on the railway, for the passengers who shifted to other forms of transport. During this time, my father began to collect railway antiques: signs, lamps, signalling equipment, sometimes stepping in front of the diggers to rescue pieces from destruction. It seemed then like the quirk of an ageing man, but I see it now as an act of atonement for the senseless fragmentation of the rail network, a form of remembrance. In his shed I would read the names of stations and junctions which no longer existed, like a roll call for the recently departed: Billingborough, Stickney, New Bolinbroke.
Although lean and wiry, with the supple limbs of an ex-sportsman, my father walked with pained breath, as though from an old injury. As a child, I was always aware of the fragility of his health; how he had undergone open heart surgery before I was born, how his chances of survival seemed so remote, his life trusted to doctors who were practising at the known limits of medicine. Because of this, I believe, he viewed each day as a blessing, each turned sod of earth or split log a thing of beauty and wonder. He observed the world rather than interpreted it, came from a generation that were reluctant to question, but preferred to accept. It was this that gave him the stoicism to bear his failing health, I think, but also gave him the patience and reverence to be content walking on a beach, or digging his garden, or cutting sticks for the fire.
He told me the whole story one day when I was in my late teens. We were on a train together, off for a day’s hillwalking in the Peak District. I was in my final years of school, thinking about leaving, thinking about university, mostly thinking about an escape from the wide open skies and the narrow horizons of my fenland town. Walking with my father was the one thing we could still do together: it became an unspoken currency between us, a way to share a love of the natural world of which we could never speak.
I remember the train pulling away from Sheffield station as he started to tell me of the repeated appointments he had in the hospital here at the top of the hill with a heart specialist; of telling my then-pregnant mother of the operation he would need in order to live; of praying in the hospital chapel the night before going down for surgery that he would live to see his unborn child. By the time we had reached the Dore and Totley tunnel, the view from the window was blurred with my tears.
As we climbed the lane out of the station at Hope that morning, I sensed that something between us had changed, that some message had been passed that I failed to understand and yet still registered its import, lodged in my chest like a burden and a promise. We crouched in the lee of a gritstone wall, watching the grey clouds scrape the surface of the Mam Tor ridge, eating flapjack, in a familial silence.
It was around this time that we bought our first family car: a khaki-green mini. To a family brought up with railway timetables, it opened up a sense of adventure, the ability to drive deep into the Peak District and see skies obscured by the outlines of low hills, rather than the vast horizons around our home. It did not change our travel habits, however: we still took the train on family holidays, still walked into town and caught the bus to school. My father did not learn to drive for many years; he continued to cycle to work every day until he retired at sixty, his lunch box buckled into the canvas saddle bag, his overtrousers on wet evenings dripping in the garage. He had travelled a lot, particularly when he was younger, before he married and had children, but driving was never part of his lexicon. He walked, or cycled when it was too far, or took the train and ferries when going abroad. This way was his world measured, his limits defined by the Thomas Cook International Timetable which he would bring home to leaf through on dark evenings in front of the fire.
The stories he told me as a child, on those autumn walks across the fields in search of logs, are steeped in my consciousness; they became part of who I am, as much as his coarse black hair or his stooped posture have become part of who I am. I absorbed them unthinkingly, in the same way that I learned from him so many ways of doing things; of how to shake seeds into a furrow from that neat crease in the palm of your hand, of the importance of a well-oiled bicycle, or the poetry of place names or the way to peel apples. I realise now how much of what we learn is through observation and imitation; I barely remember my father teaching me anything; rather, I learnt from him a way of being in the world that came from humility and contentment, that was informed by wonder and hope. It is a way of looking at the world that seems increasingly rare, that informs the way I try to be with my own children, the lessons I try to teach them about the uniqueness of the world, the value of experience over acquisition, the pleasure in simple tasks performed outdoors on a sunny day, the joy of walking across open fields on autumn days when the earth is hardened by the first of the season’s frosts.
I grew up in a place dominated by the demands of arable farming. The countryside where I played as a child was quilted with fields around which footpaths skirted with timid uncertainty, relegated to the muddy margins. At that time, in the mid-1970s, stubble was burned in the late summer to prepare the fields for the sowing of winter wheat; I can remember cycling my bicycle on the last days of the summer holidays through clouds of dense, pungent smoke which burned in the throat. It was before the Common Agricultural Policy had encouraged the merging of fields, the removal of hedgerows and the tall field ashes which broke the monotony of the skyline. I roamed the fields and meadows around our village as though through a fabled land, giving names to the creeks and wooded field corners, the remains of brick-lined wells and dew ponds, the leavings of another age which seemed transient and magical. I was aware of the wildlife that was in the fields around us, but it was becoming harder to spot. We still saw birds in the last of the hedges, kestrels ghosting the field margins in the morning sun, or hares caught in the open fields at dusk like visitors from another time, scared and confused.
As the land opened out, as fields merged and old lanes blurred from view, birds were becoming more scarce; they were more familiar from folklore than from the hedgerows. I knew the wren from the back of a farthing, but I had never seen one. We still heard pheasants in the autumn, the pop of guns from a distant copse and the harsh bark of dogs on the morning air, followed by the smell of meths and fat in the darkened garage as my mother plucked one for the oven. Apart from that, the birds I recall most from my childhood were the rooks.
There was a rookery at the top of the village, a dense cluster of chestnut and ash where we would go conkering after school in the autumn. As we walked through, we sent plumes of birds spiralling into the late afternoon sky, a dense forest of sound that seemed both magical and eerie. With our passing, they would descend again into the trees, snickering into stillness, etched black against the darkening sky.
Many years later, I learned that rooks return to the same nesting sites each year, and that many of these old rookeries are used as communal roosts throughout the winter. Rooks are intensely sociable birds, relying on the experience and intelligence of others around them to feed, to survive. I marvel at the certainty of these decisions, the predetermined mental urge to return here, to this place, with these others around me. I know that, sometimes, rookeries can be abandoned and new roosts established in another copse, miles away. I wonder what drives these decisions, what necessity has forced this change, whether they look across to their former home with satisfaction or regret.
My father and my mother both spent their adult lives in the place where they had grown up. The house they built together when they married was no more than three miles from their childhood homes. For my father, this rootedness was a more deliberate decision, a return to the familiar after his years in the war, in another country, away from the cricket grounds and tennis courts which marked his youth. He came back from service overseas two years after the war had ended, returning to his old job at the railway company; within a year it had been nationalised. He would have been a latecomer to the victory celebrations; in his absence, the country had a new government, a new national health service. Village cricket teams were no longer composed of the very young and the very old, although they must have felt the absences of those who had died during the war: the missing spin bowler, the absent opening bat.
I never saw him play cricket; his failing health had stopped most of his sports before I was born. A few years ago, my mother found his old bat in the attic: a Slazenger Len Hutton, awarded to him for some ‘Player of the Year’ exploit in 1952 or ’53. The rubber handle had rotted, leaving the string whipping raw and exposed. The wood was perfectly oiled. It was so much lighter and thinner than modern bats, so much more dependent on skill and placement rather than strength and power. I hefted it in my hands, felt the deftness of his movement alive in the dimpled surface of the handle, in the way that wood carries the physical memory of its owner, as though, through a few atoms embedded in the grain, we leave something of ourselves in the things we use.
Sport became, for him, part of the connection with place which I failed to grasp when I was young. To wear the shirt of a local football team, to play on his village tennis courts, these were the things that bound him to the area where he lived. On summer beach holidays he could still demonstrate his deftness with a ball, still nimble, always wanting to play catch. As a football player he was a goalkeeper; in cricket a wicket keeper. A safe pair of hands.
Now I stand at the boundary rope of cricket pitches damp with the rains of summer and watch my sons walk out to the crease. I see there a ghost of my father’s patience, sense a fragile thread of connection between them and the grandfather they never met, and begin to understand the sense of belonging they have developed with the place in which they were born, my adopted home, miles from the land of my childhood. I return there so rarely now, these memories seem like a story told by someone else, tales of a time long since passed. And yet I find myself drawn to lands of low horizons and vast skies, familiar with a feeling where wildness is synonymous with open spaces, where the presence of the distant horizon is a source of comfort. There are times when I travel west from my home to the coastal plain where the land elides to the shifting sands of the Solway estuary, and I feel somehow at home. I recall, as though dredged from memory, the sense of space in lowlands which is akin to the feeling of being in a ship at sea, adrift in an uncertain place, anchorless, unmoored.
The day my father died, I was on the far side of the country, coming down from the hills into a broad estuary crossed by a low wooden footbridge, the mud flats lit by the soft, diffuse sun of a summer morning. It was not until the afternoon that I heard the news, but I was compelled to count back through the hours, to identify precisely where I was at the time of his death, as though the location mattered, as though the crossing of a bridge was freighted with significance. Later, after I could excuse myself from the practicalities of leaving my work for a few days, I walked alone to the sea. Sitting on the shingle bank overlooking a smooth beach pleated by a receding tide, I felt that I could finally weep for him, remembering the beaches we had walked upon together; the games of catch, the sand-filled sandwiches, the shards of pottery and brick and shell he would tease from the tideline and turn in his thin fingers.
That was twenty-two years ago. It is only now that I begin to understand the importance of the things we do not say to our children; the way we adjust ourselves to the world around us, the acts of benediction we bring to the experience of being outdoors, the sense of reverence we offer to them, again and again, in every birch wood, on every beach. It is the inheritance I have from my father, the one I carry like a fragile shell, knowing that I must pass it also to my children, unmarked, unbroken, precious.
Last summer, I finally cleared his old shed of the tools and seed packets and wood offcuts which had accumulated dust for twenty years or more. Between the railway signs and bicycle parts, I found the creosoted pine log on which he chopped sticks for the fire. He would bring home the short sections of railway sleeper which we had cut in those winter sidings and split them down and down and down into sticks no thicker than my childhood fingers. I helped him to gather and stack them, the bitter licqourice tang of creosote staining my hands. Each time I build the fire at home now, I use the same method he taught me as a child; the crumpled newspaper, the criss-cross pattern of sticks. Although we burned coal, not wood, at home at that time, in order to coax heat from the deep and inefficient fire in our living room. I remember the bitter taint of the sooty dust which coated the mantelpiece in the sitting room, the sofa pushed up to the fire on winter evenings, warming our pillows in front of the flames so that, amongst the clammy chill of the bedclothes, there was a pool of warmth against one’s face that felt like comfort. Like love.
On these chill days of autumn, I teach my son to chop wood; to use the heft of the axe, its swing and momentum, to reduce the effort needed to split a log of fir or spruce. I want to pass on a way of being that has changed little since my childhood, and I realise that the state of grace I try to achieve with the world is based on an antiquated humility, a sense of reverence which extends to the pile of wood, the tall beech trees over my head, the land around me, our place in the world.
My son is now the age at which I crossed those fields with my father carrying the cross-cut saw. We live in a place where the hedgerows are still intact, where birds can be seen in the fields and where hills crowd the near horizon like a familiar presence. As we cut wood together, I sense my father’s ghost at my shoulder, remember the smell of creosote, the polished wood of the saw handle, and feel an ache for the people and the things we have lost.