I have chanced on a good many deers’ bottoms in the last week.
Nothing else: just their bottoms.
This is because, with two strapping dogs at my heels, I represent something of an inconvenience to your average deer. If deer had wanted to be chased mercillessly, they would have “Chase me, chase me” tattoed across their little cervidae foreheads. They prefer a quiet life, I told my children, as we headed out for the evening dogtrot in Merchant-Ivory dappled sunlight.
We have two kinds of deer here in what remains of Windsor Forest: roe deer, those mottled gracious little wide-eyed sprites; and muntjacks, the unsetttling demon-faced dwarves who shun publicity of every kind.
Only twice have I ever seen the little lucifers. Once as in a glass dimly, through November mist early one morning, and once when one tore across our path swiftly pursued by Macaulay. It is fortunate the dog did not have the pace to catch his quarry, because he would have come off much the worse in any altercation.
As we walked yesterday my children quieted without being urged. They knew that silence could bag them a bambi sighting and they had heard my talk of deer’s bottoms.
“Mummy”, Mad whispered seriously, “I can see a deer’s bottom…”
Right, I thought. The power of suggestion is great indeed. One piece of rhetoric from me and we’re all hallucinating deer’s bottoms.
“Yes, I can see it too!” stage-whispered my son, “Look, over there!”
Now they were both at it. I sighed, but I looked, just the same. And there, perfectly camouflaged in a woodland glade, separated from us by a stout wire fence, was a young buck’s bottom.
A perfect, unguarded moment, this was; utterly sunlit, surrounded by the fat buzzing frequencies of a warm afternoon. If you have ever heard Debussy’s L’Apres-Midi D’une Faune: this was it. A moment of sensuality utterly unconnected with the human world. We tiptoed along the path to get a better view: and eventually, inevitably, our eyes met with the creature’s, and it considered its options.
It knew it was in no danger. But it preferred its privacy. After a long, languid stare it turned and cantered, unworried, up the hill towards the tabletop of the fort.
About two years ago I was walking along that same stretch on the same sort of evening, delighting in it all. The dog was rooting around in the leafmould and all was balmy. And suddenly I could have sworn I saw something very odd indeed.
It was a split-second, corner-of-your-eye thing. But just for a moment I was sure I saw a man sitting on a felled tree trunk. And he was dressed strangely. All this time later, the one thing I am sure of is that his dress was not modern, and that he wore a headress of some kind, with antlers on its head.
The dog was unperturbed, and snuffled onwards. If he wasn’t worried I was damned if I was going to be. I did what I learnt to do for four years, when I was paid to lock up a local haunted mansion at midnight, three times a week: I stared straight ahead and didn’t look back.
I scurried home, though. Because that headdress was very distinctive. Ever since I was tiny I have grown up with stories of a local legend. It was the myth of Herne the Hunter.
Herne is supposed to have been a Keeper in Windsor Forest, the best there was. But something went wrong, which brought about his disgrace and meant he would no longer work as one of the King’s men. And so, rather than face that shame, he hanged himself from a tree in Windsor Great Park.
He cut a terrible phosphorescent figure, who appears presaging national disaster. He is purportedly a dangerous ghost who has kidnapped some of those unfortunates who witness him; who is surrounded by henchmen on horseback. A fiery figure distinctly not at peace.
Although he seemed very peaceful sitting on his tree trunk.
No-one knows when or where the story first surfaced. Shakespeare refers to Herne in his ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’:
“Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns..”
Ever since, the tales have permeated our thinking here: Terry Pratchet parodies him in his Discworld novels, Susan Cooper includes him in The Dark Is Rising, and successive monarchs have taken steps to preserve the memory of the oak on which he is said to have hung himself.
But that evening’s moment was just a figment, brought on by the seductive light and the shadows of a forest on a Summer’s evening.
So this was how the tale grew up, I thought: in a place where trees, and light – and antlers – were in plentiful supply.
Debussy, and Shakespeare, and Pratchett and Cooper, and all those storytellers, were seduced by the wild beauty of a forest on the edge of young adulthood.
It has a rare potency.