The Last Trek of the Year

My sister needed to go and get her hair cut. My brother-in-law was tutoring students.

Might my four-year old nephew, Big Al, and his sisters pass a little time at the Shrewsday pad on New Year’s Eve?

It would only be about an hour.

This was not a day for milksop scheduling choices. To cope with Big Al towards the end of a long holiday one must make bold decisions.

I met everyone at the door. “No!” I bellowed Basil Fawlty style. “Nobody take their shoes and coats off! We’re going straight out again!”

For a Shrewsday manoeuvre it went quite smoothly.Everyone walked up to the door, I effected a 180 degree turn, everyone walked off down the drive, away from the intricate Lego models and the ancient cat reclining on a hot-pipe under our kitchen floor and the Β husband in need of quiet time.

The dog, the five children and I crossed the road and fell into the muddy forest.

I remember when I was young my father would select stout pine walking sticks from the forest for each of us: he loved to whittle, and he would carve a handle for each of us at the top. Mine had a fork, and Dad carved it into a snake.

Is there something in the small print of the genes, which passes on the small comfortable habits and confounds those who are watching three generations alongside each other? Felix stomped away from the path and into the brush and began, systematically, to prepare walking sticks for all the children.

“Right!” he bellowed. It seems there are two Basil Fawltys in the family. “Everyone in Survival Club, this way!”

And lo, everyone was immediately a member of Survival Club, and they chose a raised path and trooped along like the lost boys, a delighted Al bringing up the rear.

Al wanted a stick: but he didn’t want a dirty stick. This was an interesting requirement as they don’t wash forest sticks before laying them out on a pristine forest floor. All the sticks were rainy.

His sister saved the day by falling in love with a second stick, straighter and truer than the one Felix had selected. Al decided his sister’s stick must be clean, and appropriated it.

He found it rather tall, though; it was a bit of a handful. Three minutes later I observed him brandishing a twig he had found. “Look, Felix, I got my stick!,” he was bawling happily, proving that the one thing for which these sticks were not being used was support.

But Al was happy.

We stomped assertively up the fairy path, a track adorned with great old trees and lush green moss, and I thanked my stars I had insisted everyone was fitted out in wellies. It was what we call here a mucky day.

It might have been a mistake to allow the children to choose the route. They selected a little-known track we had tried once in the Summer, a good 45-minute strider which boasts a trek past a farmstead and a great wide forest pond. I acquiesced but mumbled something about possibly turning back soon.

The path went on. And on.

The dog was in seventh heaven, in his favourite kind of home ground, the Fetid Forest Marsh. He would meet and greet other dogs like the canine socialite he is, sharing his musk liberally, leaving anyone foolhardy enough to pet him with an aghast expression as they realised they must complete their forest walk today with a hand that smelt like a rancid monster from the forest deep.

I had no watch, but I knew we were breaking records for long walks here. We must surely have been out longer than an hour: and finally the path home was in sight, and I began to promise the customary hot chocolates to entice everyone home.

We retraced our steps along the fairy path and I looked round for the dog, so that he could be put on the lead.

The dog was not there. Some siren deer had drawn him deep into the forest, and we waited for five minutes while he completed his quest and finally reappeared, soggy muzzled and doggily delighted, a huge grin on his face.

Home: and hot chocolate. Al reclaimed his new toddler’s tablet and disappeared into cyberworld. And with him, bafflingly, went Kit Kat.

If one popped one’s head round the sitting room door, the oddest sight was on offer: a small boy sitting on the floor, leaning intently over a computer: and a cat sitting next to him, just as rapt.

I have no idea what the draw was.

That was he last walk of the year in our grey muddy English forest. Today: our first steps of 2012.

47 thoughts on “The Last Trek of the Year

  1. Not much in the way of forests in Miami, Florida, USA. So as children our walking sticks were pieces of scrap lumber from construction sites and soon became quite proficient swords, lances and spears. And we instantly became Romans and Greeks and Vikings. There is nothing more delightful than sending the boys from the other street running home crying with cuts and bruises and banged up heads. Battlefield victory. As from my bloodline heritage, naturally I was a centurion.

  2. A walk in the woods always stirs our senses with all the bounties of nature. With kids it’s a special treat just to watch what they will do, unfettered by our grown up constraints. Much like Macaulay must free himself to watch the deer, Big Al has to have his own special walking stick which isn’t even a stick. Kids are just so much fun to watch how their minds think of the strangest alternatives.

    A very Happy New Year to your lovely family.

    1. Kids are nothing if not lateral, Lou – you’re right there. And when we spend time with them their conversation and inventiveness are boundless. You’re right: what a special treat.

  3. Your nephew is a show-stealer, even more so than Macaulay. Or perhaps it’s just that I am partial to the antics of smallish boys with largeish personalities?

    Happy end of 2011 and happy first steps of the new year!

  4. Fabulous, glorious – I closed my eyes and could smell the forest in all its damp, musty deliciousness (upwind from Mac of course)! Wonderful piece Kate πŸ™‚

  5. Yay! Sister to the rescue! I can’t think of anything better than splashing about in puddles with a four year old, we need permission to do something like that when you get to my age (175 if you remember).

    Great end to the year.

  6. Treks like these are fun to observe and be part of. It is always entertaining how different people (and animals) entertain themselves in nature. I did a waterfall hike once with my parents and MTM. Roy (my Dad) decided it was all too much for him and sat down on a tree waiting to accost people with talking as they happened by. Somehow, I got separated from the rest and came across a little boy about Big Al’s age who was entertaining himself with a twig, destroying every mushroom he saw, but with some grand dramatic fantasy story. Kids are so funny.

    What a perfect way to end and to begin. Happy 2012!

    1. And to you, Andra! The waterfall hike sounds fun, and your Dad sounds more and more of a character with every tale I hear. A stick and a crop of mushrooms: I don’t think there are many things Al would rather encounter!

  7. I love the idea of carved sticks… do you still have the one your Dad carved for you?
    What a shame it was so damp for the walk in the woods – here’s to some lovely cold frosty days in 2012

    1. Wow! Number five! I never would have thought that! I haven’t looked at my stats: everyone seems to think WP have got things a bit ski-whiff this year. But thanks for your support, Nancy. Your outlook always brings fresh perspective πŸ™‚

  8. Happy New Year Kate! That was a beautiful post and I absolutely love the photo. Something worth framing, I think. Many happy trails to you and yours for 2012.

    1. Thank you, Kathy: it’s funny, pictures like that are two-a-penny here – the whole forest looks like this, so it’s just business as usual. Must look out some more shots for a slideshow. We feel very lucky to live here on the edge of this place πŸ™‚ Happy New Year to you!

  9. What a memory-building aunt you are, Kate! I too did one of my favourite hikes on Dec31. Other than nearly being run over by a young boy on an out-of-control trail bike with his mother following with screeches, it was a very peaceful walk to give thanks for the beauty that nature continuously proffers.

    Kit Kat knows something! Seems Big Al may be sporting one sweet soul!

  10. Now that’s a great way to spend New Year’s eve – we have a forest near our place but it is impenetrable in most spots and full of snakes, of course – but a few kilometres away there are raised wooden paths (above the swampiness) and lovely walks. I think I would enjoy your forest πŸ™‚

    1. I think anyone would enjoy this forest, Gabrielle: all shapes and sizes of paths, the only snakes adders and slow-worms. And- very important in cramped England- one can walk and walk without encountering a boundary. I don’t think that would be so much of a problem in your neck of the woods πŸ˜€

  11. How wonderful to have those forests on your doorstep, Kate – I spent most of my primary school holidays with my cousins, whose neighbouring houses were bordered by a seemingly endless forest – wonderful places to ignite the creative, game-playing imagination

  12. At the close of 2011 and the opening of 2012, I offer my thanksgiving for you and to you for keeping me informed – always – of what good writing is. thanks for being such an inspiration! Happy 2012!

    1. And thank you: for your unfailingly frank, funny and insightful reflections of life, unvarnished and endearing, in that cloudy mirror of yours. Happy New Year, Paula.

  13. What a grand trek! I especially enjoyed the account of Macauley’s awful pungency. πŸ™‚ I went out to the woods today for my own tramp about, but found the wind off the lake so cutting that it bit right through my llama wool sweater and brought tears to my eyes. I surrendered and drove home, making a note to purchase some more cold weather togs.

  14. I tell ya wut!!! I love that swampy, grey ,muddy, English forest trail…Looks just like Carolina…I mean so eerily close …even Big Al couldn’t shake a stick at the resemblances …Gitter Done Big Al….
    You too, Katie…Keep up the great work…wish you’d a been my aunt when I was Big Al’s Age…You exemplify what family should have, and should always be with your obvious love toward Big Al…I love it.
    God Bless You

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