March 24th 2014
Although fifty five years have past, I still have clear memories of my schooldays in deepest Oxfordshire. Particularly vivid is the end of day hymn we all sang; “Now the day is over.” While singing me and my schoolmates stood before a somewhat gory yet fascinating picture; the death of Nelson on the deck of HMS Victory amidst the turbulent seas and blazing inferno of the Battle of Trafalgar. The hymn, the scene and the delight of then running out of school and round the corner home has stayed with me.
Now, all these years on, I am often reminded of those moments for I live near an upland valley redolent with the history of Trafalgar. Nine miles down the Bowmont/Glen valley my old Raleigh cycle often takes me up to Hethpool and the College valley beyond. Hethpool was the home of Admiral Collingwood, second in command of the Trafalgar fleet who on Nelson’s death assumed command and delivered victory.
Collingwood loved the rippling burn and oak wooded hillsides of his home both for their natural beauty and also as a seaman for the wood from which the British fleet had been built. In order to preserve both habitat and British sea power, Collingwood, or Old Cuddy as he was affectionately known by his sailors, walked the hills with his dog Bounce and planted acorns wherever he went.
The result is the oak clad hillside which I am cycling to today. It is a magical place. Ancient oaks stand firmly rooted yet with limbs severed by many a storm, jagged and misshapen. Dead branches lie on the woodland floor fantastically contorted and smoothed by the elements. Above the oaks spread into a canopy of mingling branches tipped with purple tinted buds and etched against the clear blue sky. A gentle breeze rustles all with a gentle soughing and creaking of boughs.
Though the strategic needs of the navy have long gone, Old Cuddy would have delighted in this natural legacy. Primroses nestle beside the fallen branches and bluebell leaves spear their way upward. The nooks and crannies of the old oaks are the perfect home for some of our more elusive birds. A rapid wing flick and a flash of white saw two tree creepers clinging to a lichen encrusted tree just a few feet before me. Their sharp claws and wedged tails rapidly took them round and up the trunk. Up aloft a nuthatch foraged, its slate blue back complementing the bright blue of the sky. Deeper within the lattice work of branches a flash of red revealed a great spotted woodpecker. Woodland birds were all busy and completely at home.
It was three thirty; my day was over, night was drawing nigh, (well nearly). It was time to go home and leave the scene of Collingwood’s triumph just as it had been all those years ago.