Fermynwoods residency: mapping foxes

The fields next to where I’m staying were mown last week: first the cut grass lay in striking stripes, then it got rolled up into bales.

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At this point I saw my opportunity to walk through the middle of the field, rather than skirt the edges as I normally would to avoid damaging crops. On a dusk meander, I had a bit of an explore and spotted a few dark green tracks in the cut grass.

 

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At that stage I wasn’t entirely sure if they were animal tracks or perhaps a tell-tale of a pipe or something, but I saw a few more – even more wiggly – and then a while later I encountered these two:

foxes

Later that night the bales got cling-filmed  – a surreal process I only saw glimpses of from the other side of the field, illuminated by tractor floodlights. I had to look it up. Here’s what I think was happening:

Anyway, now the field is bedecked with plastic blobs:

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And, yep, the tracks are still there and I started noticing more of them as I walked in the field a few more times.

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Yesterday I reached a point where I knew I had to investigate further. I wanted to know how many tracks there were, where they went and how they related to each other. The field undulates quite a bit, so there’s not a convenient vantage point where you can do this just by standing in the tight spot and just looking. Yesterday I reached a point where I knew the only way to investigate further was to walk all of the trails and track my movements using GPS.

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I’ve just read the chapter in The Old Ways where Robert Macarlane is trying to locate and then follow a shieling path across the peat moorland and rocky mountain slopes of the Western Isles. Both surfaces in their own way resistant to bearing traces of footfall, the path is marked with small cairns of rocks arranged at intervals. It takes him a few hours of searching to find the path, following the instructions he’s been given:

“When you’re up there you need to look for what shouldn’t be there: two or three pale stones aligned, the rock that has been displaced, that isn’t where the ice and gravity should have left it.”

And then:

“Click. Alignment. Blur resolving into comprehension. The pattern standing clear: a cairn sequence, subtle but evident, running up from the Dubh Loch shore.”

I was particularly thinking of this as I walked around the field because it turns out the trails can be devilishly hard to spot sometimes. There are the main tracks – dark green with long grass pressed flat enough by many feet that it has escaped the mower – easily visible as they snake across the field, however the lesser used trails are less obvious. I found that a lot depended on what direction they were going in relation to the sun, and where I in turn was stood in relation to that. Looking in one direction the trail could be practically invisible, yet really obvious when viewed from the opposite direction. In some cases it took a certain amount of voodoo to intuit where a trail went, then walking out to a complementary vantage point, looking back and checking that that was the right way to go.

I suspect my task might have been easier had I done it later in the day when the sun was lower, but I wanted to be done before dusk so as not to disturb the foxes too much. They’ll already be disgusted at the horrible human smell that’s all over their field!

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I walked for 3 hours and covered about 5 miles walking backwards and forwards, tracking the trails and retracing my steps to go back to each junction.

I’m sure I must have missed out some branches, as it was very difficult to *ahem* keep track of everything, but I feel like I’ve now got some sort of sense of how they all fit together and how they relate to the geography of the field.

Here’s the final trace superimposed onto Google’s satellite view of the area. I like the juxtaposition between these lines and the regular ones made by the tractor working the adjacent field.

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Close to 3 miles worth of network.

What’s it like to navigate those paths?

How much learning does it require, and how much can you sense the current state of the paths and their users?

How do you keep track of where you are and which turnings you have to take when these trails are tunnels within long grass?

How do these trails link up to their counterparts in the woodlands?

 

 

Fermynwoods residency: mostly gates

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Having spotted this road sign on my way to Market Harborough the other day, I mapped out a 40 mile cycle route exploring to the North of where I’m staying and of course starting out with Old Dry Lane (North).

Best laid plans and all that…

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The first bit went okay: I found the South end of Old Dry Lane, and the ghost middle part of Old Dry Lane (looks like it came a cropper when the A road was built, maybe?) turned out to be a bridleway and passable by bike.

 

 

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I got myself across the A6116 without incident, and found what was left of the original line on the North side.

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Hmmm, bit of a dumping ground it seems.

The plan then was to keep going up the lane and then turn right and use a track to link up to Benefield Road. I started hitting signs saying ‘private road’ though. There was a ‘bridleway’ sign right next to it, but in between noticing each sign, I also managed to stop and ask a dogwalker if it was possible for me to get through if I kept going that way.

I was just following a line on my Garmin, so I couldn’t give him any useful information about where I was trying to get to, but he did suggest I back up a bit, and take the track through the woods as that would be a better surface than going straight on (which would have me going across fields).

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I felt it would be in the spirit of exploration to follow his suggestion, so I got onto the track and had a nice little off-road ride through the woods. I decided I didn’t want to go as far as Weldon, so turned right and tried to rejoin onto my original planned route.

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This looked good for a few minutes, but then I came to a gate with signs saying it was private access only, so I had to turn back to the A road. “No problem”, I thought, just a short stretch, then I can turn left up Benefield Road and get back onto my original route in no time.

WRONG!

Benefield Road goes under the A6116! I had to keep going, back to the footbridge into Brigstock for a lap of honour and then try again…

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I really enjoyed the gated road coming out of Lower Benefield, however I kind of get the feeling someone else was less happy about it.

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It seemed to be a road that was only reluctantly open as a right of way. The signs seemed to be saying “Well, go on then, but don’t say we didn’t warn you…”

 

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I wimped out of doing the full 40 miles in the end – the previous night’s excitements and the earlier diversions having got the better of me. I hadn’t planned for it to be another ride on the theme of gatekeepers and permissions, nor to be another exercise in being misplaced, but I like how exploring by bicycle reveals the sorts of inconsistencies that are usually hidden to you when you’re driving a car. I also like how bikes are generally very accommodating of plans going a bit different.

I’m not sure if I’ll have time to get another ride in before I leave, but I feel my bike trips so far have shown and taught me a lot. So many unanswered questions though! I want to know about the Old Dry Hills!

Fermynwoods residency: a night out with the stars

Following on from previous nocturnal outings, I did my first wild camp.

Aeroplanes: lots.
Trail bikers: none.
Stars: many.
Meteors: not a sausage.

 

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Fermynwoods residency: lines of flow, lines of obstruction

The path between Fermynwoods Country Park and Lyveden New Bield

In the last blog post I mentioned the field I like which has a footpath burnished across the earth. Yesterday I went looking for more traces of movement in the landscape.

Footbridge over the A6116

The route I chose was largely prompted by noticing that there was a footbridge over the busy A-road that I’ve been very wary of using other than by car. Being able to cross this line opened up a new patch of territory to me as someone travelling by bike.

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I’m very glad of that footbridge, as I enjoyed the ride a lot more than the one I did a few days ago. Most of the time there was a strong sense of being up high and being aware of how the ground lies as it spreads out around you. The gorgeous sunshine probably helped too.

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In an echo of the path near the Lodge, coming out of Cranford St John I found this footpath cutting across a field. Looking at the map now, the path intriguingly looks like it’s a continuation of what is now the road. Perhaps long ago there was a fork there, rather than a bend, and for some reason one tine gained precedence?

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Wind turbines are a feature of the landscape around here, in that way that wind turbines are: clustered on hill-tops, kind of blending in, but also their slow, steady circles having an insistent, powerful presence. I usually encounter them at a distance, so when I see one close up, their size often takes me by surprise. Something something forces of nature something.

The wind seems to be ever present here, with so little to obstruct it. I only recently realised that the hedges and trees I begrudged for blocking the view from the Lodge were probably there as necessary protection. Even so, finding a spot to sit in the garden is a careful balancing act between sun, shade and wind chill factor.

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In addition to the turbines, there are other signs of the wind being harnessed. There’s a gliding club airfield very close to where I’m staying, and windsocks dotted around the place. The most prolific users are probably the red kites though, and it’s fascinating to watch them as they perpetually switch allegiance between thermals and crosswinds, scouring the fields for prey.

 

Here’s a line that made me stop:

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There was a similar one to it that I had passed over moments earlier, as I entered the village, but seeing another on the way out made me realise the significance of it being a boundary line. (Probably?)

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I wonder if they are there as rural rumble strips to remind drivers to Please Drive Slowly, or whether they are performative in some way, with identities and jurisdictions given a hard edge? Has there always been a line there?

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Further on in my journey I met with more assertive boundary lines, as my route took me through the Drayton House estate.

Drayton map

I’d seen from the map that there was a public right of way through the park, and from the satellite view it looked well surfaced, but it was marked up as a footpath and so I was still unsure as to whether I’d be able to cycle through the park when I got there.

That doubt didn’t last long.

Only if you have to

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Again I’m left wondering about the heritage of the footpath and the right of way …and how begrudgingly the estate observes it nowadays. The white signs above do quite a good job of obscuring the unassuming footpath sign behind them, and where walkers were directed to use gates, those gates were in turn obstructed by posts that would likely prevent wheelchairs or pushchairs from passing through. Handlebars took a bit of weaving but, as I pushed my bike through the park, I enjoyed the change of pace and the chance to look around me a bit more.

 

Drayton House desire line

This appeared to be some sort of desire line path to a side gate. It seemed very transgressive given all the electric fences and authoritative signage surrounding it.

 

Back on my bike again, the last stage of my journey took me along the bridleway through the woods back to the Lodge. These tracks have me very focused on the ground in front of my tyres, picking my way between ruts, pot holes and branches, alternating between sides or sometime deciding it would be more prudent to bump up into the middle bit.

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I’m starting to get my eye in to reading the road ahead a bit; spotting the overhanging briars and nettles ahead of time and, as here, recognising a corner with a lower side that gets the water and is therefore more worn.

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Back at the Lodge I spent time in the (somewhat wind-sheltered) garden watching the red kites rastering across the freshly mown fields. I counted about 15 of them and was wondering how territories worked out, if they have their own patch of the field that they work, or if there’s a consensual distance apart that they respect.

dog walkers

road map

Curious as to how people navigate themselves around what might superficially seem like an open, empty space, yesterday I set myself up at a carpark on Canada Common and chatted to dog walkers as they returned from their walks and asked them if they could describe where they’d just been.

Canada Common

I spoke to about a dozen sets of two-leggeds and four-leggeds with a range of results from which two different methods of navigating seem to be forming.

The first is by landmark: fixed things in the landscape to aim for. The bench on the hill; the pond; the white chimney; third pylon to the left from the big tree…

The second is by rule: look for water so the dogs can cool down; avoid water so the dogs don’t get too muddy; keep away from men; keep away from dogs that are bigger/scarier; avoid all that poo over there…

How might I re-draw a map of this area?



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