Country diary: A family ritual, a familiar route | Nicola Chester

Taking the long walk from secondary school, across the fields and home, is something of a rite of passage for our children post-GCSEs. Now, after 11 years of secondary school parenting, our youngest has left, although as school librarian, I’m staying on. She intended to do the walk after her last exam, but it’s been tough for her. So I walk home on her behalf.

In the late afternoon heat, my satchel slung over my shoulder, I step over the road and on to the common. A golden-mauve haze of grass pollen underscores an intriguing tableau: the fair has pitched up and the cows have formed a jostling queue around it. The showmen, showwomen and their families have come out to greet them, and discourage them from stepping on to the Wurlitzer.

Leaving the common and its nettle-stung hollows, the sycamore trees become broccoli towers in their summer-dark canopies, and the path, hard-baked with flints, leads around the edge of three wheat fields. The whaleback downs are close, but look far away today. It’s a constant trick they play. The wheat ears are fat and fully formed, but still blue-green and not yet crackling in the heat. Not a weed grows among them. I scan the bramble flowers, the hogweed heads, the spires of agrimony to my left, and find them eerily empty of life. A single swallow hawks low over the uniform rows.

Walking home through the blue-green wheat. Photograph: Nicola Chester

But in the next field, there is the surprise of a yellow wagtail – the first I’ve seen in years – circling, calling tee-tee, its wings spread in the light like tiny buttered knives.

The downs shift closer, then away again, as if on rails. I pass scattered estate cottages from one farm to the stud, then reach open pasture. Mahogany-flanked thoroughbreds circle in a nose-to-tail, fly-swatting carousel beneath a trio of lime trees.

I reach the primary school and the walk through the woods we once did twice daily. It doesn’t seem that long ago. I can feel the children with me and I know what they’ll have said: that they are sure, as we were, that there were so many more insects then. More birds. More bees.

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