diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 17, 2016

London country diary: Riddlesdown

On the last day of summer, before the deluge breaks, a mile of grassy upland gleams in unbroken sun. One of the chalk fingers that stretches out from Croydon into Surrey, Riddlesdown is a contoured glory, one hundred acres of scrub and meadow above a precipitous dry valley. On the opposite slope the spire of Kenley church bursts forth beneath a thick shield of forest, and giant semi-detached houses with bold red gables rise gently in pristine rows. This should also be the fate of my lofty viewpoint, indeed the northern side of the ridge has long been covered with steep suburban avenues. But Riddlesdown has been protected from development thanks to its unlikely owners - the City of London - and survives as a place of leisure, of relaxation and of understated agriculture.

A steady trickle of dogs with owners heads east from the car park, taking the ridgetop path past a chain of well-positioned benches. Off-leash they scurry down into the grassy brow, this recently trimmed, to root out odours or to leave a fresh smell of their own. A drinking fountain has been provided through a distant act of benevolence, which ought to be adequate refreshment in this heat, but nobody's risking it. Here comes the Coulsdon Common Ranger's van, sidling up to the main gate above the railway tunnel, unlocking it and passing through. Cattle are grazing somewhere ahead, but they stay out of sight in the shade, as the old Roman road veers gently downhill between curtains of yew, sycamore and ash.

Woodpecker Fields are usually quiet, at least before the local academy turfs out. Today, however, is different. All the grass in the field has been cut and piled up into long thin ridges, each running parallel and a few metres apart. Amongst the grass are leaves and stalks of flowers, dried to a husk by the summer drought, and churned together to create additional nutritional variety. A man in a tractor is out and about, pulling a large green hopper which scoops up each ridge in turn and compacts the contents until full. Every minute or so the tractor pauses and a green mesh coating is added, before a drum of hay rolls out of the back, and the process continues. Two magpies watch the action from the sidelines, expending minimal effort and hoping that their next meal has been disturbed.

In the adjacent field the hay is already baled, and scattered across the hillside in seemingly random locations. A second farmhand is busy collecting them all, in pairs, this time in a red truck with extendable claw. He uses one bale to knock the second upright before piercing down on both, then slowly manoeuvres his twin cargo to the lowloader at the top of the slope. Once twenty-four bales are in place another tractor hauls them away, past the rim of a deep quarry, aiming for a narrow gap in the hedge that initially seems too small. Somehow the load squeezes through, rocking on the uneven ground as it passes, at this precise point crossing from the very edge of London to the very edge of Surrey. Each bale will overwinter in large barns on the outskirts of Hamsey Green, unwrapped as necessary to provide sustenance for local livestock.

With the golden slopes harvested, Riddlesdown awaits the turning of the season. A last flurry of butterflies dots the uncultivated scrub as a final day of untimely heat plays out. Across the valley a dense canopy of green shines forth, as yet without pockets of yellow and brown to spread and fall. Those fortunate enough to live in this corner of the capital rejoice at such vistas on their doorstep, a far more pleasant place to stroll than some patchwork Zone 2 park, and alive with so much more than pigeons and squirrels. Imperceptibly, fluffs of cumulus bubble up in the azure sky, one eventually growing thick enough to block out the sun, heralding the downfall of summer.

And then it riddles down.

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