A WALK DOWN THE COVER

Over the stile we clamber, four or five of us, one morning. We had run up Chadwell (field). As boys do, someone said:

“Let’s go down the Cover, to Church Stile.” So we were going down ’side the pasture field, the football and cricket pitch, rolled and cut neat. Frank Humphreys who lived in the Shepherd’s Cottage at the road entrance, was always working on the pitches. Many hours of work he lovingly did with no pay: The best goalkeeper Souldern ever had, also a useful cricketer.

The Cover here was a fringe of trees, a dozen to twenty wide, stretching over a mile to Aynho – mainly oak, elm, and ash reaching upward like umbrellas. Great big trees, mixed with saplings, long and straight, swaying with the breeze. Here and there a tangle of undergrowth, or few yards on, a clearing and a burst of sunlight. Stand still by one of the big trees and watch and wait, the wood will give you enter­tain­ment free and exciting:

The shafts of sunlight streaming through the great big trees; Their trunks motionless and the delicate greens, golds and russets of the leaves.

In the Cover – birds – the finches, blackbirds sing little trills of song. A wood pigeon clatters away, as if to signal alarm to all wood people. With a harsh cry, a kingfisher flashed by, a dash of dazzling colour so swift its flight, as it follows the brook. On the bankside a dead moorhen just scalped, not eaten – the work of an owl. A few yards on the moorhen’s nest: A dozen eggs.

With interest you follow on to find at the foot of ash tree, a branch took off in a gale laying on the ground. Feathers of a pigeon – the tell-tale of the owl’s nest. The eye looks up and there the gash where the branch had been in the trunk and there two young owls peered out. The mother owl would glide along noiseless to pounce on the moorhen – perhaps sitting on her nest. The attack would be ruthless with deadly beak and claws. It killed in seconds. Often it carried its prey to the nest.

The tawny owl attacks and dispatches its prey so quick that it is very rare to witness the kill of the pigeon or moorhen. Perhaps it doesn’t like its neighbour, or it maybe turns a bird cannibal, or it may even be shortage of its food diet – voles, rats, mice, bats, shrews or small birds: who knows? The tawny owl we watch, is not like most birds: It doesn’t feed its young. It puts the prey in the nest whole, holding it with her claws. Then the chicks pull with their hooked beaks, and rip with their sharp razor-like claws. This is Nature’s way of training them for adulthood.

Always there are rabbits in their dozens, scurry through the wood hither and thither. The flash of their powder puff tails, disappearing in the undergrowth. One jumps up from almost under your feet, boy -like we chase and shout. With a stick you poke and prod anything that would be a shelter. Sometimes a drain pipe would hide a couple of rabbits. If it was dry weather, what excitement it was. We never caught any. It was the thrill of the chase we enjoyed most.

We turn back and go over the stile, into Parsons Meadow and follow the open ditch, up to the church, chasing frogs, getting over our shoe tops in the water trying to catch a big one, or we got stuck in the mud, and yelled for help.

What a wealth of interesting things we found to do and see those holiday mornings: The scrapes we got into. Our boots and clothes we cleaned with twigs, tufts of grass and water, as best we could. We ran and dried out as we jogged home.

One day, I was about six or seven years old, two twelve year olds climbed up one tree, along a bough, and down a tree leaning towards it. They could do it, so could I! Up I went – no trouble. As I changed trees and started down the next tree, a small branch went up the leg of my shorts. Letting go with my hand, I stepped down onto the lower branches – skewered with the branch, a short thick one holding me between branches. I undid my shorts and almost upside down, gripping the tree trunk, tried to push my shorts off my legs. My! Talk about ‘getting your knickers in a twist.’ Mine was! Up and down I wriggled, trying to free my legs. It seemed hours.

Luckily the two big boys had watched me, after having a good laugh at my predicament, one climbed up and got me down. The inside of my leg was very sore for days, especially when riding my pony. I rode bareback most times, and if he was wet my legs did sting.