The Skirrid, Ysgryd Fawr

I used pictures of bluebells last week partly because they had all vanished around here, just occasional clusters of purple on shaded verges, or north facing woodland slopes. And then we decided to go and climb the first mountain of the year and guess what we found? In late May.

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I’ve got photographs of The Skirrid from various other hills in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons but I had never actually climbed it. Sitting apart from the other mountain ranges it looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the lowlands as you approach it from Hereford. It isn’t as high or demanding as many other hills and mountains we have climbed, “an evening stroll” was how Dr J described it and because it took us so long to get organised last week we did indeed come down through dusky woods to find the car park almost empty.

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The Skirrid’s west flank, taken from the car on the way home

The most eye catching object from the car park was a perfect view of the nearby Sugar Loaf showing how it got its name. The initially steep climb through woodland was beautiful, plenty of other people going up and down but the trees were alive with birdsong and constant fleeting feathered movement.

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This was taken in the mountains above Tretower Court last April looking towards the Skirrid, in shadow, from the west; the Sugar Loaf is on the right

I made the classic mistake once we were out on the ridge of thinking we were nearly at the summit, only to climb to a false peak and see the ridge rising on before me, it wasn’t too tiring though as stopping to look up at the skylarks singing out of sight was a constant delight. We had our first picnic break in a sheltered dip on the ridge, looking towards White Castle that we visited three years ago.

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The Skirrid from Whitecastle, looking from the east
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Whitecastle from the Skirrid

This is a fairly small hill by Welsh standards, 1594 feet or 486 metres and it really is a pleasant walk, our seven year old bounded ahead and walked twice as far as she needed to and the three year old didn’t demand a carry until the summit had been reached – although as we found two butterflies of different species chasing each other around the trig point the girls amused themselves in racing after them for a good 15 minutes showing that the walk hadn’t exhausted them nearly enough.

At the top a few scattered stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel and below the peak you can make out the bank and ditch of an Iron Age hillfort. The views in all directions are amazing– you can climb Welsh mountains all year and never be sure of the visibility at the top but we spent a lot of time trying to discern which of the mountains to our west we had climbed before and which we still had to look forward to. To the east May Hill, Bredon Hill and the Malverns were all clear, Clee Hill to the north in Shropshire and some further ridge that we couldn’t name for sure. To the south the Bristol Channel and its islands gleamed in the sun, as did Somerset beyond.

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Looking south to the sea

On the way back we took a short sharp descent that curled around the hill’s northern tip and brought us to a valley between the Skirrid itself and the landslip that occurred in the ice age and gave the mountain its Welsh name, Ysgryd, which means split or shattered. We had the second round of sandwiches here and I could easily spend a day reading or writing in the sheltered grove; the ever shifting light under the trees creating myriad shades of green.

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And then we found the bluebells. I had seen a flash of mauve upon the hill as we drove past at a distance, but thought it could have been grey shale catching the afternoon sun. No. It was a carpet of flowers spreading west towards the Sugar Loaf, although as all my photos were taken into the lowering sun I don’t think I did the views justice.

 

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The mountain itself was stunning – it’s shape, the views for miles in all directions, the perfect weather – then we had the bluebells. And then we had a magical Welsh wood. I’ve posted a few pictures of others that have captivated me – and this one was a total surprise. All my previous favourite Welsh woods have been far further from home in North Wales; to find one a little over an hour from home was astonishing. Sadly by now we were all tired and dusk was falling so we mostly kept marching on with me snapping pictures to all sides and not stopping to ohh and ahhh as much as I would like (okay, yes I was already planning how to get there on my own to fully bask in its beauty sometime, sorry family.)

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This was supposed to have been posted last Thursday and I was going to say “next week is half term so there will be no new blog post as I shall hopefully be out enjoying more family days like this.” In fact my determination to get a good chunk of my latest wip completed before the holiday delayed this post, but I am pleased to say that even with typical British Bank Holiday weather, we have indeed had another wonderful – and wet – walk. I should be back soon with more pictures – and hopefully that sounds more like a promise than a threat.

The start of the affair

Three weeks ago I fell in love. It’s been a long time since that happened and I was unprepared for the rush of excitement and passion, the overwhelming sense of “Yes!” of recognition along with the thrill of so many new discoveries to be made. Two weeks later, weeks in which my mind had constantly been drawn to my new object of affection, my partner asked what I would like to do for my birthday and I unhesitatingly said I wanted to return to the spot where I had fallen in love (I didn’t quite phrase it that way) and he kindly agreed. After a two hour drive, mostly through rain, the sky lightened and patches of blue welcomed us back to Dunraven Bay and this:

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A walled garden. By the sea. All that is left of a country house built on a cliff and once known as Dunraven Castle. With the ramparts of an Iron Age Hillfort towering over the garden walls. If I had to create the most perfect place for a story, for inspiration, or to encompass the maximum number of items that I love to explore and write and read about – well I think I would have dismissed all this as just too much.

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And did I mention the beach? Sand for building castles and dams, rock pools in which to hunt for scuttling wildlife and amazing rock strata in the cliffs to explore for fossils. The sunset picture at the top of my last blog post was taken as I tore myself away from the beach three weeks ago; it had been a perfect day and people were heading onto the beach with barbeques and drinks to watch the setting sun, still more had climbed to the banks and ditches of the hillfort to see the sun reflected on the sea and the gleaming sand.

That first visit had been primarily to look for fossils with my dinosaur-obsessed seven year old, we were going to try to find the steps down to the supposedly more secluded beach but I dived straight through the gothic doorway into the gardens – so often on days out we have said “we’ll explore it later” only for darkness to fall or for gates to be locked. That first glimpse of the gardens was more of a forced march but it left me longing for more, as did the view once we had left the garden and climbed through the woods to the other side of the peninsula.

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No steps were obvious so we walked back through the few remains of the castle and on over the hillfort earthworks and back to the beach where a delightful afternoon of swimming, splashing, sandcastle and damn building was enjoyed by all, plus a picnic on the rocks broken up by catching shrimps and my toes being nibbled by a one-clawed crab.

Two weeks and one day later we returned. The school holidays were over and even though the sky became almost as cloudlessly blue, the heat had gone; autumn was in the air – although it didn’t stop us all from paddling in the sea. I’ve never swum on my birthday before. There were more surfers than swimmers this time due to the impressive waves and you could feel the force of the water tugging us towards the Devon coast across the hazy water. (I’ve forgotten to mention where Dunraven is, haven’t I? South Glamorgan, the wonderful Heritage Coast in south Wales. The beach is also known as Southerndown.)

In the weeks since our first visit I searched on line for pictures of the missing castle/house to find out why it had been demolished in the 1960s. There are many beautiful black and white photographs of it but I have no wish to steal someone else’s images.  Here are some, along with the history of the area and in someone else’s fascination with the castle here  However, on this visit we went to the Heritage Centre behind the beach (it had been closed two weeks earlier) and while reading the many panels about the house and grounds and the history, what struck me most was an aerial view showing the circle of the hillfort as it would have been before the cliffs crumbled away and suddenly the effrontery of building a country house inside a two thousand year old hill fort hit me. I don’t know why. I don’t find the village built within the earthworks at Avebury – and using some of its ancient standing stones for building material – shocking. “Baffled and amused at the very British practical vandalism” was how I described it elsewhere on this blog but somehow, a house built for one family’s grandeur seemed wrong as I read about the history of the 500BC hillfort, possible Roman occupation, Saxon raids, its gifting to a Norman Lord after 1066, rumours of Wreckers and the original Tudor Mansion. I’m not saying I’m glad the house has gone, I would have love to have seen it high on that cliff, although given the coastal erosion I wonder how much longer it would have safely lasted? I don’t know why the aerial shots had this effect on me, there are many here on the wonderful website Coflein, an online catalogue of archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage in Wales with a whole page devoted to Dunraven hillfort. The ones in thick frost make me long to visit in winter and this one with the deep shadows of early morning show the ramparts at their best, you can see how at least a third of the hillfort has been swallowed by the sea. You can also see the long point of the peninsula, called Trwyn-y-Witch or Witches Point, because obviously the place just wasn’t magical enough.

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After lunch I finally made it back to the gardens. I’m sure I can write a whole ‘nother post about the allure of walled gardens, but to have four rising up the gentle valley, to feel the temperature rise by several degrees the minute you step inside the sheltering embrace of the walls, to hear the waves if you listen hard enough, and to have the two and a half thousand year old battlements of a hillfort rising over you makes this place very special. The gardens are being restored, very carefully and unobtrusively, and you are free to roam all over them. That first hot sunny day we arrived at high tide and there was no sandy beach to play on, the families simply decamped to the gardens to picnic under apple trees or on the many benches along the walkways, or to play ball games. The freedom to explore, the higgledy-piggledy growth of the plants, trees and shrubs, the formal lines of the paths and the walls that break the gardens up enticed and enchanted me the first time and did not disappoint on a more leisurely visit. I saw my first quince tree, alongside several figs. There weren’t that many flowering plants but colour was everywhere in countless shades of green, in the stark grey crenelated walls and in the blisteringly blue sky overhead.

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The first garden has a greenhouse, I imagine it once had many, there are the remains of seed beds and the interior walls are almost obscured by climbing plants. A secretive set of mildly treacherous steps led up into the woods and the recent rain cast a fresh scent throughout.

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The second garden had rows of fruit trees, although they seemed as if planted by chance with their low spreading friendly shade.

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The third was wilder, shrubs I didn’t recognise and a wild overgrown hedge. Oh, and some ruins against the wall, because a lost house/castle and the possibility of a separate lost Tudor mansion simply wasn’t charm enough.

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I think it was this garden more than any that made me long to stop and sit. For two weeks I had been spinning tales in my head based on this impossible mix of histories and archaeology and nature; all I longed for was a few hours with a laptop or pen and paper to sit and scribble as fast as I could, to soak up the atmosphere, to capture it’s beauty and mystery in words rather than simply with my camera. I began to fantasise about coming here for a break, staying anywhere nearby and spending entire days writing and plotting and dreaming. I could feel my muse both thirsting and being quenched at the same moment as I explored that tangled paradise.

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And the fourth garden is a mostly level expanse of grass, maybe for tennis? Bowls? It brought to mind a place for jousting, but that may have been the wooden barriers as if to keep back crowds and the pavilion for courtly ladies to sit and watch. Oh, and of course the tower that was built over the ice house. Part folly? Part showing off? Pure plot inspiration.

Then on, through the darkly dappled woods via a squelchy path with the smell of rain on ancient trees refreshing us after the heat trapped within the walled garden. This is where people think the Tudor house could have been – how do you lose a Tudor Mansion? Up to the breath-taking view of the coast towards Cardiff and then doubling back to where Dunraven Castle stood, where its formal gardens and terraces gazed towards England, where the even more impressive and far older bulwarks of the hillfort bar your way. I haven’t explored those ramparts yet, or the Witches peninsula, neither seem too safe with two children under eight who run off the moment you glance away. Sitting on the beach later you could see people enjoying the view, they were probably well back from the cliff edge but from below they seemed in imminent danger of tumbling over.

I know I will go back, I don’t know how soon or if I can sneak some writing time there alone. As it’s our nearest beach I’m hoping for a few trips next summer, although I also long to see the gardens in their winter colours. I’m not sure when a place has grabbed me so totally and refused to let go. There are others that have inspired me and made me long to return and that have rewarded repeat visits – Castel-y-Bere, Longtown, Symi, Dolgoch Falls, Cregennan Lakes, Kingley Vale yew forest – but none that mixed so many elements of history, nature, ruin, loss, myth, archaeology – oh, and outstanding beauty. And fossils. And crabs. And there’s a small shop selling ice cream and tea. Didn’t I say it was perfect? Now to finish the book I am writing and start just one of the many plots this place has inspired.

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This is the look of a woman who does not want to leave. Have any places captured you so totally?

Castles and ruins and interrupted stories

History, archaeology, myth, legend, inspiration and anything else you want them to be. That’s why I love castles. Especially ruined ones. In fact anything ruined. And hillforts or other ancient earthworks. And did I mention standing stones? Or stone circles? Burial sites, graveyards, the remains of abbeys, country houses that date back centuries. Where to stop? (& I won’t even start on the appeal of older men, that’s a whole other ruination…)

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Skenfrith Castle

I think it would be a challenge to find any UK based romantic writer or reader without a picture of a castle, or an ancient monument on their blog or twitter account. They are inspiring, intriguing, mysterious, imposing and unknown  – descriptions that fit many classic heroes. They can be gothic and brooding, or bright and well maintained; small and dangerously crumbly, or massive and easy to get lost in (definitely only talking about castles there.) They are an endless source of inspiration and not just for historical novelists. But my main feeling is always an awareness of a story being unfinished, or interrupted; we can research a castle’s past all we like, but we can’t know a fraction of the lives and stories that have happened within its walls and that thrills and saddens me all at once.

Anyone who tweets a picture of a castle has me at once, (beware of Ailish Sinclair and Louise Marley if you don’t want to lose half a day.) The images and stories capture all of my senses, but it’s much more than my love of the past (which led me to a degree in Ancient and Medieval History,) in fact it’s the opposite of that; the unknown, the things I can never read in a guide book or on a plaque on a crumbling stone wall. It’s the untold story; the tangible awareness of seeing a fragment of a vast story going back in time, and forward as well. How much of these immense edifices will be here long after I’m gone?

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Tintern Abbey

Sure, I love imagining what it must have been like to live there in a castle’s heyday and I’ve stood in roofless banqueting halls or sat in draughty windows and tried to imagine being a lady doing tapestry work by candlelight, or a knight preparing for battle or more likely being a serving wench lugging firewood up three stories of dark uneven stone spiral staircase or mucking out the stables. More than anything, I enjoy finding a quiet corner and just sitting, or standing, and absorbing the place; letting my imagination run riot. Not picturing any particular battle or siege or famous occupant, simply looking at the tiny details as well as the impressive ones. How many thousands of hands have worn that handrail so smooth? Was that hill I can see from this arrow slit wooded centuries ago? Did it always feel this cold? How many generations of swallows have hatched in that nest and where did they roost before this was a ruin?

I would always rather avoid a guided tour in favour of sitting outside with whichever book I am currently reading and letting the noise and presence of the place wash over me. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, the fiction and the place lull me into a true (for me) appreciation of the past, present and future. People have lived and died – maybe violently – in these paces and somehow by stepping outside of it by reading or just looking and daydreaming it becomes more vivid for me. I suppose I’m trying to capture a fleeting feeling of what it was like to simply live there. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the warmth of sun drenched stones and peace and quiet among other bustling tourists or historians keen to unlock a castle’s secrets. Everyone has different ways to picture or experience the past, I like to sit and remember, both the building’s impermanence, and my own; and to celebrate, just for a moment, being an insignificant part of its ongoing story.

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Castell y Bere with Bird Rock in the distance

The first castles I remember visiting were Caernarfon and Conwy, huge, impressive, easy to get lost in. My main memory is of passageways deep in the walls that were barely wide enough to pass through. Then I visited Chepstow Castle (and Tintern Abbey in the same day) this was all at junior school at must have formed my love of ruins; when I discovered Raglan Castle that was my favourite for years (umm, doesn’t everyone have a favourite castle?) Then there was Castell y Bere; very little of the buildings remain but for location and the immense brooding presence of Bird Rock nearby it can’t be beaten (with the added delight of being where parts of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books were set – I’m so glad I didn’t re read the Grey King before I climbed Cadir Idris in a snow storm.)

Maybe part of why I love the more derelict castles is that sometimes it’s nice to step outside the preconceived notions of historians, archaeologists and other experts and allow ourselves to paint whatever we want onto what is left of the canvas before us. Such an attitude also explains my love of hillforts and stone circles and burial mounds. No one can truly say why they were built, although archaeology helps; but almost anyone who has read enough can make their own informed guess and no one can say they are categorically wrong. It was this (perhaps arrogant) view that made me choose the dark ages as one of my main periods to study.

Ruin is of course a loaded word. “Fallen or wrecked or impaired state,” ruination as a verb means to reduce and ruinous is “dilapidated, bringing ruin, disastrous.” It implies the place has been spoiled, or is decaying. To me it’s still growing, evolving; it may yet flourish anew. I’ve visited and been awed by many cathedrals, but none move me in any spiritual way as much as the remains of Tintern Abbey. If a castle hadn’t been abandoned and left to decay, it might still be occupied and modernised and unrecognisable from its original form.  I’m not trying to be critical, I’ve just puzzled a long time as to why the well preserved castles such as Powis and Conwy don’t enthral me the way the gaping keep at Skenfrith does, or that lonely wall still battling the winds at Dolwyddelan Castle.

 

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Dolwyddelan Castle

Do you have a favourite castle, or ancient site? Or do you prefer a well-kept manor house or country park to visit? Have you written about any, real or fictional? The first two books I wrote featured castles – one ruined, one still lived in. And in my current book the name of a castle looms large, even though everyone has forgotten where it is…

 

Where orchids now grow

The sheared off wall of golden stone loomed out of the trees with no warning, its naked window frames reaching like broken fingers through strangling masses of ivy. A sight as abruptly alarming in this mist wreathed wood as a shark’s fin cutting through the surface of a boating pond.

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The first rule of exploring was that you veered off the main track at every fork or side turning. Most led to padlocked gates or narrowed into woodland paths barely big enough for a fox to follow. The second rule of exploring was that it was always the eldest sister who investigated first and she was already slipping her feet out of the stirrups and handing her reins to her younger sister. She too, however, was quick to dismount. It was easier to control two ponies from the ground and besides, it felt wrong to remain mounted while her sister was going exploring, even if the taste of chocolate in her mouth was suddenly making her feel sick.

“What is it?”

“A church, stupid.”

“Yes, but, why?”

She watched her sister pick her way carefully among gravestones tumbled like discarded dominoes, many were flat on the ground, others leaning precariously against their neighbours, barely any still intact.

She wanted to call out “Is it safe?” But since when had that been a concern for her sister? She looked up again at the end wall of the church, golden Cotswold stone turned wraith-grey in the drizzle and mist that coiled around the ruin in a duel with the choking ivy.

Earlier in the day the sun had made them curse the cheap, heavy waterproof coats they were wearing. The very first side track had led to a small cutting at the side of the path, as if someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the crumbling rock of the steep hillside. An old quarry said the younger girl and after loosening the ponies’ girths and taking off their coats she had searched for fossils among the tumbled limestone and primroses. Her sister had tugged old flimsy branches into the clearing, at first with the idea of making jumps for the ponies and then to form a barricade.

“We could come here often and untack the ponies, let them have a proper break while we explore.”

Images of picnics and adventures as in all her favourite pony books fired the younger sister and she joined in gathering armfuls of long brittle grass to leave to dry like hay for a future visit and patted it into comfy cushions on a ledge where they sat and ate their sandwiches, sharing the apple cores with the ponies and devouring Lion Bars.

The next clearing they found was directly on the main track, neatly stacked piles of wood showed it was for logging. The usual arguments ensued as the elder girl moved wood obviously intended for sale into improvised jumps and the younger one tried to measure the ground for a dressage arena. It was just large and flat enough to canter an egg shaped circle. After their own pony had had enough and tried to canter for home, and borrowed, tired old Sam gave up after half a circuit at a trot, they moved on into the denser woods.

The track wound up and down, never following the contour of the hill for long, they manged a few hare-brained canters with the ponies’ hooves squelching through mud or ringing out alarmingly loud where the path became stony. Gradually the track narrowed and a walk was as fast as they could go, the trees crowded in on either side and branches whipped their faces making them duck low over the ponies’ necks. The sun had withdrawn behind ominous clouds and the closer barricade of branches and leaves trapped the steamy air around them and made them sweat while they shivered.

The younger girl had suggested turning back several times. Her sense of direction was better and she knew if they came to a road it would be a long slow ride home, and if they didn’t come to a road they were definitely lost. And then came yet another side track on their right; narrow, twisting, yet very well worn.

Without a word, the elder sister urged her pony to scramble up the bank and then on through smaller scratchy shrubs, and then to a sudden halt.

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The wall in front of them was obviously that of a church. The tall pointed shape, the high arching windows even with no glass in them. One side wall joined it, the opposite one was a tumble of rubble, moss covered stones rolled among the drunken gravestones. There was no roof, and no slates scattered among the debris, roof beams lay crumbled in the interior of the church like the staved in ribs of a crushed animal.

“Your turn.”

While she had stood with their tired ponies she had felt annoyance at having to wait; now she felt no eagerness to explore. “Is here much to see?”

“Go and look.” There was the perennially frustrated voice of an older braver sister.  So she went, picking her way among the crumbling graves, craning her head to see the grey scudding clouds through the tree canopy, somehow looking everywhere but at the gutted church with its blind window frames that seemed instead to be watching her. No wind reached through the dense wood, yet the trees rustled and sighed behind her.

She finally peered through the doorway but couldn’t try to push past the piles of fallen masonry and saplings thrusting their way up the length of the nave. How long would a place have to be empty before plants took root, or pushed through the stone floor that must surely have been there?

Stepping back out into the wood she gulped in the moist air, and tasted smoke; through the trees she saw more walls and heard a dog. A cottage, as dark and dreary as the ruin, carved wooden eaves that belonged on a gingerbread cottage dripped dankly, drab curtains hid the inside, as if the grime covering the windows weren’t enough to shut out the dismal day.

She scurried back to her sister. “We should go.”

“Why?”

“Someone might see us.”

“And?”

“I don’t think we should be here.”

Her sister wanted to explore further but the dog barked again and they heard a door slam and soon were back in their saddles and hurrying to the main track. Without a word the older girl turned left and back home the way they had come, their thirst for exploring and adventure quenched for now, the warmth and comforting smell of damply steaming ponies gradually making everything normal again.

That evening they asked their parents if they knew about the church in the wood. They didn’t and had never walked that way, but the location rang a bell with their father. He searched a local history book and found reference to the grand house in the Ridings, built in the 1820s and pulled down a little over a century later in the 1930s, only the lodge houses and church in the woods being left. Their father remembered a friend from the pub who had talked about it and attended the auctions when the house was dismantled; he had bought some beams from the house to use in his farm’s barns.

A few days letter a very formal letter arrived telling the girls that their permit to ride in the nearby woods did not cover the Ridings. It was a shock. They had been seen by someone, and recognised. They had only recently discovered that they needed a permit for the other woods and knew that very few of their horse riding friends had bothered to apply for one; to now be chastised for their exploring seemed deeply unfair.

They never went back. Not with their ponies. Sometimes the younger sister would think of those armfuls of grass they had so eagerly and optimistically gathered to dry. It would all have blown or mouldered away, or maybe been used as nests by mice or birds.

Many years later they went that way again, with their parents, the jumping clearing had more coppiced wood stacked in it and they walked on, keen to reach the ruined church.

Which wasn’t there.

No stones, no beams, no carved window frame remained. Just a large stone cross on its side in a bank of earth to record the church that had once stood there. The cottage gleamed with fresh paint and a new conservatory and well-tended gardens that reached back into the woods where the graveyard had once been. Not one gravestone remained.

They were following a map, sure not to be caught out for trespassing or being off the beaten track. As they struck out across the fields that had once been the parkland for the vanished  country house the younger girl kept looking back, as if hoping to see one wall of the church still poking through the woods and beckoning her as it had years before.

They’ve walked that way once or twice since; it’s a picturesque if long way to a good country pub. One time the younger sister walked it with just her mother and they found bee orchids growing in the logging clearing. Brambles and saplings were reclaiming the cleared ground, the few piles of cut wood were crumbled and past being of any use except to hedgehogs and woodlice as a home. There wasn’t room to canter a circle now and she fleetingly wondered how many precious plants they had sliced apart with their long dead ponies’ steel shod hooves.

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She persuaded her mother to turn back soon after that, she couldn’t bear to walk past where the church that once frightened and awed her in the mist should have been.  Where long forgotten graves slept silently beneath the whispering branches. They took away all the gravestones, but what about the graves, what about the bodies?

She wishes they had been left to crumble, alone.