The Vengeance of King Edward III
'Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention.'
And a warm welcome from the first day of next summer.
We have eight hours thirty-two minutes of sunlight to gain before our zenith in June. Tomorrow we earn barely five seconds, but every day we claw back a little more, and each day until the equinox our gains compound.
Let’s ride that momentum.
For those of you new around these parts, welcome 👋 My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel. In this newsletter, I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.
Sometimes I count the small wins.
Welcome to edition 385.
The Vengeance of King Edward III
(Or: Another Walk In The Woods)
A noise alerts me. I freeze, masking my predator outline with a bare tree trunk. I watch in silence as a herd of two dozen deer cut across the forest floor ahead of me.
I’ve been enjoying my winter side quest to watch sunsets from each of the twenty-two trig pillars in New Forest National Park.
Today I walked from Eyeworth Pond out to Bramshaw, which is not only the highest pillar in the Forest, but also perhaps the least impressive, squatting, as it does, on a slightly boggy triangle of flat ground squeezed between three roads.
You’d think there would at least be an expansive view from this lofty altitude of 125.1m above sea level, but the pillar is somewhat plonked in the middle of the kilometre square of Longcross Plain.
And plain it certainly is: the bog never quite rising to the challenge of becoming scrub.
Nevertheless, the slanting beam of sunlight catches the turf in a rather pleasant, hyperrealism sort of a way and, turning west, I already feel much better.
I spent this morning doing infinite spirals of the aisles of Hobbycraft, battling with the paralysing inertia caused when the immovable object of Christmas meets the unstoppable force of inscrutable children.
After what could have been a week, I finally reach exit velocity, my trembling hands clutching a collection of I-don’t-know-whats, snatched from a shelf I might have passed on my way through the outer rings of Saturn.
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas. I do. It’s not even that I don’t like buying other people presents. I really do.
It’s just that the festive season always seems to land on the shortest days of the year, when all I really want to do is lie in the boughs of an old beech and doze until sundown.
Today, the forest is my reward for polishing off my shopping list. Stirred up, agitated, uncalm, I feel like I need it.
After Longcross Plain and Howen Bottom, I turn into the dark thickets of Eyeworth Wood, a tangle of storm-felled oak, navigating the lost old ways by eye and compass.
That’s when I see the deer. Probably fallow, by some margin the most numerous in the New Forest, but it’s hard to tell from this distance.
They walk sedately, heads up and proud. Hoofsteps crackle in the brushwood.
That prickly sensation you get when you sense you’re being watched is eerily subconscious: even totally blind people get it.
I haven’t moved, but these deer are tuned in. One turns and stares right at me. We stand and stare for a breath-holding minute. No danger. They walk on.
I cross into the Island Thorns Inclosure, over a humpback of earth that marks the line of an ancient fence, the park ‘pale’ that once kept deer in and commoners out, and I follow my compass north, uphill, to what my map calls Studley Castle.
Historic England has this to say about the fourteenth century Studley Castle:
The royal hunting lodge at Studley, in the New Forest, survives reasonably well … it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance.
Well, here’s what I say to the Secretary of State:
Sorry, what castle?
What we’re talking about here is the slightest indication of a ditch and the merest suggestion of a raised bank. It’s the one time on this walk that I have to use my phone’s GPS, just to double check that I haven’t missed something like this:
I haven’t. All I’ve missed — I now realise — is the sunset, right now happening somewhere out there, beyond the pale, if I could only see through the flailing limbs of the winter oak.
The ‘castle’ is, however, adorned by the most remarkable tree: splintered into neat planks that I’m tempted to cart home for a bookshelf.
(Having written that sentence, I’m now very annoyed that I didn’t.)
Searching for ‘what causes a tree to shatter?’, I come across the phenomenon of exploding trees.
I couldn’t see any evidence of lightning on this poor specimen, so I’ve decided it was caused by frost. One winter, the tree sap froze and expanded, bursting its bark skin with an almighty gunshot crack.
It was either that or the vengeful ghost of King Edward III come back to ask what the bloody hell we’ve done to his favourite hunting lodge.
With darkness descending and no head torch, I leave the castle to its mysteries and make a beeline for the trailhead, back over the brooks and through the bracken, walking in the bootprints of history.
I have nothing to end this little story, except this trail thought, found yesterday, on the way over Lucas Castle (also not a castle):
There is an abundance of everything for everyone, especially if you focus on the most important things, which are not only super abundant but infinitely renewable. Love, friendship, fresh air, music, laughter, fresh food, water, stretching and sleep.
Here’s to that — and thanks for reading, friends.
Winter Forest Sunsets: 3/22
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Happiness is complicated, but if you simplify it into things like a loving family, health, friendship, eight hours of sleep, well-balanced children, and being part of something bigger than yourself, you realize how limited money’s role can be. It’s not that it has no role; just smaller than you may have assumed.
4. How I Survived a Wedding in a Jungle That Tried to Eat Me Alive. This story goes places you want no story to go. Go there safely with Melissa Johnson.
5. John Updike on The Meaning of Life at The Marginalian:
Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention.
If you enjoyed this week’s missive, please remember that I have NO WAY OF KNOWING 😱 unless you heart, comment, reply or share.
Thanks for your eyeballs, thanks for your support.