Once accelerated, now exhilarated by fields

I haven't the slightest idea who owned our field.

We thought of it as "ours", even though most certainly it wasn't. But fields, at least in children's eyes, are not a question of ownership but opportunity. Particularly when - one fine morning - there they are, transformed into a dazzle of snow instead of dull winter grass.

It was a long sloping field, and its lower end came to a stop by a stone wall bordering our garden. Its other, much higher end, if it didn't exactly require crampons, made demands on short spindly legs trudging through unreliable snow over bouncy grass. The last 10 or so yards were much steeper than the rest, and worth the extra climbing effort (toboggan in tow) only because this sharp gradient offered the best possible starting position. Then we would launch ourselves downhill into the thrilling unknown, yelling and screaming with delirious unrestraint as the speed picked up and sliding turned into hurtling.

We had two methods of sledding - solo or in tandem. Our sled (we called it a "sledge," being English) was a proper, old-fashioned type, with iron runners. It was built sturdily of hardwood, meant to last. A hand-me-down. It could carry two of us, seated corrugatedly on its slats. But with both of us aboard it had a tendency to dig into the snow rather than slide over it.

With a lighter load of one, stomach down, head first, like a ship's figurehead, kicking off and steering with one's feet out back, it worked far better. But most of our Yorkshire snowfalls thawed only too quickly, and sometimes we didn't even manage to achieve a packed smooth surface in time for sleek, resistless runs.

A grazing field has a variety of hazards that more purpose-built sleigh runs don't have. Suddenly protuberant rocks. Large, dense tufts of grass. Molehills. Even, on one occasion (though in a different field), holly bushes. This prickly species is, on the whole, best not rushed into. But at least the experience gave you a firsthand idea of what Pooh must have felt when he dropped from his toy balloon into a gorse bush.

Our sledding field could, at its best, be pretty good for this winter sport. But it's the fact of being so very close to the ground as you sweep over it that makes sledding more than childish hilarity. It is a very close encounter with the character and undulations of the earth's surface. And in my case, it was an early inkling of what has turned into a strong and lasting affection for fields.

Fields, it's true, mean different things in different places. In rural England, those with most appeal have been least tampered with by heavy agricultural machinery. They have, probably centuries ago, been claimed from the wilderness, tamed, and then allowed to just function usefully. They are likely to be grazing for cattle or horses or sheep, and are "cultivated" by these animals just as much as they are cared for by the farmers.

For humans they provide exhilarating walking space - vast intakes of fresh air, a sense of proprietorial liberty. We stride over the turf, the sound earth of centuries under it, the ancient sky above, and wars and rumors of wars recede for a while. Grazing land is best. Fields full of barley or wheat can be walked around, and their verges are often full of natural delights, the home of insects and plants. But (if you want to keep the farmer sweet) you don't walk across these fields.

The greatest pleasure in roaming over a grazed field is in lack of constraint; in a lack of prescribed direction. The only dangers are the snuffling curiosity of cows and the unwisdom of using your feet without your eyes - a rural skill not to be pooh-poohed.

I love particularly those high, mounded fields that are like the curve of the horizon. The whole airy world is up there. You are at large. You are also magnificently alone. You are not hemmed in, as you are walking along a road. Except for sudden tractors, there is no traffic. You choose your trajectory, improvise, wander, meander, stride at will. Perhaps it is the nearest we landlubbers get to the liberating isolation so loved by and awesome to sailors.

For 10 years I lived in a farmhouse in Yorkshire, surrounded by such fields. There was a long rough graveled track snaking across them up to the nearest road. But that was for driving in and out. My walking ground consisted of nothing but fields. Think of it!

Fields in England, though often approximately rectangular, are far from being endlessly cloned. Seen from balloon or aircraft, their jaggy irregular outlines are like pieces in a child's jigsaw.

Each field has a character of its own - a fact that has brought upon them a vast array of names. Field names are an academic study. These are often verbal labels to make quick identification easier. But I like to think they are more than merely practical. Sometimes they still bear names of owners long gone, or crops not grown there for centuries. Shape, size, and contour all come into it.

The aptly named expert, John Field, has compiled more than one book on the subject. Some of the names he lists add up to a kind of vernacular rural poetics: Aspen Butts, Childs Land, Limekiln Bottom, Six Men's Mead, Plum Pudding Meadow, Worden Piddle, Yonder Piece, Zidles.... There are thousands of them apparently.

I never knew the name of "our field." But "Zidles" would do. It means "hilly land at the side." I wonder if it is still there, waiting for snowfall and children.

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