Beacon Hill

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Rapeseed glows in the morning sunlight. Ewes call out for their young. After months of rain which brought flooding in the Sow and Trent valleys beneath us, an unseasonably warm April in lockdown has baked the earth.
Ridges and boot prints have been fixed in the cracked mud and we must take care where we tread for fear of turning an ankle. My wife is glad for a break from wearing face masks caring for the elderly on her ward. I’m more fortunate as my role is away from the frontline, but we’re both grateful for precious time without emergencies, without planning, without phones ringing.
We pause in the lane, before the steady climb to Beacon Hill, to draw in the sweet scent of gorse mingled with woodsmoke. The Army base, home to the Signals, is fenced off and eerily silent. Though we are so lucky to have walks like this close to home we have perhaps neglected them, taking them for granted. Now that we must stay close to home and exercise once daily we have a greater appreciation of the beauty of our local landscape and the stories it holds.
The rhythmic thud of a pile-driver can be heard as work on the western bypass continues unrelentingly some three miles away, but other than that the town is peaceful. Birdsong fills the air, and the bleat of lambs just a few days old.
We cross a sparkling brook that runs between crumbling, sandy banks and toppled willows, their roots upturned. Water can be heard splashing and rolling over smooth pebbles. Lambs lay with ewes, sheltering from the sunlight under tangled hawthorn hedges.
We pass Beacon Farm, where a family soaks up sun and sips juice, and climb through a field of golden rapeseed stopping to rest on a stile to watch three buzzards glide on a thermal.
In the field below us a collie sprints for a tennis ball, almost losing its footing such is the rolling gradient. The hilltop above us is wooded, thick with sycamore and carpeted with bluebells, with a sprinkle of campion at the edges. According to local lore a beacon was lit here to warn of the Armada. At around 150-metres it is no mountain but offers a great vantage point over the town and farmland beyond.
A haze has settled over the town. To the west is Stafford Castle, to the south and east the heathland, GPO tower and treeline of Cannock Chase. There are distant glimmers from the M6, sunlight perhaps catching lorries delivering supplies.

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A bank that would deliver a sure shot of adrenaline when sledging falls away as we follow the ridge and cut across heathland. Rich soil has given way to sand and gravel, scuffed turf. Approaching a stile, we plough through deep, fine sand and clamber past rabbit scrapes and burrows between flowering gorse. We close our eyes and kick off our shoes to run bare feet through the warm sand. We could be in the sand dunes of Anglesey. We climb into a field which falls away towards the village of Hopton and two fishing ponds surrounded by woodland.
Canada Geese crash land leaving a wake of silt and muddy water. Shy coot and moorhen dart for the shadows where tangled branches pierce the surface. Fishing is not allowed in the lockdown, so we do not linger. A track between the pools leads to the memorial stone for the Battle of Hopton Heath. Parliament forces clashed with Royalists in March 1643 and hundreds were slain in a battle where neither side took a decisive victory. I worked on a farm nearby as a teenager and was told of plates and dice and rifle shot turned up by plough where the infantrymen had camped.
We rest a while, taking a seat on a block of sandstone, to drink water. The sky is a perfect blue, traced with wisps of white. I hope we will never take it for granted again. It is a doorstep walk of little more than an hour, but we are thankful. It is our home and in a time of plague and hunger men fought and died for it.

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3 thoughts on “Beacon Hill

  1. It is an overlooked part of England, I agree. ‘Forced’ to appreciate our local environments more due to the lockdown has led many to discover what you already knew. There is enough wonder on our own doorsteps, wherever we live. You just have to go out and find it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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