The walk up to the headland proved as spectacular as Evelyn promised it would be. Once I made my way out of the woods, it was an exhilarating walk up to the peak, from which there was a splendid view down into the town. I have to confess being out of breath when I got there. I suspect that in my self-imposed exile, I have neglected to exercise as much as I used to, aside from the occasional long walk on Hampstead Heath. From here I could see the shape of the town, the main cluster of buildings around the harbour, spreading up the hill either side of the river and along the valley itself, with more houses spreading along the shore. I could see tiny figures sitting on the end of the jetty, perhaps Marcus and Garrick among them. The bay curved gracefully around with various dwellings on their own or in small clusters. There were fishing boats spread out across the bay and in the distance, just on the horizon, I fancied I could see the plume of smoke from a steamship. The Bellerophon, perhaps, heading away from the island. An elegant looking lighthouse at the end of the promontory looked worthy of investigation on a future visit. Across the headland, on the other side, I could see more woodland and some farms, and maybe another village further on. I could not quite see over the rise of the woods. There were plenty of sheep up there, grazing on the scrubby grassland. I wondered if they belonged to Josh & Hargreaves, but I could see no markings, and even if they had been, I would not know what marking belonged to what farm.
There were gulls aplenty and I fancy I saw some curlews too. The headland, with its scrub and shrubs, looked a prime area for bird-watching as well as other wildlife. There were rabbit holes and droppings all around some areas and I was sure I saw the signs of a stoat or weasel about some of the rabbit holes. I had no doubt that there would be foxes too, though I did not observe any scat. After a while, I found a spot that was sheltered from the wind, yet still offered a good view and sat and read some more Coleridge. I felt sure he would have liked it here. As I sat, a few rabbits emerged from their burrows and started to feed. They did not appear overly bothered by my presence, although I suspect some of their number probably feature in the island’s diet. It was not yet noon, but my stomach, despite Evelyn’s excellent breakfast, insisted it was lunchtime, so I availed myself of the sandwiches she had provided, and most delicious they were. Early though it was, I had been up for some hours, and exerting myself. Besides, I was on holiday, so I thought I was entitled to rebel a little and not stick to rigid mealtimes. I had to laugh at myself. What a rebel indeed, I had become.
The lunch, most likely assisted by the early hour of my rising, made me a little sleepy, so I was content to half-doze for a while, enjoying the sounds of the birds, the scent of the grass and shrubs and the general relaxed atmosphere. I found myself quite content and at peace, more so than I had felt for a long time.
The call of a gull, quite close by, roused me from my semi-doze. The sun had moved on and the wind shifted, lessening the warmth I had been enjoying. My watch told me that a couple of hours had passed, so I gathered my assorted belongings, tossing a few crumbs in the direction of some nearby birds and head back up to the path. Looking at the map again, I charted myself a course that would take me through the woodland, there to find myself a stout branch that could serve as walking stick, and thence back to town via Elizabeth’s, there to collect the eggs for the inn.
I walked quietly and easily, through the woods, enjoying the dappled sunlight and the soft sward underfoot. I saw a few squirrels here and there and my previous surmise about foxes was confirmed when I saw the flash of a brush disappearing through the undergrowth. I also saw features that suggested badgers were around these parts too. As I progressed further, I came across evidence of coppicing and charcoal burning, which pleased me greatly; as such things had always seemed to me to be a natural part of living with woodland. Also, the coppicing held promise of finding a suitable branch from which to make a walking stick. I wandered slowly through that area, looking for a likely candidate, but mostly just enjoying the feeling of being there. After a while, I realised I could hear the sound of wood being chopped and sawn. While I was sure that nobody would begrudge me one stick, I felt it only right that I should go and ask before helping myself. I followed the sounds of wood-working down a slight slope into a small clearing.
What I found there, to my surprise and considerable embarrassment, took my breath away for a few moments. There, in the clearing, cutting wood from a coppiced tree; was a young man of no small beauty. Save for the colour of his hair and slightly more musculature, he was the spitting image of the poet Chatterton, as portrayed in Henry Wallis’ famous painting. I cannot he sure how long I stood there, open-mouthed, just staring like one possessed. He was clad only in breeches and boots, with a white shirt billowing from a nearby by branch. Then the memories came flooding back, filling me with shame and fear and I turned ready to make my escape before he saw me. Alas, this was not to be. He looked up from his cutting, pushed a lock of hair out of his eyes and smiled.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he called. His voice was soft, and seemed oddly cultured in the circumstances. “Sorry if I startled you.” I dominated myself, struggling to regain my composure and turned back fully to face him, regretting my foolish thoughts, but determined not to show it.
“No, I am sorry for disturbing you,” I said, stepping towards him with a hand outstretched. He swung the axe gently so it just stuck into the tree-stump he had been using as a chopping block and wiped his hand on his breeches. Now fully recovered, I shook his hand and introduced myself. “My name is Edmund, recently arrived on the island. I hope you don’t mind, but I was in search of a branch from which I could fashion a walking stick. Then I heard the sounds of chopping and thought I should ask permission first, in case there were your woods.” He laughed, and then reached for a towel that had been hanging nearby and wiped his brow.
“Permission, to take a simple branch? Well, that’s mighty proper of you, Edmund, but not in the least bit necessary. Like everything else on the island, the woods belong to all of us.” He tossed the towel over a branch. “I’m Willard, by the way. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He looked me up and down with a calculating eye. I shifted uncomfortably, feeling I was being weighed up. But, then, he reached for a stack of coppiced poles lying nearby and started sorting through it. He produced a couple of poles and passed one to me. “Try that for size.” I grasped it near the top end and leaned experimentally. It was a little too long, which he noticed straight away, even as I said it. I passed it back and he cleared the wood he had been chopping from the tree-stump. With a few, clearly skilled strokes of the axe, he shortened the pole and tidied up the end. Then he flipped the pole, and with a small pocket knife, smoothed the top end, fashioning a slight Y shape that would be suitable for a thumb grip and stripped the bark off with long, smooth strokes. I watched in admiration at his obvious skill, even with such a quickly improvised piece. So much more than I would have done, had I just cut myself a stick. He smiled and passed it over. “Here, now try that.” I took the stick and tried it out. For something so quickly fashioned, it served very well.
“Perfect,” I said, genuinely impressed. “You are clearly a man of remarkable skill. Is this your job then? I asked. He gave me that slightly puzzled look I was beginning to recognise, even after my short time here.
“My job? Not really. I just happen to like working with wood. I do other things, just as most of us do here on the island, but I like this. I like the simplicity, I like being out here alone with my thoughts and the trees. And,” he gestured modestly, but completely unselfconsciously, at his slim, but well-defined torso, “it keeps me in good shape.” Since he had already seen me staring, I had no option but to nod in agreement.
“So I see,” I said, squelching my embarrassment. I leaned on the stick again and found it well suited to its task. “You are most kind.” He smiled and picked up the other, similar pole and made a couple of markings on it with his knife before leaning it against a nearby tree. “I am afraid I have yet to find my… job… But then, I have only been here a few hours.” I said. “So far, I have helped deliver groceries to the Mariners’ Rest, and I spent some of the morning assisting a lady by the name of Elizabeth with her poultry. In truth, I don’t know quite what I could do. I was a rather dusty and useless academic in the field of poetry before I came here.” I sighed and looked around the peaceful glade, enjoying the scents of leaf mould overlaid with the scents of freshly cut wood. “I can see how you would like this. Indeed, even after a few hours, I think I am slipping comfortably into the simplicity of this place.” He smiled at me and sat on the stump and started whittling at a small piece of wood that he produced from a pocket.
“A man of poetry, eh?” He said with a nod. “That sits well with me. I have always been fond of poetry. Some would say that my head is too full of poets at times.” He paused from his whittling. “If you would like,” he said, “If you are willing to teach me something of poets, I am happy to share my small skills in woodcraft.” I hesitated for a few moments, fighting against images of my past, of another time spent teaching poetry with a handsome young man. And again, for the second time since I had left the tavern that morning, I realised I did not have to fight those memories. I let them dance across my inner eye for a moment and then let them go. This was a different place, after all. I offered my hand for the second time since our meeting.
“I would like that very much,” I said, with what I fancy might have been a slightly shy smile. He shook my hand warmly, a few flecks of wood-shaving still adhering to his palm.
“We have a deal then. I imagine you are staying at the Mariners’” he said. I nodded. “Then I shall find you there some time, unless you find me out here first, that is.” He paused as though thinking about something. “You said you came via Elizabeth’s?” I nodded again. “Would you happen to be going past there on your way back?”
“Yes,” I said, “as it happens, I am. She asked me to take a basket of eggs back for Evelyn, so I planned my route back through here, in the hope of cutting myself a walking stick, and thence to the village via her farm.” He nodded and walked over to a tree, unhooking a canvas bag that had been hanging there, which he handed to me.
“Well then, you can do me a favour. There’s a nice bag of dock and wood sorrel that I picked for her birds. I had planned on dropping it by later, but if you are going that way anyway…” I slung the bag over my shoulder.
“I would be delighted to,” I told him, looking round and trying to regain my bearings for my onward journey.
“It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Willard, and thank you for the stick.” He bowed modestly.
“Well, it’s a bit green and without a proper tip, it won’t last too long, but it should suffice for the moment.” He gestured at the binoculars still hanging round my neck. “Are you a bird-watching man then?”
“I used to be, when I was younger. Since I am on holiday here, I fancied I might take it up again.” I patted the binocular case. “These used to be my father’s.” He nodded and sat down again, once again taking up this whittling.
“Aye, it’s a good area for birds. You should come up here at dusk some time, there be owls in these woods.” I laughed and told him I would very much like that, being very fond of owls. We agreed that some time soon, we would come up here and he would teach me some of his craft, and then we would go in search of owls. I looked at my map again and he pointed me at the appropriate path leading out of the clearing. “Say hi to Elizabeth for me,” he said. “She’s a very lovely person.”
“I know,” I replied with a wave, then turned and headed for the indicated path. Soon, the clearing was lost behind the trees, but I could hear the sound of chopping, drifting down on the breeze. Grasping my new stick, I strode confidently down the path and made my way towards the farm.