Sunday, 8 February 2015
One of the nicer things about Southampton is the existence of the Common, a massive green wedge driven into the city. Seen from above on a satellite view, central Southampton looks like a pie-chart or perhaps a Pac-Man, about to gobble up Eastleigh and Winchester to the north. The Common is a strange and varied space, with a magnificent and overgrown Victorian cemetery at the southern sharp end, and various ponds and paddling pools, ditches and streams scattered around, but most of its 360-plus acres are covered by stretches of open grass and scrub divided up by woodland and impenetrable thickets.
There is also a complex network of paths which it takes many years to understand. It is very easy to take a wrong turning, especially at night -- there are no lights on the Common -- and you can end up following a path that exits a mile or two from your intended destination. In fact, most sensible people avoid the Common at night. At best it's rather spooky and at worst it's quite a dangerous place to be alone. Bands of medieval brigands who took a wrong path back in the 13th century still live on in the deepest thickets.
Obviously, it's a boon to dog-owners, joggers, and others in need of a convenient open space (not to mention those in need of a convenient bit of dense cover). Crossing the Common on the way to work, I would encounter the same people at more or less the exact same time and place walking their dogs, or chatting in groups as they waited for their dogs to return from some exuberant squirrel-chasing foray. One night, cycling back in the dark, I collided with a dog. I went head-first over the handlebars, saved from injury only by the thousands of repeated judo rolling forward-breakfalls practised in my youth, but was seriously dazed and confused. The dog's owner found me with her torch, which was doubly confusing -- she was running the beam over me, lying on the ground, and babbling continually, "Are you all right? Oh Shit! Oh Shit! Are you all right?" Meanwhile her yelping hound ran around in confused circles somewhere nearby in the dark. Remarkably, dog, bicycle, and rider were undamaged by the incident.
Nicest of all, the council takes a low-maintenance approach to the woodland and thickets. In many places, trees have fallen, but have merely been sawn away where they blocked a footpath. It's invertebrate heaven, and the only place I have ever seen stag beetles. As a result, it is something of a wildlife haven, with herons and buzzards overhead, and everything from deer on down lurking in the undergrowth. The night our daughter was born, I drove our son over to sleep at a friend's house on the other side of town. I must have seen twenty foxes in my headlights, criss-crossing the road running along the top of the Common, as they ripped and raided the bin-bags arrayed along the kerbside for the morning collection.
The numbers of "urban" foxes have declined, somewhat, since the introduction of wheelie-bins, but their unearthly screams and barks still punctuate the small hours. There is no shortage of rats and mice, after all, plus a steady windfall of discarded takeaways and other urban delicacies. But if they want to tackle those wheelie-bins, though, they need to open a dialogue with those master thieves, the grey squirrels. It'll never happen.