Sunday, 18 December 2011

A walk in the Park

A short drive (or a long walk) from this town is Bradgate Park, a large area of hilltops and woodland set aside for visitors, walkers and light activity-makers, and little else.

It was pretty windy, but we happily tramped about for several hours, enjoying open air, babbling streams and spiky mushrooms.  Really.  Spiky ones.  I didn't even know you could get spiky mushrooms!

Later we came across some fantastic old oaks (my favourite tree) that were hollowed out by wind and time.  The years had worn the wood that was once rotton inside into beautiful smooth patterns, and forced the cracks wider and wider until they were big enough for several people to climb inside.  So (because who wouldn't want to live inside an actual tree!)  I immediately did climb inside...

...and eventually my housemate joined me.

 But the best thing about that day for me were the deer.  Now, Roe and Muntjac deer are pretty common in my home county, but Bragate Park is rather famous for it's deer herds and has Fallow and Red deer living there full time, they even do deer walks in the fawning and rutting season (which it was at the time, meaning all the bucks and males had their biggest and best antlers on for us.)  Some areas are set aside for deer only, but they wander in and out as they please and they're quite used to seeing people going past so as long as you don't wander too close they'll just carry on with their business, admittedly while keeping a weather eye on you.

These are Fallow deer (see the spots and the way the antlers have that big flat section in the middle instead of being separated like branches), and it was a privilege to get to see them so close without them turning and dashing off.  Deer where I'm from are usually very shy, so you don't often get a chance to appreciate what beautiful animals they are.

We carried on walking up over the hills and back down to where we'd started, when suddenly the land opened up, and right in front of us, in the middle of a wide section of heath, sat a massive Red deer stag, silhouetted against the bracken and ferns.

It was easily the biggest deer I'd ever seen, - Red deer are the largest British deer - with a huge set of antlers, and there was something incredibly striking and timeless about him sitting there so royally, lord of all he surveyed.  There's a reason they call a mature stag a Monarch.

The impression this sight had on me got me thinking about how much of an impact seeing a deer of that size must have had on our ancestors.  Nowadays we have a lot of things in our world known for their size, cities, buildings, vehicles and machinery, even some bigger animals now that we have a greater shared knowledge of the world, but to the people that hunted these lands thousands of years ago a Red stag like this would have been one of the largest living things they would ever see.  An animal of this size would have been dangerous, but also a valuable source of food, and highly respected for both.

We know what the Celtic people living here two thousand years ago felt about the deer as a pillar from Roman-occupied Gaul (north-east France), a first century cauldron, and some ancient cave paintings from Europe and beyond all have depictions of deer, or of men and animals with antlers or horns.  Some scholars believe this could be a god or a spirit of forests and their animals, referred to as Cerunnos, although it is impossible to gain anything more certain more than that from the records we have.  It's all a bit of a mystery, but it's clear people have held the deer in great regard for ages past, and it's not difficult to see why.

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