Chiltington Lane
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prickly neighbours you're likely to meet on a dark night in the lane

by Zsolt Kerekes

It was March 16, 2020 at about 9.30pm and I was driving back home from visiting my Mum in Hove where I had set up her phone and we had practised facetiming each other going back and forth from echoey conversations in the same room and then the hallway - till it was easy peasy.

This - I explained - would be the main way we would be seeing each other for the next several months or so. And maybe longer. Though I would try to visit at a safe distance in the garden if I was taking food - but no more going inside the house and definitely no prospect of tinkering with her pc or phone.

And so - here I was - on the journey home which doesn't usually take more than 20 to 30 minutes if you pick the time right. All being well with the traffic and the broom broom - tempus fugit.

But the covid19 lockdown had reset the world clock.

GMT, British Wintertime soon to be Summertime (and therefore making the fiddly car clock incorrectly aligned for another half year, concepts like avoiding the School Run, Brighton Marathon, roadworks on the A27, Rush Hour etc had all become irrelevant at framing such flying visits.

From now on the answer to - what's the best time to make social visits? - was jammed towards most times being the wrong one.

Having reached Cooksbridge, driven past the farm shop on the right, past the garage, and contemplating the level crossing a long way ahead - I declined the opportunity to test if the warning lights would start flashing just as I got there - and instead I had opted for my habitual choice of turning left and driving slowly along Beechwood Lane...

Slowly - not because I was admiring the nice surroundings. (It was too dark to appreciate the view).

And slowly not because I often have to reverse to a previously passed passing place when meeting an oncoming car as I am one of that rare breed of drivers who - despite having passed their driving test long ago - are still able to remember from the mists of time that there is a position of that knob which pokes out in between the front seats which can make the car go backwards.

To be fair - when it's dark you can whizz along this lane at 30mph and due to the fact that the speed of light is faster than the speed of cars and due to the magic of space-time you can see oncoming cars coming to share your future space in the road by their headlights - which is long before you'd see the cars themselves emerging round the hidden bends in daylight. It's a bit like time travel.

Driving this way up Beechwood Lane you can confidently anticipate more traffic than usual when you've seen the distant flasing lights showing that the Cooksbridge Station level crossing is closing - and impatient drivers on the A275 use it as a temporary rat run.

That wasn't the case when I turned left on this occasion - and put the pedal to the metal to approach a gentle 30mph.

And by the way - a dark night in mid March (9.30 pm if you remember) isn't the busiest time for cyclists in the lane either. Though I have sometimes seen the odd going off the grid cyclist who's apparently been surprised by how quickly night follows day taking their chances in the dark with no lights attached to their bikes at all.

Some people like driving fast. Others don't.

Genetic predispositions aside - there are a couple of good reasons why I myself always drive cautiously on the last few miles approaching Chiltington Lane whatever the season or time of day.

Firstly because of having heard some decades ago that most car accidents occur within a few miles of your home. And it would be extremely embarrassing to crash into a neighbour or another member of your own household.

Secondly - because cars share the road with people going for a walk, or walking their dogs, or riding horses, and animals ambling along without humans in tow such as ducks and pheasants and cats and squirrels and rabbits and other creatures (it's not not just chickens) crossing the road.

And thirdly - because sometimes inanimate objects make a surprise appearance in the road such as fallen trees or deep washes of rain and mud which aren't going to jump out the way just because they hear your noisy motor coming at them - even if it's dark and your headlights are on full beam.

It was a quiet night from the weather point of view as I approached the dip in the road under the railway bridge which shortly after takes you on to Wickham Lane (if you go straight) or Chiltington Lane (if you turn left).

In the preceeding weeks the volume of rain had made it prudent to pause before plunging onwards so as to guage the depth of water. It hadn't rained on this particular night - so there wasn't any need for such a pause. So I just carried on at the usual slow cautious pace and I was very pleased that I had for at that very time I observed a healthy looking fat hedgehog crossing the road under the bridge.

I stopped.

(Remember emergency stops in your driving test? No skids. But you only need to pass the practical once. So like the reverse gear - most people soon forget this trick. It's much easier when you're driving at a safe speed appropriate to the road conditions.)

I saw there was nowhere safe for the hedgehog to dash away to and it wasn't really in dashing mood - dazzled I suppose by my headlights.

So I reversed back up the slope and waited a minute until I could see it had got off the road.

And then less than a minute after that I was back home.

The hedgehog wasn't the only creature I had seen on the road in my travels that night.

When I was driving in Hove earlier I had seen a fox crossing the road. Foxes aren't an unusual sight in parts of that city. And the street lights mean you don't need any headlights to see them. Foxes tend to be shier in the shires - possibly due to a folk memory of past persecutions. Also being low down sneaky is how skinny rural foxes creep up on their next meal - as opposed to their fat urban relations which don't get so much exercise and mostly eat junk food out of packets.

Back to the hedgehog.

When I saw it crossing the road I wondered if it was related in any way to a similar fat hedgehog I had seen in my garden the week before when putting the bins out. I wondered it could even be the same one.

I have been told that hedgehogs eat slugs - which puts them in your team is you are trying to grow vegetables in the garden. (Like we're all going to do now - 'cos of covid19.)

I'm not bothered by the fact that hedgehogs are said to be fleabags - because we don't share the same comfy sofa. And although I have sometimes been woken at night by their loud snufflings in the garden - I'm sure my tv and sonos disturbs them more. Shutting the windows solves the noise pollution in both directions.

When I got home it made me feel good - not just knowing that my Mum and I can see each other on our phones during these isolating times we're now living in - but also it's good to know that by dint of careful driving - I didn't accidentally run over one of my prickly neighbours.

Later:- In April 2020 - I met a hedgehog who became a regular visitor to the base of a hollowed out apple tree in our back garden - near another different (russett apple tree) where we had been hanging out food for the birds during the winter. A feeding process we continued in the early part of lockdown #1 as we could see that the birds were still very interested and - for us sitting nearby watching them provided a wlecome distraction from events in the outside world which we weren't allowed to visit due to the restrictions in place.

We had realized that the birds weren't the only creatures showing interest in the food in the feeders - because it was also getting the attention of a big fat rat which was bold enough to come out even when we were sitting and watching the birds.

The rat would approach from several different directions and hide in the daffodils which were densely planted all around the base of the russett tree where the birds were feeding. If I waved my arm it would run away. And then sneak back again about 10 minutes later. I did wonder if I should bring the feeders in at night when the birds wouldn't be eating. On the other hand that wouldn't stop the daytime rat feeding problem. And despite the lockdown - and having nowhere else to rightly go - I couldn't sit outside all day just to shoo the rat away.

After thinking about this problem for a while I bought a humane rat trap on Amazon.

This was a big wire cage - like a small cat carrier - with a spring door at one end and a wobbly ramp at the other end which was designed to sense the weight of any creature coming in and shut the door behind it.

The theory behind this design is that you incarcerate whatever creature comes into the trap without causing it any harm.

I didn't want to hurt any wildlife. So I baited the trap with just exactly the same kind of RHS supplied bird food which I was using in the feeders.

And another precaution I took was to place it about 15 feet away from the tree which had the feeders in - to avoid the traffic congestion in that area from ground feeding birds. And the rat trap was aligned along one of the many routes I had seen the rat take in its approaches to the take away.

You can imagine my surprise when the trap sprang shut within 20 minutes of first setting it.

My first catch was a robin.

These robins had become so tame that they woud literally sit next to our cups of tea and ask for food.

So I opened the door and the robin flew out and I had a rethink.

Within a few days I came to the conclusion that wherever I placed the trap during the day - it was bound to be found found by birds. A bunch of local pheasants learned the trick of tipping the trap on its side by nudging it from the outside to spill out the grains of seed. They were too fat or clever to risk stepping in.

It has to be set at night - I decided.

When it's dark there won't be any birds to set it off.

So that's what I did.

And that's how - the next morning when I was looking out from going to prepare breakfast I saw the outline of something big and fat - something about the size of our rat through the daffodil cover - captured in the cage.

When I rushed out to look. I was saddened to see it was our local garden hedgehog.

You poor thing - I thought. But it was fine. It had eaten the food and it was safe in the cage from anything which might eat hedgehogs during the light of day.

So I got some more food and a saucer of water from nearby and slid the hedgehog out. It stayed a few minutes and then scuttled off back to the hedge.

That's when I gave up on the trap.

And that's when I learned to recognize hedgehog poo.

I had been noticing dark droppings around the base of the bird feeder tree and I had assumed the poo was from a shy fox or something like that. Some online searches - coupled with seeing the hedgehog - confirmed to me that the poo had been the hedgehog.

So I brushed the poo up and put it in the compost heap and waited.

That close encounter didn't deter the hedgehog one little bit.

It remained a regular visitor to this spot for as long as we continued feeding the birds - which we only stopped when the weather became so hot and the plants and buglife in the garden and surrounding fields became bigger magnets for our feathery connoiseurs.

And what about the rat?

For a while he just got fatter and fatter.

I took up chasing him one time - when he ran over my foot while I was reading. But he just hopped into the hollow apple tree behind where I was sitting. I got a stick to poke in the hole and he reappeared coming out of another hole above my head - jumped to the ground and ran off. This game happened a number of times and revealed that the tree was very hollow indeed - as the rat could emerge from several different branches.

I decided to give up. And let it be.

The rat stopped coming long before we stopped feeding the birds. I wondered if it had just got so big and fat that maybe it had died of an underlying condition.

I look forward to seeing fresh signs of our hedgehogs when the weather gets warmer in the Spring of 2021.

where inexactly is Chiltington Lane?

the British Hedgehog Preservation Society

April 1, 2001 - new product released by Prickly Spine Software

You're Never More than 20 Feet Away from a Rat ...or a Storage Drive
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