Just outside this ancient village is a little hill. There aren’t many hills here, so you tend to notice them. Back in the day, this one had a Norman castle on it. Like many, that met a torturous end. And now, like others, it has become that weird rural symbol: a scratch of ornate type on the map, and a ghost in a place name – Castle Bytham.
The broadleaf wood on top of the hill never saw the castle. These trees are slender, youthful. But they carry another, more venerable rural symbol. The wood ends hard at a field edge, where a path runs. The limbs of the trees lean over it, like spectators over a rail. And there they are: acorns, by the fistfuls and fistfuls.
It’s an embarrassment of bounty. An area the size of a small placemat counts 40 acorns; multiply that by the cubic dimensions of a wood the size of a small village, and the numbers become staggering. Underfoot, they line the plough furrows where they fall. Food, or mulch; doomed trees, anyway.
I pick one up and peer at it, as if waiting to be surprised by this object whose aesthetic is so embedded, so allegorised, so poetic a symbol of might from a mite. It’s waxy, that wholesome green of freshness. It sits in my palm, this icon of superstition, a fairytale motif with its roots in Britain’s wooded history. It’s telling that the National Trust, on whose ledger lies so much of our countryside and human history, chose the oak leaf and acorn as its emblem.
I like to hold acorns because each one is new – or, if we’re permitted to anthropomorphise, naive. The acorn doesn’t know what it stands for. It doesn’t know it could lay a foundation that could outlast the best castle people could build.
And yet here it lies, with armies of others, foiled by a few feet. I close my hand, feel the object inside once more, then hurl it out of the field and into the wood as hard as I can. I’ll never know if it grows to a tree. But in this transient lottery of a landscape, knowing that it might is enough.
o The standfirst of this article was amended on 18 September 2020. Castle Bytham is in Lincolnshire, not Rutland as an earlier version said.