“PRIVATE” declares the sign mounted on the farm gate. He knows it conceals a public footpath, in the drive alongside the house. He enters. He passes the fenced off back garden, approaches open land, secured by another locked barrier. Brambles reach out from a hedge to partially conceal an aluminium pedestrian access, supplied by the local council.

He’s pleased to avoid the customary click of the catch, rattle of metal closing on metal when he moves through into a paddock. Dogs, two large, one small, would usually start barking the moment the gate catch clicked. Separated by a fence, their barks would have risen to a crescendo, alerting the neighbourhood to his presence. They don’t notice him.

Following the path, he travels over indentations in grass left by hooves of horses led across his route. A diagonal course brings him to the next gate. November clouds clear. A weak sun casts elongated shadows. Again he negotiates the barrier without sound.

In the first of two fields, to the other side from the dogs, a high-wired enclosure keeps chickens in, predators out. The birds rush forward, sensing feed time. Are they kept to produce eggs or meat, or both? Are they free to range when fenced in or is it another human confidence trick to boost trade?

Reaching the next gate, old, of wood, the catch is broken, replaced by string, looped around a post: evidence of adaptation to counteract a declining barrier. He enters the second, larger field. The land begins to rise, the gradient increasing towards the top. Sheep are grazing. His presence doesn’t disturb them; he identifies with animals more than humans. One of them approaches, aiming to butt his leg. He stoops, seeks the head of what is a full-grown male, to ruffle the deep oily coat. The ram keeps pace with him. He stops. Man and beast look at each other. “Sorry,” he says. “Have to go.” He wonders if the animal’s slaughterhouse fate is worse than the uncertain misery of a life in the declining human world.

The sheep appears to understand; steps back. Known since it was a lamb, when it had rushed to greet him, they’d met almost every time he’d walked the route. He’d looked forward to each encounter; felt the ram had, too. His rambles had been his attempts to escape some of the pollution of civilisation, some but not all the industrialised toxins carried by the wind, or embedded in the soil from over-cultivation. “Goodbye,” he whispers, pressing on up the hill.

The pedestrian gate at the top, of old wood, works perfectly. Attached to its post is a spring that swings it shut to imprison the field if someone fails to close it. He pauses, looks down at the flock, the land, houses, woodland rising up other side of the valley, a few trees hanging on to autumn colours. He’d always stopped to admire the view: an image of a life capable of beauty from afar, distance masking the close-up reality. The ram has disappeared.

A multicoloured “recycling” lorry coming down the lane fills the narrow road in front of him with its bulk. It stops at a group of dwellings, including a solid, four-storey former flour mill, filled with flats. Men jump out, splaying in various directions, returning with green-coloured boxes, filled with plastics. They upend them into hatches in the vehicle’s sides. Take them back to their approximate original locations. Waste paper, cardboard, food, glass, tin are similarly dealt with, their green boxes also returned empty except for any remnants dampened by rain that stick to sides or bottoms. Are the men any more aware of the destination of all this rubbish than the residents discarding it, of its effect on civilisation?

He makes his way towards the ribbon of houses that extend for half a mile past the mill, takes his customary care to ease alongside the big vehicle, to clear it before it moves on. He looks at several of the yellow-clad refuse men intent on their tasks. None show signs of acknowledgment. But they never did. He continues, leaving the operatives, the vehicle and all it represents.

The lane becomes boxed between banks. A hedge one side separates it from the valley. On the other, a high earth bank topped by a close-boarded fence defines the front garden of a large house. Set back, the fence allows grass to cover the top of the bank, gouged into bare earth by some vehicle. The tell-tale tyre impressions and the height of the infringement suggest a tractor is the culprit. The large house is empty. No green waste boxes by the front gate. A “For Sale” sign nailed to a post explains why.

All along there’s evidence of unofficial road widening by larger, heavier agricultural machinery designed for speed and efficiency rather than the rural environment. Pools in the lane left by recent rain, some static, others feeding rivulets, erode the surface. Cracks allow weeds to take hold. He presses ahead, oblivious to the damp and the mud customary at this time of year. Contractors are working on a semi-detached residence creating a side extension. Increased accommodation for the occupiers will add value to their country retreat.

Dwellings, now only to one side, become detached, spaced well apart; exclusive. The last two before open land boast long, hard surfaced, weed free drives. Keypads mounted on pillars control electrified entry gates. One displays a prominent “Beware of the Dog” sign, the other boasting tended grounds, contrasting with the surrounding fields. A manicured lawn is soiled by several mounds where a mole has pushed up earth from its mining operations: a challenge to owners desiring protection from invasion of their privacy

The lane is narrower alongside the two houses. A lorry approaches him, a tanker, containing oil for domestic heating where main services have yet to penetrate. Instinctively, unnecessarily, he reaches out to a post and rail fence, moves up out of the way. The driver ignores him, probably anticipating the usual confrontation ahead, with the recycling vehicle.

He watches the lorry pass, continues his journey. Hedges bordering fields compress the road, a steep gradient rising to his right, not high enough to prevent the distant rumble of the motorway. Habit induces him to speed up, anxious to clear the stretch before he’s challenged by more vehicles. He slows; reaches buildings on his left. A hay barn stands back from a walled-off farmyard, still in use but sharing access with stone built stables. Converted into a dwelling following a government initiative, boxed rubbish on the roadside awaits collection. Opposite, another structure, possibly once a worker’s farm cottage, has been converted into a modern residence.

One more short narrow stretch brings him to the original farmhouse, rising on his right. It looks dark, neglected but still occupied. Scrub attacks the small strip of land between it and the lane. Two green boxes of rubbish stand on three moss-covered stone steps rising to a level slab, once used by riders to mount horses. Beyond it, on the same side, bordering the road, stone buildings, part of a complex, surround a small yard. Dusty with age, machinery behind an open door, set high in a wall bordering the road still performs some task necessary to this working agricultural unit.

The lane splits house and yard from the main barns to his left. A large tractor, front mounted spike piercing a bale of hay, moves from one to the next: complicated structures used for the wintering of stock. Other modern buildings, tractors, and apparatus evidence the workings of a major holding.

With the complex behind him, the road opens up to a modern two-vehicle width, boasting verges and healthy hedges; the result of construction of the adjacent, high-banked motorway. Traffic noise is increasing. Ahead, the motorway forces the widened lane under a concrete bridge. The same modern treatment has been given to the route on the other side before it resumes its narrow course towards the village. On previous walks he’d felt comfortable reaching the settlement, despite the final half mile. Hemmed in by hedges on both sides had been a struggle, trying to differentiate the sound of the vehicles approaching behind him from the motorway roar.

The thrash of the exhaust of a tractor rises above the multi-vehicle motorway clamour. The tractor catches up, travels by him. He identifies the farmer, as ancient as his machine, crouching over the steering wheel, conducting his daily inspection of animals left out to winter in his fields. There are the bigger, more modern examples available in his yard, but the small, ancient Fordson is chosen for the daily inspection, struggling on until it turns the corner to disappear under the bridge.

Following the farmer round the same corner, he faces the gap under the motorway, almost a tunnel. Pedestrian pavements line the carriageway, an urban encroachment in a countryside world. On the other side, the road dissolves into the rough country verges of the declining lane. Streaks run down the vertical concrete slabs lining the tunnel. They dampen strips of mud lying on the pavements. He suspects the earth will smell of decay. He enters; pauses. Tyre marks on the mud confirm someone has parked there. Dumped empty drink cans, to add to ripped plastic bags leaking less identifiable litter.

Images crowd his mind: modern machinery, wider, heavier, biting into the verges, large refuse collection lorries, crumbling tarmac devoid of support where tyres have sunk into soil and grass—evidence all around of the stupidity of the human race, of the decline, the ignorance, a self-centred desire for more, always more. As the five lane motorway bleeds into the stinking tunnel, his energy begins to fail. He won’t reach the village; not even beyond that motorway bridge. He’ll join the ram, the highlight of his journey, travel on to discover if the next world is simpler, cleaner, freed from the stress of greed and guilt.