Very happy to say I’ve got a piece in the new Winter anthology from Elliot and Thompson – part of the ‘Seasons’ series, edited by the fab Melissa Harrison. It’s bizarre being in the same book as Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gilbert White and Kathleen Jamie but I’ll take it. Buy ten copies! Or one.
The forest; a spot just off the road.
Aside from the odd distant car, it’s quiet, still.
The green is deep and various: moss, wild tussocky grass,
the trees in their last flush, the skirts of ferns.
On the heaths and moors, there is a breeze,
but here, sheltered, nothing moves, save for the odd blush
sighing in the oak crowns.
A nuthatch calls. Robins tick and scold.
In the middle distance, I think I hear a willow warbler –
my first of the year – homing for the warm south.
The last of the land’s held heat is dissipating;
the air bears the first rumours of the coming winter edges.
In my muggy oak-held hollow, I think of fires,
I think of night heavy against the windows,
and how days such as these are about gathering –
gathering light and the spaces in-between:
a store, a bulwark against the plight of lengthening dark.
In the tree tops, scurrying armies too gather,
too feel the pull of the north, the coming cold,
the pale backward glances of retreating summer.
It’s in these rifts, these seasonal interstices,
We feel fullest the passage of the flailing hours.
But there is always this forest, these trees;
The resolve that this will pass, will come again.
So this was how it was going to go: Culham to Reading, staying overnight in Wallingford. Two days along England’s alimentary canal. Two days running with Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’. Two days of summer dancing.
Culham station was a void. A four-quarters emptiness. Once part of a working network, it now obeyed a dead logic. It was out on its own, unmoored. Nothing moved. Nobody waited. Nobody got off but us. The pub next-door offered bed and breakfast, but who for? For a time we walked in hot circles, trying to find our way out of the station’s magnetic circle. Eventually we walked up and out, into the thick-phallus shadows of Didcot power station, a henge at the centre of the day’s circuit. From the crest of the station’s well we passed along a trunk road, heavy with willowherb and knapweed, down to the Thames and a different emptiness.
We find the river at Culham Lock. This is the heat of the day, the meadows either side of the river parched golden, exhaling hot, dusty breath. The memory holds little; the legs a little more: river and sky, sky and river; golden meadows, golden wheat. Chin-high avenues of teasel, dense thickets of nettles, parsley and hemlock. Distance is measured as time, the sameness of the stretching land refusing purchase. Distance is measured in kite-territories, the birds appearing from tree-crowns, breaking the skin of heat and silence with piercing whistles. Where are we? There is the occasional massive house, set so far back across bright lawns that all scale is lost. Old, monstrous capital: absurd and grotesque. Nothing moves. At Clifton Hampden we enter the second dead pub of the day. This one at least has an attendant. We’re told it’s only open for bed and breakfast. For who? Back at the river, we stand on the Gothic pile of George Gilbert Scott’s bridge. A pike hangs in the river’s breeze. This is England.
We reach Wallingford just after 7. Walled-town-by-the-old-way. History trapped in flood-marked stone. A Waitrose. A fist of pubs: beards, whey-necks, ink. Our pub rooms could be anywhere. Above the bed: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” We join the necks chasing the blackout deep into the early-hours. This too is England.
Rain falls during the night.
The pub sign croaks in the breeze.
We dream of fireworks.
Sunday is ablaze. Wet stone wields blade-light. Figures from the night before hog the supermarket aisles. An improvised church atrium teems, snug between two buildings. Coffee shops. What did we do before coffee? Wallingford tilts riverwards: we obey the close shuffle – back to the water, back to the humming golden welcome of the riparian wilderness. The first five miles are slow. The river widens almost imperceptibly. We pass a knot of islands, wade through stands of geese and goose shit; pass beneath a vast railway bridge, where the brickwork swirls as if turned in a kiln; on an outer buttress, a necklaced ash stump looks for all the world like a beheaded, supplicant Queen. The day becomes a beautiful blur; a river-lit shambles of quiet joy. At Moulsford we feed a hissing swan; at Goring & Streatley we feed ourselves; at Pangbourne we’re surrounded by multitudes, spread out under the sky; beyond Pangbourne we’re alone again, alone with the steady pulse of the water, the steady pulse of the blood.
Then came England.
We were pushed for time. At Purley the path left the water, winding through the hollow roads of a riverside newbuild. On the map, Tilehurst station was within touching distance, but we overshot, decided to push into Reading – one last hurtle, a flushing of the system. But somehow, map-blind, we’d badly miscalculated, setting our sights on Reading West, not Reading Central. The hurtle became a headlong rush. Onward, onward, along the Oxford Road, England roaring in our ears: this is where all the people were, the emptiness of the preceding 24-hours came to this: this tumult, this dreamtime of abundance: a church of the holy brethren, doors open to the street; a minister, gagging on tongues, proclaiming god to the skies, the windows liquid in the heat of it; CHICKEN; a standing wreck of a pub-cum-church pulsing with afrobeat; small brown parcels for money; sunken-eyes at above-shop windows, thrown open, all thrown open, pouring music into the street; POLSKI SKLEP; the ridiculous fleshy over-exuberance of fruit stalls; Bengali tailors; MAMA AFRICA; sandalled feet; heat, heat, heat. Pushing, rushing, thighs burning, the blood thundering, wanting to scream to the heavens: England, this is England, this is ENGLAND.
The hail was a surprise after so many weeks of sunshine. It clattered off sprung metal and peppered the ground, raising welts in the clayey topsoil. A walk at lunch along the track beneath the pylons. These are working woods and where the logging path leads to a substation, the ground is churned and carved by wheels. Muddy pools gather where for weeks there has been brute tidal sculptures of sand and clay. Here and there the standing water has a meniscus of oil and sun-caught light. The nightingales have arrived, perhaps a week earlier than usual. It’s nice to think they were tempted into coming early by a warm tunnel of wind above their west African coastal forests, a tunnel stretching northwards, northwards; but who knows what abstruse commands they obey? I’ve heard a couple, but it may just be one bird. It scrabbles in the brambles and gorse, frantic and garrulous, like a touretter let loose with a ray gun.
Deeper into the woods, away from the crackle and fizz of the pylons, the path sweats and seethes; the river, which has gasped in its steep-sided canyon these last six weeks, is tumbling with purpose. Dock fronds fill the ridings alongside reefs of soft rush. The first umbellifers unwind. Somehow, maybe it’s a trick of the light, the rain has generated a new cholorphyllic intensity, as if the very fabric of things has thickened. You pinch parcels of air between thumb and forefinger, invisible information riding the whorls and ridges.
Later. A bench. The wind has dropped and the sky is a violence of blue. I think of other wide skies and what you might be dreaming about. I lie back and fall softly into the shadow place and as I softly fall the skies merge and there you are, closer now, faces upturned, blinking into the same curtain of light.
It’s February. It’s still raining. For most of November and early December we sat under a grey ceiling of high pressure and the skies stayed sane – little rain fell; there was hardly any wind. It meant for a beautiful, extended autumn, the trees holding onto their sprays of fire for what seemed like weeks on end. We watched the slow blaze of the limes and silver birches, the bright gold of field maples and aspens; as late as the 10th December, we stood beneath a mesh of hazel poles, still in leaf, and inhaled the late copper flush in the oak woods. Then came several days of storms, storms which ripped the remaining leaves from the trees, dashing them against the windows, piling them in ragged roadside barriers. It was the start of things.
Since then, we’ve been deluged – there’s no other word for it. Depression after depression has swirled in from the Atlantic, bringing lowering, cinerous skies, gravid with water. Out in the world you can feel the weight of all that has fallen – it pulls at the horizon: garden grass sucks at feet, water brimming around the soles of shoes, as if depressing a sponge; field margins tip roadwards or disappear altogether; woodlands hover and double – ankle deep in gathered rainwater they reflect themselves, the eye deceived by the thresh of new limbs; tracks and roads seem in a constant state of movement with new streams and waterways coursing in pulsing v-shapes; answering the pull of gravity these ephemeral brooks seek out natural dells and declivities, forming murky pools.
All this has meant a new kind of water-awareness, a water-consciousness, flickering in the periphery like light glare off a standing shoal. The river that wends through the woods, generally unnoticed, has a sudden new voice; from the watershed – up on the chalk and clayland heights – it brings a new secret cargo – a cargo of storm damage on gritty, scented water: twig-meal, fern outriders, unexploded plastic. On concurrent nights after a walk along the groaning banks of the lower reaches, the boy and I dreamed of charting the river’s course, seeking out the occulted mainspring and following it underground into the chalk chambers of its origins. We await a clear day…
Poor old Southampton. She’s a wreck, really. Toyed with over the centuries by flighty dilettantes, eager for salty cures, or quick ways to get somewhere else, somewhere further away; bombed insensible in the war and rebuilt by a team of men in blindfolds; ongoing building works by arse that seem to have no sense of size or shape or of what elbow is doing on the other side of the city. Her roads are like clogged capillaries. Nowhere seems to lead to anywhere else. Everything feels molecular, isolated. A series of traffic lights with the odd island of interest, that you only happen upon by chance. If you’re into bad analogies, you might describe it as like a shit website: unnavigable, lurid, shot through with hard to digest information, the loudest parts getting the most (false) attention. And yet.
The trick, as usual, is to walk. Start at the common, which lays across the north end of the city like a giant green lung. Pick between the strange silences of the old cemetery. Wander across the university campus and gag with vertigo beneath Basil Spence’s Faraday building and the concrete calliper of Stoneham Tower (and the allegedly Hawksmoor designed Stoneham House next door). On a match day drift with the crowds across the railway to the New Dell and beyond to the Itchen Bridge (don’t jump). Walk the 14th century walls; take in the pubs of the old town. Stand at the docks and watch the cranes knitting the sky. The ships as miniature cities, the containers suburbs, exurbs. Stand on the prow of Wyndham Court, a vast stone cruiser, lost in the centre of town. Pitch out onto Town Quay where the eye blanches under seashone light, bouncing off rolled metal, cruise ships, Fawley belching smoke in the middle distance; opposite, Marchwood and Dibden shores ripple, low slung and malarial.
Most of all just look: the eye eventually makes sense of the plurality, or more likely just falls into acceptance of the ragged layers of history and modernity clinging together, afraid to let go lest the whole thing fall into the unimaginable depths of Southampton Water. I walked one Saturday, from the station through the old town, along the shorefront, over the Itchen Bridge, along Weston Shore, through Royal Victoria Country Park and on to Hamble with its ridiculous clamour of wealth and clanging yacht poles. It was the close of summer; a day as much about the sky as anything – high, and fierce with blue and storms that never broke. I took some photos on my phone. Excuse the blur; it was that kind of day.
The over-riding memory of this long winter will be that of a ceiling of grey clouds, dense and close. It has been cold, but not piercingly so; but it has been overpoweringly empty of colour. I’ll be glad to see the back of it. On a day of sudden and sharp sunlight, I went out to Salisbury Plain and the sacred landscapes around the Avebury stone circle.
First time this year we’ve had conjoined days of sun. Glare on the roads, glare in the rutted side paths, where water sits in silty pools. As I approach Avebury, through the wide streets of Marlborough, the clouds begin to gather. I wonder if that’s that.
Everyone has had the same idea: go somewhere, go anywhere – just to get out. The car park is a scrum of chalk-whitened tyres and wild children, wild dogs. On first glimpsing the stones, it’s impossible to get any sense of orientation, of scale – you squint at the map, unsure where to go next. Following an inquisitive line, I end up in the ‘north west sector’ of the henge, or outer circle, though I only make sense of this later (the entire henge, though not perfectly circular is the largest in the world, and some 420M in diameter). Driven by an almost frantic desire to get some perspective, I rush past the immense twin stones of the cove and out of Avebury, up onto the Ridgeway.
A slow steady ascent on a deeply furrowed chalk and flint-strewn track. A field on the right hand side houses the last of the standing stones, the exposed roots of an oak cradle yellow primroses. The noise bleeds away as Avebury recedes, the stones soon out of sight behind the natural whorls and hollows of chalk. The wind, easterly, picks up, brittle and penetrating. The landscape opens up, Salisbury plain broad green and various under the now opening clouds. Densely-coated sheep and isolated beech copses punctuate the broad sweep of the land, which, despite being made of simple greens and whites, is impossibly plural in its gradations of form, of colour. Cresting the hill and finally: the Ridgeway.
The path is thought to have been in use for more than 5000 years, part of a longer trade route that ran from the Dorset coast stretching north east toward Aylesbury and its final destination on the Norfolk coast. The chalk lands, across which the path traverses, were created some 100 million years ago when large parts of the southern UK mainland were submerged under a network of inland seas. A mixture of microscopic algae and animal skeletons were layered and crushed into the sea bed, which was in turn exposed as water levels changed, and the land uplifted as part of same orogenic activity that caused the monumental uplift of the alpine region of central Europe. Thus the path’s height, riding the chalk uplands, afforded safety from potential attackers, and avoided the watery perils of the boggy lowlands. Over time, the path has been used as a trading path, a droving path, and, more enigmatically, an access point to the sacred landscape of Avebury, West Kennet and Silbury. Standing atop it now, looking south towards the round barrows of Overton Hill, and east onto Fyfield Down and the fields strewn with massive stones, stones of sarsen, similar to those used at Avebury and somehow transported the same route I’d just walked, time seemed to stretch and warp, as did the land – unable to govern what it sees, the eye fails to make a complete purchase and perspective is jumbled: sheep resemble sarsen boulders, domed beech copses look like uncovered barrows. I huddled in the lee of a newly planted beech hedge and ate. The wind carried the far-off explosions of wrens and the first of spring’s skylarks, both obeying the imperative of seasonal time, ignoring the brute chill of the air.
Rutted path full of leaf litter, muddy pools reflecting the harsh glare of the sun. I enter a beech copse, no more than 20 meters in diameter, raised on a bolus of roots. The wind is fierce, whipping through the trees, howling and keening. The interior is dark, damp – a cave, a roofless chapel, the grey trunks like buttresses. At the centre lies a smooth altar of sarsen stone, surrounded by bared beech roots splayed like arthritic fingers.
I come to the end of the path, the modern entrance to the Ridgeway, next to the shock of the A4. The clouds have all but cleared away and it’s warm in the sun. Across the road is the Sanctuary the site of a former stone circle, dismantled for grazing. In one reading of the landscape, it’s thought that travellers for Avebury would come down off the Ridgeway and wait here before entering the ‘Avenue’ the narrow causeway leading to the central drama of the henge – attendees at, what, a ceremony? A gathering? I avoided the question by turning away from the avenue and joining a narrow path that led across the swollen river Kennet and up a steep chalk hill to the long barrow of West Kennet.
I hadn’t been wholly aware of West Kennet long barrow. It was a name with a few murky associations. The same was true of Silbury Hill, now dominating the horizon to my right hand side. I slogged up the incline, the barrow darkly shadowed on a high green ridge; I could see silhouetted figures black against the afternoon haze – they danced, parted, embraced. Alongside the barrow, the impact was significant – aside from the obvious gravity of the massive sarsen stones that guarded the entrance, there was a weight in the air, the weight of focused, accumulated time, of the fact of our simple connections to the deep past: grief, the whirl of the seasons, the mysteries of connection to the earth.
The long barrow, at 100 metres, is thought to be one of the longest in Britain, and is more than 5000 years old. It’s precise function is unknown, but it’s thought to have been used as a burial chamber for a good while, as the bones of more than 50 separate skeletons have been found on the site. Other more esoteric claims have been made for such sites, that they were chambers for meditation, places for deeper communication with the earth-mother, literal womb-like entrances into the body of the earth. Everything seemed possible from where I stood in the soft yellow glow of late afternoon, the wind pouring from the east, gritty and bitter; and walking into the damp cold of the interior, into the folds of stone, did feel like an entering, a thresholding – the earth close and gravid, the interlocking slabs of stone suddenly shocking in their immediacy, their proximity. Alongside the main chamber, no more than an arms width wide, stood dank chambers, completely closed off by darkness. They didn’t hold horrors, as such, more they represented the colossal fact of our unknowing. Shining a light into them didn’t lessen the impact. It didn’t do to linger – again, not because of some spurious sense of horror, but because of something indefinable, something too close to the sacred glimpse of death-in-life. On reaching the main chamber itself, it was apparent someone had lit 3 incense candles. There was the soft scent of rosewood. I smiled, thankful that the mood had been broken. I turned and left.
Walking back down the steady chalk gradient from the barrow, it was impossible not to stare at the tumescent green hump of Silbury – squat and implacable against the cold blue horizon. As a simple landmass it draws the eye, but the knowledge that it’s man made, and the largest of its kind in Europe adds gravity and portent. The simple act of walking towards it increases the drama and the questions of why and how come crowding in. And the truth of it is, beyond the simple fact of its creation, starting in distant 2400 BC, no one really knows the hows and the whys of Silbury. It could be a burial mound, it could be a statement of intent, it could be a simulacra, a simple fact of building over time to mimic and celebrate other aspects of landscape. The hill has been probed and defiled in search of definitive answers and it refuses to give up its mystery. Shafts have been dug (and collapsed); tunnels excavated; samples retrieved. And? Nothing. It’s been so thoroughly pawed at and cored that it’s now closed to encounter, a bare monument for the eye to explore. Which is fitting, in honesty, because, from distance, Silbury is so alluring that you are drawn to its bare, green flanks from wherever you stand. It dominates the eye and so dominates the mind’s eye. You wonder at how must have looked in the years after completion – massive in context, stark white with chalk. It must have imposed as much then as it does now. As I walked away, along the alder-lined fretful wash of the Winterbourne River, I regularly stopped to turn back to it, drawn to its silence, its hunched and brooding presence.
Avebury had quietened. I passed into the first ring by exactly the same route that I had come earlier, but now the atmosphere was indolent – people tarried with idle, wan looks on their faces. Many of the stones, warmed by the sun, were given over as seats or simple leaning posts. Shadows pooled in the ditches and declivities. I climbed a steep bank and looked across the expanse of several adjacent fields. In the scope of the wider area of the plain, it was now possible to grasp a sense of the stones and their significance – or at least their place in a a grander scheme. It may have been a trick of the mood, but there suddenly seemed to be scores of children around, running, blaring between the stones; and from that vantage point, hovering above the glare of that cagouled tumult, it was possible to forget the ‘mysteries’ or the need for these ancient sentinels, this broad collection of ancient sites, to be mysteries at all. It was enough, buoyed on the onrushing noise, to peer back across millennia to another, similar life.
September had been another wet month, the return of the damp dark days of summer. Saturday had been warm, though – like a hole in the sky, a glimpse of what summer might have been. We sat on benches and let the sun heat the bones in our faces. Then: Sunday. It was as if autumn had dropped in over night: mist and cold air, the kind of cold air that nags at your collar gaps and sleeve holes. In the park a robin sang in a scrub of roadside maples, its song bright and silvery in the thin air. In the gaps between the oaks, a stand of dandelions, probably the last of the year – the flower heads remained clutched and uncertain, curled in on themselves. Every surface was slick and shiny, the ivy leaves sheened with a layer of cold steel, the chipped metal bins beaded with drops of moisture. There’s that odd paradoxical thing with mist in that it foreshortens distance and expands it all at once – R barrelled on ahead on a scooter and quickly seemed far away, but her shrieks, high and wild, quickly came back to us, resonating off invisible walls. The Ash held its usual stillness, in places impenetrable like black stone; but in the shallows it rolled along, water from the moors rushing to the Thames. At the Pooh-sticks bridge we found discarded rotten conkers, and made a broad fan from fallen leaves: pin oak, scarlet oak, horse chestnut. The day turned slowly, slowly turning; we left the park to its hanging silence and faded home like spent ghosts.
A shock of August cold. By 7 o’clock it was down to 12 degrees, a slicing wind, the skies like bruised ice. Earlier in the summer (such as it was) I’d walked through a farm of patchworked fields. There had been pigs rootling in a vast muddy expanse, bowed like a great furrowed half-pipe; over a stile, through a field margin knotted with hazel and hawthorne, there were successive rectangles of oats, barley and wheat and to the right a thick maze of maize, the cobs barely a fifth mature in their rough casings. The sunflowers, despite being only around knee height, were instantly recognisable. I made a mental note to come back. Now, after a week buried under what felt like a tarp of brooding panic, I needed some sun. I dumped the car on the field edge and climbed for some.
The wind was intermittent, but when it came, it roared down the slope, stirring the tops of the puddles. The pigs didn’t seem to mind, standing amidst chunks of revealed chalk and flint, impassive in their thick skins. So much rain had fallen that clumps of charlock and chamomile were swimming in pools. Over the stile, the wheat had been cleared and the maize was nearing harvest, the cobs now bursting at the enveloping husks. I could see the sunflowers in the distance, swaying in a collective mass of green, then yellow. Close up, their height seemed gangly and ungainly – like a child grown too tall too quickly. They seemed to huddle for warmth, turning the bright faces away from the teeth of the wind; but every so often the wind would stir them in a particular configuration and a hundred new heads would turn, the bunched lurching throng illuminated by a thin yellow nimbus. For a time it was possible to imagine a kind of deferred warmth but overhead the isolated knots of westering jackdaws and rooks had become a ragged band. Night was coming and I turned back to the car.
Beyond the hawthorn hedge the evening sank across the rough furrowed field. Most of the pigs had retreated inside their huts which stood in shadow like cavitied dentures. From a copse a tawny owl welcomed the coming night. The sun dropped below a reef of clouds and began a slow descent behind a ridge of chalk. I took a photo knowing it would never come out. The image showed mostly darkness but the falling sun had its own fierceness, trapped under the dome of the sky.
July evening, the first good weather since March. March. For 3 months we huddled under grey skies in front of glaring screens, staring bemused at long range forecasts. When the weather came it was like a spell – that strange figure of speech ‘a spell of good weather’ suddenly making sense. Even then the world seemed oddly deserted, as if people didn’t trust what they were seeing.
Winchester Hill was ablaze – the low lying barley fields almost painful on the eyes. As I climbed, the ground released trapped heat; it pooled around my feet which burned in a state of surprise.
July, the last of the bird song. Skylarks, the strange whirr of the yellowhammer, the chuck of blackbirds. Over everything the calls of the lambs and the dry answering barks of the ewes; and behind this, the evaporating roar of planes, so high in the blue as to look like bone shards. Goldfinches peep and tinkle, dashing between low stands of wind-beaten hawthorns. No people. No people.
I enter a chase of yews, the light colder out of the sun. Ivy-clad trunks, lichen-clad. The sheep are incessant. To the right, a meadow, knee deep in sorrel and grass over which hover ragged globes of midges. To the left a fallow field smoulders; a few lone poppies totter in the light breeze. The field edges are a tangle of brambles and bindweed; boulders of chalk the size of fists, the size of giants feet, line the path margins. A spooked pigeon rises, angling into the sun.
A gravel riverpath at the foot of the hill. I have been here in winter when it is often impassable; now in this wettest of summers it rushes and chatters across the stones, inviting hot feet. I splash for a time then climb the steepening sides into a field of crops. Last of the sun: light slants across the plant heads, illuminated strands of webs like fine hammock strings between the individual stands of wheat – out of the sun they become invisible, in its glare they are like retreating filaments of bowed crystal. The water is just in earshot, a comforting babble. A green woodpecker yaps, sheep call across the pasture. Jackdaws call, abed in a stand of oaks, their cries like answering chimes, answering in a higher register.
Back into the hollow way of the riverpath, the sun dips behind Beacon Hill. Heat-trapped smells rise in the cooling air. Months of rain have saturated the ground so even in this landscape of drained chalk there is the smell of damp, of rot, of contained water. In the crook of a massive three-trunked ash I pause and listen to the onrushing stream.
Nearing the end, I realise my boots are like autumn boots, winter boots – mud-clagged and heavy. A new moon through the crown of a thinning ash. A buzzard cries. The swollen river flows faster than I can walk.