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.