Rain

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…

Wind

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons

Ted Hughes

Evening, autumn

Whoever you are, go out into the evening – Rilke

There is a quiet magic about at this time of year. It’s something to do with the lessening of the light, and the closing in of the evenings. The hours between, say, 5 and 7pm, take on a new aspect, and you become acutely aware of the fall of darkness, the texture of it. It’s probably just the fact that dusk is simply closer in proximity to the functions of the day but there is something like an adaptive purpose to this noticing, an acclimatising before the winding of the clocks and the heavier darknesses of winter.

I didn’t actually make it out of the house until gone six. The sun had set and what clouds there were had brushed pink undersides while in the east the sky had taken on a deepening mauve colour. It had been a filthy day, a day of squalls and low cloud, the air cross-hatched with drifting ribbons of rain. The ground was sodden and murky; the paths held their first puddles for what seemed like months, and the roadside gullies were frantic with onrushing streams. I approached the woods from the south, where the entrance is through a stand of unruly oaks and hazels, the trees’ lower branches clutching at the ground. The trees only form a thin barrier really, quickly giving way to a blasted patch of recently felled woodland, but by now the entrance-way was dark, dark enough that the clusters of acorns the trees still held onto had a peculiar kind of luminescence about them. I briefly contemplated going back.

The clearing looked unkempt in the slack light and several blackbirds railed against the closing day, scolding incessantly at some unseen assailant. At the centre of the clearing there stood rows and rows of deer-proof plastic cases, each about 4 feet high, and each protecting a young sapling. These were mostly sweet chestnuts, planted to replace those cut down for timber and pulp the year before – they were nearing the top of the opaque green tubing, the topmost leaves furled in on themselves, cramped in their reaching for the light. Every sixth tube or so contained a young oak, way down inside the ribbed plastic and only about a foot off the ground, growing at about a quarter of the pace of the burgeoning chestnuts; but even at this depth, the leaves held a strong lustrous weight. Between the poles the ground was choked with clumps of tussocky grass and low creeping brambles, punctuated with the odd straggly extrusions of dead dock, stiff and rain-blackened.

Into the wood proper and the darkness was heavy, almost complete. The air had that fibrous, textile-like quality, gritty and pixellated. I became unsure of my balance and my vision swam. The magic hour, the time of visions: in the onrush of night, shapes lose their definition, edges blur and morph; root balls become crouching figures, discarded seed casings like tiny open mouths. The land fell away to my left and I could hear the chatter of a woodland stream. In the windless gloom it was like an aural place marker. I fixed my vision on a patch of light in the distance, using that as a guide.

Earlier in the day, I’d gone with R to the garden centre. She had a voucher for a small craft shop there and we’d picked through trays of sequins, and held up to the light other opaque tubes, these stuffed with tiny beaches of glitter. The day had closed around the small wooden building and later, in the cafe, as we fished in our drinks for tiny marshamallows and rain thrashed against the roof, a robin appeared, hopping between feet and tables looking for cake crumbs. Now, as I emerged from the wooded gloom, a robin dropped to the path, silhouetted against the last of the dusklight. It ducked and pecked in that signature see-saw motion, a guardian of the threshold. I had no cake to offer, but murmured my thanks as I passed.

Southampton drift

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.

Southampton old town walls

Southampton old town walls

Palimpsest

Palimpsest

Migration

Migration

Westgate

Westgate

Albert Road South

Albert Road South

Itchen Bridge one

Itchen Bridge, one

Itchen Bridge two

Itchen Bridge, two

Itchen Bridge three

Itchen Bridge, three

Weston Shore one

Weston Shore, one

Weston Shore, two

Weston Shore, two

Oak, salt marsh, Fawley Oil Refinery

Oak, salt marsh, Fawley oil refinery

Dead Scots Pine, Fawley Oil Refinery

Dead Scots Pine, Fawley oil refinery

Netley Castle

Netley Castle

Beachfall

Beachfall, Netley Abbey

Cowes, this way

Fawley, this way

Old Netley Military Hospital

Old Netley Military Hospital

Encounter, two

May climbed cold into June. Grey skies abounded; thin drizzle fell. Then came a period of sun, warm enough to coax us outside. Yet the overarching chill remained, like a vaulted roof high over everything else. In the shade silver birch catkins trembled; people shivered and clutched themselves, looking awkwardly at the skies.

I parked on Peak Lane, abandoning the car on a field margin, hoping nobody would mind. The land rose sharp and wide before me, cresting into a beech wood still dense with anemones and the flattening stalks of late-flowering bluebells. Beyond the wood was a series of interlocking fields, bordered by tall blossoming cherry trees in the canopies of which jackdaws squabbled and bombed. The air hummed.

In one of the fields, hidden from sight, there’s a great hollow in the ground – like an eye socket in the skull of the earth. Its origin is uncertain. This area was quarried extensively for London clay in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, so perhaps this isolated spot was rich in clay and abandoned once the supply had been exhausted. It does have the feel of an excavation. Or perhaps it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, an arena for unknown forces, unknown geological pressures.

During the colder months, when the surrounding meadows are balding and brittle, the cavity puffs cold air, drawing warm bodies to it. You stand in the updraught at the southern brow, the hole yawning beneath you; to the west it falls further away, ending in a great beech and hazel clothed bank, choked with flint; to the east there is a gradual incline upwards, the earth rising to meet the level of the fields around it. It’s probably no more than a 100 metres long but has the impact, due to its incongruity, of something much larger. I keep coming back.

Ramsons

Ramsons

Now, on the first warm day of the young summer, I had to wade to the site, through meadows that were thigh high with grasses and dandelions. The southern lip was dense with spring growth, barring entry. I found a gap at the eastern end, and entered into an impassably dense nettle den, amongst which flashed small stands of yellow archangel. To the north of me, through the low forest of nettles, were great washes of flattened ramsons stalks, as if they’d been trodden down by some lumbering mylodon; but here and there patches remained in flower giving the sense of a hovering blanket of mist. And then there was the smell – over everything, contained and intense, hung a pall of garlic, the air raw with it. I backed out of the tangle and headed along the eastern lacrimal wall of the socket, spying a desire path cutting through the grasses in front of me. The path led into the cool interior again, but now I was beyond the forest of nettles and into a clearer space, dominated by a rising bank out of which rose an oak and two massive ash trees. Around the base of these lay strewn the remains of the ramsons carpet. The stench was, if anything, even more over-powering here, scouring the back of my nasal cavity and reaching into the pit of my stomach. The silence was total, punctuated by the what seemed incredibly loud drumming of a woodpecker and the soft flutey trills of a greenfinch, high in the branches of one of the ashes. I sat in a cradle of exposed roots and waited. And waited.

What draws us back to certain places? I’d found myself thinking about this curious hollow at various times, feeling its pull, its promise. Even now as I sat, plagued by dancing columns of gall midges, there was the sense that something was going to happen. Time passed. Nothing came – nothing beyond the midges, the woodpecker and the distant bubbling conversation of a tawny owl. I decided to leave, but instead of following the desire path I went the other way, and clawed my way up the steep bank and along the northern ridge using exposed roots as handholds. As I approached the western end, the hole now opening deeply beneath me, I heard the muted chaos of what I assumed was a blackbird, rootling in the underbrush for grubs and worms. It was darker now, and as I squinted into the cool gloom I saw there, no more than 20 feet away, a young badger, snuffling in the flattened stems of the ramsons carpet. I can only assume that due to garlic scent blindness, and my position high above him, that he simply didn’t know I was there as he paid me no attention whatsoever. I sat for 15 glorious minutes, watching his progress through the green garlic shagpile. Occasionally he’d stop, either to wolf down a bulb or a grub, or stop for air, sneezing softly, dog-like – but not once did he look up, or give the slightest inkling that he knew I was there. It was like a short period of unexistence, something akin to JA Baker’s wish to blend into the natural world and ‘to let the human taints wash away in emptiness and silence.’ Eventually, obeying some unknowable Delphic patterning of pheromones, he changed his direction and hoovered off in the direction of the eastern shore. I had a vague notion to follow, but preferred the idea of simply sitting for a time and slowly creeping back into existence. The sun had set, and in the shadows it was like sitting inside a cool silvered chamber. The hollow had given up a smattering of its secrets. I’d be back.

Encounter, one

Whiteley Pastures, a Wednesday, mid-afternoon in May. Another week of closed-in skies and chilly easterly winds, like a breath-remnant of what gripped us in March. The woodland rides are slow in their coming-to-life. Sprigs of as yet unopened cow parsley sway above the last of the celandines and anemones; beneath these rises a tentative new carpet of dog violets, herb robert and the emerging purple fingers of bugle. Most of the trees are now in leaf, but it’s still possible to come across near-naked oaks and sweet chestnuts. We have nothing to gauge the lateness, no almanacs to refer to, but there is talk – things feel late, in abeyance. Alongside the long straight logging path there are deep runnels; these have been full with rust-coloured water for over a year since the coming of the rains last spring. They are starting to empty and reveal their depths. The earth beneath is stained, heavy like wine-dark clay.

I stop for a time at a thigh-high pile of birch logs, left over from last year’s felling. The bark is stripped in places, the wood soft and stained; the rest is thinly silver, pocked with black eyelets or furry with lichen. The logs are damp to the touch, but as a whole they form a kind of welcoming rough tabletop. I edge backwards onto it and lie down, listening to the echoing madman-in-his-cell call of a song thrush. I drift off.

I wake befuddled and slowly raise up, noticing a dark smudge out of the corner of my left eye. In one of those odd moments when a second becomes something architectural and we’re able to roam about inside it, leisurely gathering sense impressions, I marshal enough data to realise it’s a snake, a black snake at that, coiled in on itself, its head resting on a the thickest part of its trunk. At the walled end of that second I guess that it must be a grass snake, recently out of hibernation, bloodwarming in what passes as the final days of spring. I notice the lack of neck collar and the near-absence of the repeating diamond scales. Melanistic. It’s a melanistic grass snake. Around this welter of observance is a chamber of something else, something from further back in my brain, something shrieking ‘snake!’ I jerk my leg away, and the snake, reacting to my lumbering frame, hisses (or do I imagine a hiss?) and is gone, gone into the depths of the woodpile.

Needless to say, I’ve been back several times for another sighting. The log pile is crowded in now, beset on all sides by encroaching brambles and sedge grass. It looks oddly dwarfed. If the snake is there, it’s keeping quiet, and I daren’t lay down again. Just in case.

March

home

I’ve not known a March like this one past, cruel and bitter under a pall of grey skies. The month started with a promise of spring. We walked in slanting sunlight across the top of Hockley viaduct, hooting, miming trains. Beneath the arching brickwork the Itchen had burst its banks. The water meadows, green and sharp, brimmed with pools of sunbright water. We parted for shrieking cyclists and R tumbled with flat hands on the cold concrete. On an old siding, under a stand of fruiting hazels busy with flitting goldcrests, we saw a discarded hub cap, home to a colony of snails. There came two days of bright sun, the air bearing the first slight signs of the spring thickening – birdsong, pollen song. We waited. Then came the whispers of returning winter. Cold air from the east, bearing snow and arctic temperatures.

The cold came in overnight, a giant storm from the north east swirling across northern Europe and up across the channel islands. The air was raw and metallic, dawnlight bringing with it a purple glow that fanned out across the underside of the roof of clouds – a roof that was to stay with us for pretty much the rest of the month, yielding little, if any, rain. That day it snowed for a good 3 or 4 hours, the air thick with it. Sheltering under a canopy of arching oaks, I could almost feel the ground contracting, the newgrowth shrinking back into itself. The birds had fallen silent.

That night the storm roared around the house. I came up from sleep, dimly aware of a muffled banging. I mentally travelled the hanging air from corner to corner of the house, but couldn’t make sense of where it was coming from. I came down the stairs feeling unmoored. It was as if the interior air itself were disturbed, displaced by the ferocity outside. I opened the back door and I felt the house gather itself around me as the night, blackly malevolent, seemed to force its way in. I waded out into the liquid dark and secured the door with a bag of cement dust that, disturbed by the whipping wind, puffed motes into the air that were sucked away into the darkness.

This air from the east stayed for the rest of the month and on into April. It brought with it ghostly remnants of its provenance, a taiga-born density of cold, a breath of ice. The brute cold settled into the heart of things; objects carried a new kind of weight, as if they’d been penetrated to a molecular level. As such, the usual spring signifiers remained resolutely enfolded, the hedges and banks dull of colour, the woods silent, arenas of felt absence. Everything felt held in abeyance, waiting, waiting. In the middle of the month, I was in the Cotswolds and the weather broke for a single day. It was as if the earth threw off a layer. Huge flocks of fieldfares and redwings broke cover, driven by a frantic impulse to begin their homeward journeys; the sky was a holding-pattern of hungry red kites, all monitoring their territories for carrion; usually elusive jays dropped from the bare oaks and pecked at the raw ground. The following morning it snowed again, and the earth re-enfolded itself.

At the beginning of April, finally there came a day warm enough to stand still. I headed into the woods with the boy on his scooter. We were looking for the bluebells, usually ‘up’ by now, washing the beechwood floor with their smudges of purple. The air had lost some of its edges, and a thick greyish haze hung over the fields and distant stands of trees. We wondered together if it was pollen, or if the heat had stirred up clouds of sleeping insects? As if in answer, we saw a solitary housemartin, the first of spring. The beechwood was cool and clear, and free of the nodding bluebells. The floor, though, was carpeted with the glossy green leaves. The bluebells would come, but like everything else held in the cold paralysis, they would come late. No matter. A ragged silver-birch, multi-trunked and choked with ivy, showed signs of fresh excavations in its hollowed out base. We sat and ate jaffa cakes idly wondering if the culprit might show itself. The sky purpled above us. It quickly became grippingly cold. We headed home across a bone-hard field, out, out of the mineral wind.

woods