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.
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…
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.
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.
Each year the emptying of winter seems to reach an unbearable pitch, only to broken by the return of birdsong.