Brown hares, snow hares.
I never meant to go out that far, that high or for that long. At least, not before getting some chores done. But, when it stopped snowing after more than 24 hours, the world was so transformed, so breathtaking in its beauty, I was utterly taken; spellbound.
The light coming through the end of the holloway flung long blue shadows from the trees like a throw line towards me. Christmas-carded with snow and so heavily weighted, the branches form a tunnel low enough to have to crawl through in places.
The open down is a glittering moonscape. The tussocky meadow anthills smoothed into unearthly, rounded humps.
I climb up alone, beyond the place the snowplough stopped on the road below me, creating a white wall higher than my head. The snow that had been at my welly tops, was now well above my knees.
All the way, I have the company of hares, or at least, the impression of them. I track the lines of their crisp prints in the snow, measuring two, then three of my strides to one animal, as it increased speed. Criss-crossing, racing, up and down the ramparts of the hill fort, mostly on top of the snow, sinking three or four centimetres in, they too cast their own blue shadows.
In a wedgewood-blue sky, the sun dazzles off the wide snowfield and a frost layer of ice crystals that sparkle on top. I am enthralled, enchanted; bewitched by the blueness of the snow, the polar silence, the arctic curves and folds. The panoramic aloneness of it.
A succession of 4x4s try the adventure of the road below. They hit the snowplough wall and are stuck. Another from the opposite direction seeks the road, finds only fence post tops; the drift, skimmed smooth and innocent over the top as if with a palette knife, would swallow a Land Rover whole.
At the top of the hill are more cookie-cutter hare prints. I can clearly see how far the hindfeet overreach the forefeet, crossed like the legs of an animated director’s chair, between great gaps of suspension above the earth. It makes me smile.
The Wayfarer’s track is heavy going. I sink to my hips in great, cold duvet folds of snow that fill up my wellies. I have to surge and swim my way out, grateful that no one can see me. The dogs are struggling; summiting the drifts, then sinking up to their necks. I should head home. But I want to take it all in. I want to see all my beloved, familiar places transformed like this. I don’t think I can ever go home again.
And then, 974ft up, at the height of the hill, 26ft short of a mountain, three hares dash up from the ground in a cloud of powdered snow and sprint a figure of eight ahead. Bright, chestnut forms, burning against the snow like sleek racehorses. Brown hares. Almost-mountain hares.