Silver Downs and Anthills
The night before it snowed, I took the moonlit road to the downs. The ribbon of tarmac gleamed like chalk and disappeared somewhere among the stars. At the top, the sheep lay like grey wethers – stones deposited by the last ice age; ancient beasts with the moon on their backs. The few lights of Newbury twinkled brightly in the clear air below – but there was not a light behind me.
The full moon lit the amphitheatre of slope and valley and in a moment I saw why the field below is known as the ‘moon field’. The circular wood, off centre, appeared like the dark shadow of the moon, held in a silver bowl: a photo-negative of the sky above.
The snow that fell quickly was almost gone by the following afternoon. Except on the hills, where the snowline was clearly defined. Here it lingered in frost hollows, field edges and slopes that fell away from the low winter sun. From home, the big hill gleamed through the black trellis-work of Nightingale Wood like a white sheet. And beckoned.
The hidden valley was filled with snow, 2inches deep: the violet-whiteness of a shirt in moonlight. Meadow anthills rose above it, a foot high, gently steaming where the sun had warmed the tops. They are always warmer than the surrounding air and the earth they’re built from; perhaps from the activity within, or the angle of the top, tilted like a solar panel to the sun, or simply because they are raised up. Each one cast a long, blue shadow twice their height, so they stippled the combe like a trout’s back, or dappled it like a horse’s flanks.
Yellow meadow ants farm and protect the larvae of the declining chalkhill blue butterfly. The anthills are dry cushions; fragrant pillows of wild thyme in summer that make excellent mounting blocks, or stiles, when you find two either side a sheep fence. You can jump down whole hillsides, leaping from one to the other, there are so many. They are raised platforms for fox poo communications, peregrine plucking posts (scattered with feathers and the scarlet gobbets of woodpigeon flesh) and sentry posts for summer wheatears that perch, straight-backed and militarily, to look-out. And they provide food for partridge, that scrape an entrance into the ants’ colony, or green woodpeckers, who unfurl a sticky clockspring tongue from behind their skull for them. Then, the excavated, misshapen mounds heal and grass over into strange shapes.
After the snow is gone, the frost remains and sinks each day deeper into the ground, stretching out white fingers with the wood shadows, further and further each day. In the horse field, my daughter picks up ice formed in the pits and divots of the deeply muddy pasture, turns them upside down and finds exquisitely formed ice kingdoms and tiny palaces.
On the hill, water freezes over flints to make smooth, glaciered cobbles of sharp, knobbly stones and the ridgeway is white with crushed ice several inches thick. My son lifts a 4ft shard of ice, lines it up with the sunset and stands it against the hill fort fence, like a megalith.