The fog and its hiding, muffled property lends me a welcome, invisibility cloak that I wear in repudiation of some kind of exile. Walking alone and further to get to familiar places sharpens the senses. By the swing gate, the upturned aspect of ash twig-ends, ending in lamp black buds like deer’s feet, show me the way: up and onwards, with light steps. I pull on a bunch of dangling ash keys and let myself back in.
The drip and distillation of climbing into the cloud purifies, condenses and collects my thoughts. Long-winged ravens sweep past unseen, rustling like stiffened taffeta just beyond the fog’s blank page of white sky. When I reach the gorse and look back, there is a perfect fogbow: a gauzy rainbow of faint blue and red in an unbroken halo below. I could almost dive through it.
Another day, another transgression. The new growth on the hedgerows is a damson pink to match the breasts of a pair of bullfinches keeping pace with me, until I lose their white bottoms among the snowberries. Woodpecker and owl holes are revealed in trees. A stand of ash and yew trees are splashed with the white tell-tale emulsion of a kite roost high above. A woodland pond has re-filled with the week’s rain and is pitted all around with an impasto of prints: pheasant, wild duck, muntjac, roe and fallow deer (slotted brackets that increase in size and depth with the species) and is stitched all around by the bills of snipe and woodcock.
The pond is framed by an arc of bramble and the straw-braided, bright red berries of black bryony. But the smoke-blue smouldering seedheads of Old Man’s Beard, Traveller’s Joy or Father Christmas are my favourite. The thick, twisted ropes of wild clematis travel up and onwards through the hedges, in defiance of the hedgecutter, reaching the tops of trees. Adam Thorpe called it bedwine in his chalk country novel Ulverton. It becomes an emblem of time-travel, or the linking of stories and ages through a place, a constant thread. Bedwine, betwine – it comes into its own at this most magical, inbetween time of year. The grey, frosted globes each covet a filament of golden light within. Nature’s own fairy lights and baubles.
Midwinter; and a mistle thrush leans into the wind, carolling, to counterbalance an earth tilting furthest from the sun. The days grow longer now by slow increments. The mistle thrush, the ‘stormcock’, continues to sing poetically and powerfully from the top of the oak, above the apple trees and their mistletoe. One evening 14 fallow deer cross the road in front of us, a big dappled and antlered buck bringing up the rear. We name them twice over – Dasher, Dancer, Donner and Blitzen … I am still seeing things – more, perhaps, than before. I am not cut off.
One night, my daughters and I watch the Geminids fall like coloured glass from the sky, through Orion’s upheld, cartwheeling arms. We spy the Christmas Comet Wirtanen as a chalky thumbprint near the Seven Sisters, and confirm it through binoculars. A fox barks and is answered. Owls call. Golden plover whistle over.
After a stormy spell, my son – who drove our Christmas Tree home with ‘L’ Plates swinging from its trunk – watches the illusion of the Cold Moon being hurled through the racing sky and clouds. It makes us dizzy and we laugh at the trick of it.
After all that wind and bluster, the hill is visible as a sharp black silhouette, the apex of a barn roof arcing behind the wood blown clean of leaves. Still there.