I hadn’t meant to walk to the sundial today. Fog hangs heavy over the reserve so I know the dial will not be giving away any of its secrets. I walk past the misted pond, past drowned alders laden with cones and catkins. A trio of mallards lurk among the roots as a black Labrador cuts a scythe through the water. Drenched paths are mudded with puddles. Deep into April and most of the trees are still bare. A smattering of cowslips try to bloom. I’d wanted to wait until I could watch the sun cast shadows from the sundial, but I find myself wandering towards it anyway, a dark hyphen in the mist. Meandering up a path lined by gorse and stunted alders. A horse has passed this way, leaving shoeprints and garish manure. Goldfinches and great tits dart across the path. Woodpigeons are solemn sentinels in the trees.
I reach the top of the hill without effort. The dial is laid on the ground in iron and stone. The gnomon towers useless in the fog, twice my height. A single bunch of daffodils bloom at the edge of the path. All below me is obscured, trees peep out of the mist, the pylons are hidden as though modern time has faded into the grey. I stand near the edge and close my eyes, picking out a trill of blackbird song, the vibrato of a robin and a chorus of twittering. When I open my eyes and turn, a large bee bumbles past. It takes me a second to realise what it is, it seems so incongrouous here in this place made lonely by the fog.
Every time I think spring is here, another season takes its place. April has been rain and mist, with the briefest hours of sunshine to fool us that winter is really over. Nevertheless, there are dandelions like pinpricks in the embankment, daffodils and blackthorn have begun to blossom, lesser celandine trying to open in the grass. The loud songs of great tit and chiff chaff grace the air and the heron has returned to the pond. A starling visits my yard collecting dried weeds from the cracks in the wall for her nest.
It’s tempting to say this has been an unusual spring. It has been very slow to come. I’ve been slow to return too. But I’ve learned through observing myself in the seasons that spring can never be predicted. It isn’t the pretty, predictable blooming of flowers, creativity and action I would expect. There is always something wrenching, something off about it. It is like the moment of panic when I write a story – a moment when I know how the story will end but don’t know how I’ll get there, or how the story begins but not how it ends. A very real stab of panic that I won’t be able to find the words to tell the tale that wants to be told. There is always a moment when the story settles and it is written. There is too, a moment when spring settles – or when I settle into spring – but it hasn’t happened yet.
It hasn’t been a period without creativity. My unpublished novel The Wintering Place was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. I have a story short-listed for another competition. I have written new stories, tales of wind and blood. But this period of withdrawal has also been a time of seeking comfort. Of re-reading favourite books and walking well-worn paths.
On May Day morning the grass is silvered with frost. I return to the sundial anyway, as the rising sun is strong behind me. But it is cold. I’m beginning to feel as though I haven’t been warm for months. The alders have sprung into leaf since my last visit, and the cowslips are scattered banks of yellow. Hawthorn blossom rarely blooms here in time for its festival, but the cherry blossom is out, if a little more muted this year. The reserve is full of birdsong including the piping call of a particularly loud great tit.
At the top of the hill, the sundial does its work, shadowing the correct hour. Last time I was here there was no world beyond the hill; today the landscape is set out before me in a haze of sunlight. To the east, sea and horizon; to the south the river and the huge ship waiting to carry wind turbine foundations to sea; to the west, the shadow of the Pennine hills. Stretched out below me are all the places I have travelled as spring struggled to be born, all those well-worn paths deepened by the pad of my feet.
It might have been the moment spring settled, that morning on top of the hill. But as Beltane fades, winter doesn’t turn to spring, but to summer. The air thickens and the sun bakes. And it is the dandelions that put on a show, vivid raffia splodges in the grass. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an abundance of them. Soon daisies and cherry blossom petals sprinkle the spaces in between so that the grass is a quilt of yellow and white. I see my first butterflies and myriad tiny creatures cloud the air. A crow calls from a nest at the top of the still-leafless poplar. I don’t know what this season is anymore, or what I should expect it to be. Perhaps there won’t be any settling this year after all, only a messy, jubilant return to light and life.