August is a long, languorous month. It’s a month in which nothing much seems to happen; a month that usually lasts far too long as I wait impatiently for the delights of September. But this August was ushered in by a relief of storms: extravagant downpours and gentling drizzles. Grey skies and showers have tempered the heatwave at last. Whereas often August seems stuck, this year, it is moving quickly. I’m losing weeks, convinced there should be more before September is here.
The month ticks by in weekly trips down the motorway for Winston’s hydrotherapy. I watch golden fields become stubble as the wheat is harvested. I see fields scattered with cylinders of hay and bale towers. Barns fill as the hay is gathered, until they bulge with gold. Then the ploughing begins and the fields turn umber. I see the season changing in the cycle of the crops and you would think that would bring me closer to the land, but instead, I feel a detachment from it. It is all behind glass, without the smells, the air, the sensation of my feet on the earth.
How easy it is to become detached from the environment. Our usual walks are out of bounds, too far for Winston to manage at the moment, so we make do with the small park at the end of the road. But I fight against the restriction and that pulls me away from the earth. It’s been more than two months since we last visited the dene. I see it from the bus, watch a rabbit, two crows and a young gull grazing on the grass. I gaze into the landscape through glass and see blackberry jewels and the flame of rowan berries. I watch baby gulls on the roof opposite my office fledge from balls of fluff to fat, hunched chicks. Place is something I often come back to: the way we meet it, the way we settle into it, the way it welcomes us – or not. I’m still here, still passing through the same landscape, yet I’m outside of it.
When I feel the first chill of autumn I know that it’s time to find that connection again. I go to the sundial because it offers a panorama of my world. The morning broods. Deep grey sky in the north, charcoal clouds over the distant Penshaw monument. Storm-light. Up here the sky is big and the land small. The sea is a stripe of watercolour along the horizon. Pylons are tiny cages scarring the sky. There are five ships at anchor in the distance and wind turbines turn slowly. I see a cloud of rooks skimming stubbly corn fields in the east. Watch the metro weave across the landscape like a toy train. It is a world in miniature. I distance myself from the land below to find my way back into it, to feel myself cradled by something timeless.
I listen to the faded cry of gulls, the croak of a crow, the twitter and chitter of goldfinches and tits. I watch two magpies scale a pine and follow the looping flight of a single goldfinch. Dried nests of wild carrot are abundant among mahogany heads of desiccated knapweed. Vetches salt the grass with yellow and meadow cranesbill offers a splash of lilac. Up here the sky glowers and my skin breaks out in goosepimples. But there is a moment when the sun, obscured by cloud, transforms a patch of sea into molten gold. It is just visible between the pylons, this precious echo. I watch until it fades to silver and I decide it’s time to go. But the walk has done its trick, I feel calm, connected again to this place in which I belong.
The next morning I follow the pool of gold to the sea. A flight of swallows surprises me as I reach the edge of the cliffs. They swoop upwards, curling towards the terrace of houses behind me, then back towards the beach. I wonder if this group has been gathered here all summer or if they are preparing to leave. A small murmuration of starlings seeps across the rooftops before splitting up and vanishing.
The colours are intense in the early light. The sand is flat and rippled, punctured by the casts of lugworms. The sea is hushed. The pool of gold is a river from horizon to land. A curlew and a redshank forage on the rocks, oystercatchers saunter on the shore. A roost of pigeons has commandeered one of the caves on the beach. They flutter from its mouth as I approach. A lone bird remains in a crevice above the entrance, watching me. I retreat slowly and leave her in peace.
I sit on the rocks beside the pier, watching and letting the landscape soak back into my bones. This is me: earth and sea and sky. This is my land and my place. The trick is to walk in it, to engage with it, otherwise it is just background. When I feel the sand shift beneath my feet or hear the pipe of a redshank echo across the rocks I know that I’ve returned.