As we leave civilisation behind and move onto small winding roads, pools of white shimmer and multiply. It is early March and it is our first trip since the pandemic, more than three years since we packed up the car and left for elsewhere. Rain hits the windscreen in fat blotches, blurring the way ahead. We pass through lanes of green and brown: muddy edges and meandering curves, trickling burns and pasture. And everywhere the white of snowdrops; tufts and clumps and rivers of them, luminous against the sepia and grey background. I have never seen so many.
We stay in an old Gamekeeper’s cottage on the edge of a tiny hamlet. It is golden stone and sash windows, flagstone floors and chintz, vintage furniture and latched wooden doors. It is the crackle of coal and logs shifting in a stone fireplace. Lanes edged in copper beech. Dry stone walls cushioned by moss. Damp, muddy tracks and fallen pine needles. The muffled boom of artillery from the military ranges nearby. It is too dark that first night. I fear not being able to see anything around me so I leave a porch light on to relieve the darkness. But in the early hours I’m woken by a strange noise. The darkness is thick, with no friendly light to re-assure me. I get up, confused, using my phone for illumination, trying light switches. I can only conclude that it’s a power cut, but it seems somehow sinister on this our first night. I sleep fitfully.
The hill broods over the landscape. Flat-topped with a bite taken out of one side, it dominates the southern horizon. It is visible from every viewpoint. Sometimes it becomes lost in mist and cloud, but it is still there, ready to re-emerge, a dark shadow in the distance. Clad in heather and pines, mostly it is an ebony silhouette, sometimes a patchwork of mauve and green. This is a magic hill, a place of bronze age burial tombs, cairns and rock carvings; a home to fey folk and dwarves who lure unwary travellers to their death. We have approached its flanks before, seeking cup and ring marked boulders and the impression of ancient hill forts.
We fill up the empty bird feeders in the garden and the songbirds come. Robin, blackbird, chaffinch, goldfinch, tits. They flutter between the beech hedge and a rhododendron and empty the feeders in a few short hours. Copper beech leaves twirl and helicopter in the wind. A pair of thrushes scuttle in the leaf litter. Every evening, rooks fly over towards nearby rookeries, raucously calling. Every morning, they pass again at the start of their day. At dawn the sun glows above the hills. At night Orion shimmers in the darkness.
There are many paths to explore. We skirt the edge of a ploughed field, wander lanes between farm buildings and pasture. A small copse of pines leads us past a lake of snowdrops and a pink child’s dressing table discarded among the roots of a tree. We wander a grassed path bouncy with disuse. Sheep chuckle in the fields. Sometimes the wind follows us, rising to a roar that makes me think something is coming. We have struggled to settle here. Despite the welcoming cottage and quiet paths. Despite the pleasing landscape and the fluttering birds. We are glad to go at the end of the week and that makes me wonder if we will ever leave home again. On the way back, a hawk perched on the ground seems to look right at me and the rain starts to fall once more.
Two months later and white has retreated from the ground. We travel down the motorway for Winston’s hydrotherapy and yellow has taken over. Cowslips and primrose, as numerous as the snowdrops were, a few clumps of daffodil and shrubs of gorse. White has moved to the trees, trailing blossom.