Autumn rushes past and I’ve found myself retreating, the fallen leaves suggestive of a warm duvet to bury myself under.  I’ve retreated away from the computer and into times past.  I’ve been solving murders with Miss Marple in St. Mary Mead and visiting the Old Curiosity Shop.  I’ve been writing a short story about lost time.  Neil Gaiman said that books are the way we communicate with the dead.  They are that, but they are also a way to experience a time I was born too late for.  Although I know intellectually that I would have found the conventions and prejudices of earlier times restrictive, I often think I was meant for an earlier age, a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible.

In the wake of storm Callum, I walk the old waggonway.  I walk under tarnished clouds scudding quickly across the sky.  The air is hollowed by wind, the hedgerows rustle like old paper.  Rain falls, augmenting the vibrant colours.  Not all of the trees have begun to turn.  On the edge of a dark copse, hooded by the canopy and overgrown with bracken, in a place where pink campion blooms in spring, there is a beech that is always spectacular in autumn.  It is a bright quilt of vivid colour in the gloom.  The horse chestnuts are already half-naked, clinging to crisped bronze leaves like curling fingers.  Here and there, the hedgerows are lit by a fiery maple or a golden hawthorn.

The hawthorns are strung with garnet beads.  Rosehips are like tiny crimson lanterns.  The track groans with seed: hogweed starbursts, knapweed pokers, spiky clocks of ragwort.  Rosebay Willowherb is also known as fireweed, because of its penchant for growing in the wake of destruction, but it might just as well be because of its autumn finery: columns of burning red, orange and brown with whiskers where its seeds have flown.  A few flowers remain – solitary thistles and clover, purple vetch and clusters of viper’s bugloss.  Monstrous butterbur leaves, some green, some rotted and black, cloak the banks.  The hawthorns sing with goldfinches – it must be a time of plenty for them.

To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat.  I engage with the earth and its turning, but I retreat from the clamour of the world.  These waggonways are layered in time.  Haunted by the ghosts of horse drawn carts and the shades of steam locomotives carrying coal from the great northern coalfield to the river.  Listen closely and you might still hear the clatter of hooves or the wheeze of an engine.  Look closely and perhaps you’ll see a mirage of rails.  The past speaks, if we know how to hear it.  It speaks in the words of dead writers and in the song of the landscape.

A flock of long-tailed tits loops suddenly across the path ahead, to take refuge in a tall tree at the side of the track.  I listen to the commotion of their twitterings, watch the graceful dip of their tails.  In winter they group together for warmth and safety, and perhaps also for company, to share stories of their own ancestors.  My own journey for the moment is away from company; there is always an element of withdrawal at this time of year, preparation for the journey inwards.  But the time for company will come soon enough.  A time to set another space at the table or to pull another chair up to the fire.  To remember those who have come before and to know them through their stories.  The past speaks, if we only listen.


A tree lies broken on the path.  The old poplar has been rent, a bough the size of a large tree torn away in the winds.  The splintered heartwood is shredded and the tree nurses a jagged ivory stump.  Its amputated limb blocks the path, causing passers-by to stop in wonder.  It isn’t the only casualty.  A bough of the shoe tree has fallen, a mossy pair of trainers tangled in its branches.  In the dene, a large bough of weeping willow is hanging by a thread of bark, like a besom broom sweeping the path.  Storms aren’t unusual before the equinoxes, as though the earth needs to expel its energy before it can come into a balance of sorts.   After the day of wind comes a night of rain, before the morning calm.

After the storms, I go in search of stone, a balance to the torrent of air and water.  I want to be grounded by the size and the steadiness of earth.  I start at the Pen Bal Crag, the tallest of all our cliffs, where the priory and castle sits atop limestone and sandstone.  I rarely come to this small bay – the steps are steep and many and dogs are banned for half of the year.  In fact I don’t recall the last time I stepped on its sand.  Alone on the beach, I’m dwarfed by the rocks rising above me.  Boulders are tumbled at the bottom of the cliffs, some from landslides, clad in bladderwrack and gutweed.  Water drips from vegetation in the cracks and behind it all, the sea roars.  These rocks are layered in time and faith and blood and the ancient lava flow that once poured through them.  I am as slight as a grain of sand in comparison.

Strange how the memory plays tricks.  I have a very strong recollection of a barbecue here many years ago.  It has the gilded patina of nostalgia, redolent with soft evening light and the taste of sausages.  I remember clearly exploring a cave under the cliffs – so clearly I used the memory of it in one of my novels.  This is why I’m here, to re-visit it.  Yet as I stand on the shore, gazing at the cliffs, I realise that this cave doesn’t exist.  It most likely never did.  All these years, the image of it has come to me and it seems that I invented it.  I puzzle over my trickster memory, willing the cave to come into being, but of course it doesn’t, except in imagination.  A crow, the trickster bird, squawks and lands on the rock beside me, as though laughing at my foolishness.  It has something that might be a crab in its beak, something spindly and long-fingered.  I watch as it pulls the creature apart and welcomes in its mate to partake in the feast.

The sand is virginal.  There is only the faint meandering imprint of a small bird’s passage.  The remnants of last night’s storm churns the sea into boisterous waves.  But that is out there.  Here on the beach, all is tranquil.  The sky is pale blue washed with wisps of buttermilk.  On mornings like this the dawn sky is insubstantial.  It holds a luminous translucence that makes my skin seem thinner than it is, as though I too am made of gossamer.  The clouded sun turns the breakers to liquid platinum.  I can see the lighthouse silhouetted at the end of the pier beyond the cliffs.  I came here for stone, but it is sky and sea that are the most precious gift this morning.

I walk to the other side of the bay, passing a few black headed gulls and an oystercatcher.  A young herring gull bleats for food as I pass.  Up a bank lined by valerian and the leaves of silver weed, past a rusting old bench.  My coastline stretches from the mouth of the river to the island where one county ends and the next begins.  In between is a chain of bays.   I head down to the next, down to the derelict open air swimming pool and onto the sand.  Here, I search for a memento of the light, a token to take with me into the dark season.  I spot it immediately, as the thought is taking shape, a pebble that is, in fact, neither light nor dark but blushed with both.  I take a strand of kelp and draw a circle in the sand by the tide line, and bisect it.  This represents the year, with both halves in equinoctial balance.  I step into the circle and cross the line, clutching my token, symbolically moving from light to dark.

This harvest I have a sense of completion. There is nothing that niggles, undone.  It hasn’t been an easy year and the strange weather seems to have reflected its challenge.  But I have two polished novels ready for submission, one of which was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize; two agents asked to review my full manuscript while another said it was the strongest submission she’d seen for some time; three new stories written and a story short-listed for a short story prize.  There are things I would like to have achieved – such as one of those agents agreeing to represent me – but perhaps that is for another year.

The sun is at my back now as I walk.  That luminous sky behind me, as is the zenith of the year.  This bay is known as the ‘long sands’ and it is a mile long.  By the time I reach its end, my circle will probably have been washed away by the tide.  I walk at the water’s edge.  There isn’t much of a strand line here, just wisps of seaweed, a single maple leaf, a few pebbles, shells and feathers.  I follow it, such as it is, letting the tide seep over my feet when it chooses.  I’m always greedy for treasures from the strand line – one more pebble, one more shell – my house is full of jars and tubs of them.  I pocket a sliver of sea glass,  a chunk of sea-washed china, an intricate shell, a pebble honeycombed by piddock trails and a tiny white feather.

A group of four sanderlings scuttle in the tide in front of me.  I try to catch up with them, thinking that if I overtake they’ll see I’m no threat.  But they keep scuttling, back and forth, always the same distance away, until finally they take flight, sick of the game or never having noticed me in the first place.  A cormorant dives in the surf and I watch as three times it dives, three times it rises.  At the north end of the beach, curls of kelp litter the shore.  The tide has created an island out at sea, thronged by birds.

I came for caves and there is one bay where I know they aren’t imaginary.  I clamber down sandstone crags, feet sinking into slimy banks of bladderwrack until I reach smuggler’s cave.  A few pigeons take flight and a redshank sounds an alarm.  I walk under the arches, past limpid pools and clusters of pebbles and seaweed.  From above, these caves are sunny sandstone.  From beneath, they are grey, green and dark.  The caves are beyond the pier, cut off from the safety of the sands.  From under the arch, I see the same ship I’ve seen in my walk along the shore, the same sea, the same sky, but the view from inside the stone is a secretive one.  Here, there is no-one to know that I am a witness.  I am the watcher in the dark, looking out onto the light.

My harvest is completed and now I absorb inspiration, to take me into the creative dark.  I ground myself in the resonant stone.  Moving inwards, to the sheltered half-light of autumn.  I will take with me the brilliance of this, and other, watery dawns; the iridescence of a kingfisher’s wings; the stripes of a badger’s face.  The light is always there, running like a vein of crystal through the stone.


I fear that the herald of autumn is dead.  The small maple in the park – the smallest of all the trees – always turns first.  Its leaves are bronze and gold while the others are still clothed in green.  It tells me – even if I hadn’t felt that nip in the air, that soaking of early morning dew – it tells me that autumn is here.  But this year its boughs are bare.  There was no unfurling of bud, no burst into green.  Its trunk is spattered with buttery lichen, its branches tipped with desiccated flowers, but there is nothing to suggest it lives.  The park is littered with boughs and branches.  They say that in drought, trees give up parts of themselves, making themselves smaller against the stress.  I wonder if the long winter and bruising summer were just too much for the little maple.  I wonder if somehow it has made itself dormant, and that it will sigh back into being next spring.

A crackle of geese honks in a corn field.  A twitter of swallows echoes over the cliffs.  As we move towards the earth’s gilding there is the sound of leaving in the air.  The winds sweep in, carrying the scent of far-flung shores.  The horizon yawns with promise and I wonder what a bird feels as it gazes on that expanse.  When does the leaving begin?  Perhaps its starts with a faint humming in the blood, a tremble of expectation.  Perhaps it begins with a twitch in the wing, a distance in the eye.  Until the urge can’t be contained any longer and the bird must stretch its wings.  So many birds feeling that longing, that pull of invisible threads across the planet, becoming ever tauter until they can’t be resisted.  Maybe these autumn wind storms aren’t wind at all, maybe they are the flutter of thousands of wings, churning the air with excitement.

I hear my first blackbird sing after the silence of August and I wonder what the blackbird feels.  Does it sense the urge to movement and feel loss that it is staying behind?  Does this vibration of leaving account for the expectancy I feel in autumn too?  Perhaps my body yearns for a journey while scarcely knowing it.  As a species we have wandered for so much longer than we have stayed still.  Following the herds, following the weather, following the tides.  When those early people settled in one place, they may have felt relief, but also sadness that they would no longer roam.  Maybe we have lost something in our safer, more stationary lives.

But we still have cause to roam.  3% of the world’s people are migrants, moving not at the urging of the seasons, but for a better life, for escape, for survival.  We have roamed for centuries and there are those of us for whom the journey is not over.  Some of us are the blackbird, destined to stay in one place.  Some of us are the swallow, with no choice but to move.  September has always meant change.  For a third of my life it meant moving on – another year at school, college, university – with all the promise and apprehension that held.  Now I stay still but the urge to movement is still there, somewhere deep inside.

Of course September is not only a time of leaving, but also a time of arrival.  Just as those threads pull our summer visitors away, they reel in others who will accompany us into the depths of winter.  Each season brings its own gifts, and there is a sweetness in the inevitability of each wave of coming and going.  The herald of autumn may be dead, but the old poplar is strewing its leaves on the grass like offerings of gold.  Life is all arrivals and departures.  People move into our lives and are gone.  Things alter unexpectedly.  The world of my childhood is no longer the world I live in now.  We watch and feel the joy and sorrow of each change.  It gives us our sense of history, of having lived.  But even if we stay in one place, we are never really still.  We are coming and going too.  We are the bird soaring into the horizon and the bird arriving home.  And someone, somewhere, rejoices at our passage.

Back to the land

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.



I wait all day for the moon to bleed.  I’m ready to set off, to head for a point high on the banks of the river where I’ll be able to see the horizon.  I’ve watched the sky all day and listened to gentle grumbles of thunder, with growing disappointment, but have never quite given up hope.  Our first rain in weeks is forecast, and though I long for the rain, I hope it will hold off, just for a few hours.  But soon, the sky blooms dirty grey and I know that the moon is lost.

Lightning comes first: flash after flash with barely a pause in between.  It fractures the sky in hot white slashes.  Thunder booms and crashes.  And the rain comes heavy.  We stand outside in it.  After a day so humid it was hard to breathe, this is welcome refreshment.  The sky becomes darker and darker.  It’s difficult to tell where storm ends and twilight begins.  A street light winks on and we stare up, up into the grey, revelling in getting wet.  The air smells like burning.  Celebratory voices waft over the storm.  We marvel at the lightning, and as the thunder vibrates off stone and brick, echoing in the spaces in between, I feel my body vibrating too.  The storm is bombardment: there is violence in it, and abandon, and the joy of long-needed rain.  I don’t remember a storm like it.

The day after the thunderstorm, the air breeds noise.  I hear the distant roar of planes at the air show thirteen miles down the coast, like an echo of last night’s thunder.  The wind flaps and rattles.  The fog horn hums.  The air remains alive: moaning and roaring and singing.

There is talk of climate change on the news, of the heatwaves and wild-fires across the world, of how this could be our new normal.  Nobody says it’s already too late.  They talk in measured tones of getting greenhouse gases under control, but I suspect we’re the proverbial frogs already slowly boiling as the water heats around us.

I love the British seasons.  I love the predictability of the transformation from one to another, but I love the way the weather is never predictable within each one.  I love the way that an obsession with the weather is part of the British psyche.  I fret at the thought of hot, dry summers to come.  But a week after the eclipse, and it seems that the British summer as we know it is here.  The heat hasn’t abated, but it’s punctuated by showers and cooler intervals.

I walk in the country park in the rain.  I don’t mind getting soaked.  It’s still warm and the rain is still a relief after such a long absence.  It patters and drips from the trees.  Drops are cupped in the flowers of wild roses.  The hedgerows aren’t yet in their full August colours of yellow and purple.  The purples of greater willowherb and knapweed have arrived, but the yellows are mostly absent.  I hear the coo of a wood-pigeon hidden in the canopy as I walk the overgrown paths, and the occasional cluck of a moorhen, but otherwise the birds are silently moulting, not even a blackbird serenading the rain.  At the pond, I watch a moorhen guiding her chick on the grass with soft clicks.  A mallard shepherds a brood of teens – I can’t tell which is the adult.  I watch a crow bathe in a gutter.  Rain must be a relief to all of them.

Lammas has come and gone with its promise of transformation.  It is the first in my favourite cycle of festivals and heralds the harvest to come.  There have been warnings this week about food stocks for animals being dangerously low, and while I think about the harvest of my own achievements, I also wonder what this year of strange weather will mean for the other gatherings to come.   But the final harvest isn’t here yet, there is still time to make a difference to the reckoning, and for now, the storms are the only help I need.


The start of a journey



It seems that I’m often on motorways at this time of year, in the weeks leading up to Lammas, when the fields are golden with wheat and yellow with rape, and cylinders of gathered hay scatter the land.  There is something rich and hopeful about this part of the season and something calming about viewing it at speed from a long straight road that cuts through the landscape.


But there is nothing serene about this journey.  We are travelling to a specialist veterinary hospital, where our dog, Winston, will be checked over by a neurologist and receive an MRI scan, after developing a sudden weakness in his back legs.  I watch the fields unfold, attempting to dampen the anxiety of this unexpected journey.  Suddenly, I glimpse something strange at the side of the road, something I know shouldn’t be there.  For a moment, I don’t know what I’ve seen, but then I realise it is a deer, walking on the verge.  We hold our breath – she’s too close to the motorway –  but in a moment, she turns and melts safely into the trees.  I’ve often thought that the deer is the spirit of the woods, a gentle, airy spirit, barely glimpsed.  Seeing her now is a good omen, I think.


At the hospital there is talk of slipped discs and surgery, meningitis or stroke.  There is definitely a neurological problem, but it seems to be at the low end of the scale.  We leave Winston for assessment and drive home silently.  As we do, the month’s heat gathers into ominous clouds, hinting at a storm that doesn’t come.  To a house that is silent and strange without him.


The clouds finally break the next day.  A light drizzle sets in that won’t do much for the withered plants, but brings the temperature down to more comfortable levels.  We’re bringing Winston home today.  He has two calcified discs, that have caused inflammation of his spine, but they’re hopeful that it will settle with medication and physiotherapy.  He is confused and crying after the anaesthetic, panting beside me on the journey home with wide eyes.


We settle into a week of worry and waiting.  Winston has been my walking companion for almost six years.  It is because of him that I re-discovered nature.  It is on our walks that I see what I see.  But he is forced to rest, only short visits to the park at the end of the road.  Yet there are still glimpses to be had on short walks, or on no walks at all: gilded clouds above our back yard, swifts screaming high in the sky near sunset, goldfinches chattering on the telegraph wires, my only ladybird of the summer on our gate post.


A week later and we return to the hospital for a check up and to see the physio.  Dark clouds mass over the motorway once more.  Winston’s neurologist wants to watch him walk, so we take him outside to find that rain has finally come.  More than drizzle this time.  Strong, soaking rain.  We don’t care that it’s falling as we walk, we’re all refreshed by it.  And with the balm of the rain comes good news.  He is stronger, the inflammation must be settling.  We come away, for now, with instructions for massage and gentle exercises.  This is not something that will go away.  We will have to manage it, there may be things he can no longer do, it could become worse.  We don’t know how long the journey will be or where it will take us.  Back at home, I stand in the yard as the rain falls, tilting my face into it.  I’ve waited weeks for this, for the benediction of rain.  The scent of it in the air is like hope.



In the heart of the heatwave, our usual walks are too exposed to the glare of the sun.  My dog doesn’t like the heat and neither do I.  Seeking relief, we visit one of our less frequent haunts.  The path was once a railway line, hauling coal to the coast.  Here there is shade and shadow under bridges and trees.  The hedgerows burst with bramble and bindweed blossoms.  Stinging nettles as high as my waist and wild roses like vintage china.  Speckled wood butterflies and hoverflies like lozenges of amber.  Though the sun is blazing, the fog horn signals a sea fret in the distance.  It is still too hot, even in the shade.  A blackbird sunbathes at the edge of the path. He’s a beauty, with glossy feathers and a bright orange bill. He spreads out his wings and lies with his back to the sun, in a posture thought to get rid of parasites and spread the preening oil in his feathers.


We are used to a more temperate heat.  Not this dry glare that continues for weeks with no forecast for rain.  The grass parches and begins to yellow.  Leaves droop and curl.  On the moors in the north west of the country, a fire rages.  I find spiders drowned in my dog’s water bowl in their search for refreshment.  Amid nights of disturbed sleep, there are strange, vivid dreams: I watch volcanic ash tumble down like snow; I climb precarious wooden structures to escape grizzly bears circling below.  And I dream of rain: heavy, drenching rain that washes away the heat.  I fill the watering can and water spilled on stone gives off the soothing petrichor smell of rain like a false prophet.  Morning sea frets bring some relief.  But there is no hope of rain for a while yet.
I struggle to find poetry in the glare of the sun, when it is too hot to breathe or to think.  I walk with eyes scrunched against the dazzle.  The landscapes this sun reveals are too harsh, too flat.  Fire is the element I’m least drawn to, and when I am, it’s the flame of a fire on a cold day or the dance of candlelight, not the unrelenting heat.  Time seems to pass more slowly in this heat – particularly when I don’t want it to.  It saps energy and inspiration.  This hottest part of summer isn’t conducive to creating.  It seems designed for lethargy.


But there is a poetry to the sun, and to me, its poetry is in its nuances of light.  It is not in the noon brilliance, but at the book ends of the day when the air is golden or gauzy blue.  It is in the deep pooling of darkness within the light, the relief of shade, the shape of shadows.  The falling of light on a leaf, making it translucent, the way it gilds a buttercup.  The dappling of light and the way it shafts through the canopy to highlight the undergrowth.  Dandelion clocks become spheres of quartz in the morning sun.  Gold washes the underside of seagulls’ wings near sunset.  Stone becomes honey and the sky blushes.


Without these patterns of the sun, the world would have only one note.  It is in the contrasts and the wavering spectrum of light that the landscape finds its character.  It is easy to forget the life-giving properties of the sun when it seems only to desiccate and deplete, but in the depths of December, when my bones are chilled, I will appreciate that my skin was touched by its warmth.  When the nights grow long and I feel that I have always woken to darkness, I will remember waking to the shimmer of dawn.




The forest is an emerald, accented by blushes of pink. Trailing larches, tottering pines, glossy-leaved rhododendrons. Flowers of campion and herb Robert. Luscious rhododendron blooms now past their best. And spears of foxglove, like torches in the shade.


It shouldn’t be the summer solstice.  In this strange year in which the seasons haven’t unfolded in the way they should, it doesn’t feel like midsummer. Already, after today, the sunlight will slowly begin to contract, but I’m not yet ready for the fade into autumn and winter – winter has only just left.


It isn’t the first time I’ve spent midsummer’s eve in the woods, but this is a different forest. An opportunity to wander different paths and feel as though I’m losing myself on them. A chance for solace among the trees.


I haven’t yet discovered the places of magic: the enchanted glades and secret groves in which the spirit of the woods dwells. Perhaps this will be one of them: this avenue of oaks, buffered by pinewoods, one end of the avenue leading into wide open fields, the other to a leafy tunnel and a shimmer of light. Perhaps it will be this old ash tree, with its eccentrically holey trunk. Perhaps one of these bowed wooden bridges, perhaps the patch of foxgloves that spears the gloom or the pine garlanded by honeysuckle. There are paths upon paths here, or so it seems. Paths spongy and red with fallen pine needles. Paths of mown grass lush with clover. Paths overgrown with hogweed parasols.


The sound of the forest: the trill and whistle of bird song; the clatter of wood pigeon wings; the creak of trees; the susurration of wind through leaves. In the morning, the birds are busy and bloated with song. None of them wants to be silent – they all compete, singing over one another. In the afternoon, a veil of sleepiness descends. The blackbird still trills occasionally, the chiff chaff still calls, the tits still chitter, but in the afternoon the birds sound faint and far away. There is the laziness of sun slanting through trees, of small birds leisurely feeding. Even the wood pigeon’s coo is gone. In the afternoon, the birds allow one another to be heard.


The air is filled with the whirr of small wings: blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinch, robin. A tree creeper shimmies up a pine and a long-tailed tit balances in a nearby birch. Two woodpeckers scale the thinnest of trees, woodpigeons clatter up in the gods. A blue tit is mobbed by its young. They flit from branch to branch as it collects food, then chitter and spin their wings until their mouths are full. Squirrels and rabbits graze on the grass beside a tiny mouse. And in the evenings the big birds swoop in – jays, crows and wood pigeons.


Perhaps the spirit of the woods is here, in the small glade just beyond my cabin. A gathering of pines and a young beech stand in a circle. What might be a faint path leads to the clearing, lined with bracken on one side, rhododendron on the other. The centre of the glade is carpeted in still-green pine needles and young brambles. This is the place where the sunlight streams in through the trees. Entering via a row of three birches, painting them lime, before drippling into the clearing. This is a place where you might dance sky clad on midsummer’s eve.


But perhaps the magic here isn’t a place at all. Perhaps it is a time. At dusk, when the rabbits and birds have gone and old brock appears. Half an hour before sunset, I see him come, my first badger, nosing along the path from the enchanted glade as though it gave birth to him. He is unexpectedly soft in appearance – I know that he has sharp teeth and big claws, but he has the air of a soft toy. He ambles, there is no other word for it. Picks up a piece of food and stumbles into the bushes to eat it. Soon, I’ll see the bush move and that familiar monochrome triangle of a head will appear, checking the coast is clear, then he ambles out for another piece. The same thing is repeated a dozen times. Then he scrapes in the dirt for worms, leaving untidy clods of soil. He knows I am here. Has looked up at me and sniffed. But he wants a closer look. He walks to the deck and stands on hind paws, lifting his head to sniff again through the fence. Every night, a badger appears, sometimes two. On my last night there is a family with a cub.


Away from the forest, the sunlight is harsh, without trees to shield me from the sun’s glare.  The heat is close and fierce.  It is easier here to recognise that it is summer after all, with weeks left of sunlight before the descent into winter.  I have never enjoyed the heat.  When it gets too much, I will find a shady spot and recall the enchanted shade of the woods and the creatures who visited me there.


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.



I wake just before midnight and peep through a crack in the blind to find the night-world altered by snow.  We have been expecting a ‘beast from the east’ but this is too tame, too silent to suggest that ferocity will follow.  I watch a confetti of snow flutter and twirl gently beneath the glow of the street lights.  Snow contains a world of silence within it.  I know that come morning, it will have muffled the sounds of the landscape, but for now, there is something magical about the quiet of its falling.

Snow covers but it also reveals.  Reflecting the promise of dawn, the park in the early hours is much lighter than it should be and I wonder how a sky still dark can appear light.  Snow reveals where we have been.   There are tracks in the park, tracks of a dog and her human companion.  I know who they belong to and the snow shows me that they have been here before us.  The snow reveals the visits of those we might not normally see.  Another snow-clad morning in another place, there is only one set of human footprints visible, but the rabbits have been busy and the snow allows me to follow their path.

On the beast’s first morning, the sunrise slants across the square, stretching the tree shadows and gilding the white.  Poking through the snow, crocuses are a brave yellow stream and purple puddles.  But it isn’t long before the beast reveals its teeth.  Snow reveals but it also covers.  The blizzards sweep in and obscure the landscape in a whorl of ivory.  The fog horn is humming in the distance, a ship slowly honks its horn as it moves out of the river.  Drifts of powder billow from the roof tops.  I don’t recall the last time I saw an icicle here, but scores of them drip from scaffolding in the street.

The beast doesn’t stop.  Sometimes gentle and wispy, sometimes heavy like ticker tape.  It continues until the landscape is marshmallow.  The brave crocuses are now buried, the daffodil shoots wilting.  I see a dead house spider in the snow and I wonder how it got there.  The whine of the wind is often a lonely sound but it seems even more so as it hums across the snow-covered void.  It howls and moans like a cartoon ghost, scattering the park with limbs of trees.  A platinum flash of lightning and a crack of thunder – just one.  I’m on the phone to someone 3 miles away and we both see and hear it at the same time.  According to meteorologists it is now the first day of spring, but the beast doesn’t care about that.

Snow covers.  For a while it cloaks the world in fleecy beauty.  It empties the streets and deadens harsh sounds.  The ugliest sights are given a pleasing blanket of diamonds.  It clothes the bones of trees and the mud-soaked ground.

Snow makes us children again.  My dog bounds like a puppy.  Snowmen appear on every corner.  Families appear with sledges.  A group of young people play snowballs.  This is an unusual snowfall and there is a sense of lightness, of happiness, that it has changed the world for a while.

I don’t want to let go of the snow.  I walk down to the dene on the last day that it covers the ground.  Dogwood reds and golden reeds are vivid against the pale landscape.  The ponds are frozen in milky patches and fractured reflections.  I take seed for the ducks and gulls stranded on the ice.  There is sadness in the slow melt, as the soft white becomes hard and translucent at the edges and the snow becomes grey slush.  Rain will come tonight and wash away every last trace.  I don’t want to let go and yet at the same time I long now for lighter mornings and kinder weather.  I’m glad that the beast visited but happy to bid her a fond farewell.

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