I decided I would head out to the pub for a couple of pints last night. Being as I was at my mother's for the weekend, this meant a walk up a quiet but well-lit road, and I found myself posed with what could be described as a Scooby Doo scenario in reverse: Do I go the shortest route, up the road? Or do I go the long route away from the road and down the various lanes and paths?
I opted for the latter, and taking a quick turn onto the path just before the bridge, dissolved into the inky blackness (well I don't know about that last bit but I've always wanted to find an excuse to use those words).
I've written about these lanes and paths already, and find myself very much drawn to them whenever I'm back that way. To me personally, it feels like one of the last unspoilt spaces for my mind to occupy, and each visit feels like some kind of nourishment.
Such was the case last night.
The first stretch of the path is more like a tunnel, with trees either side stretching up high, intertwined and enmeshed above. Look to the left and there are fields and hedges, and distant lights, all seen intermittently through the natural barrier formed by the trees. To the right, a slope upwards - again policed by trees - to an A-road dual carriageway. Rather than serving to spoil these rural pockets, for me it enhances them: a constant, soothing background noise, the sense of people travelling to and from somewhere distant and exciting. As I advance steadily, the headlights of cars manage to bleed diffusely over towards the path and create a flickering, subtle, ghostly lightshow.
The effect at this time of night is most certainly eerie. Just to provide some context, here is the path in the light of an early midsummer evening:
Tonight, there is no such light, and I'm disconcerted by the fact that my eyesight isn't adjusting to the darkness at all, at certain points I feel like I might as well be walking with dark glasses on and a thick blanket draped over my head.
But it's quiet, apart from that background hum, to and from somewhere distant and exciting.
I feel a pulse of adrenaline - the old primal fears. What if someone's waiting behind a tree? I tell myself wryly that no one (else) would be mad enough to be wandering down here at this time of night.
I pause at a point where there is a gap in the trees above, and my eyes adjust a little. Up there, somewhere up on the slope, is where RM and I had sex. I smile at the thought and carry on. Over here is a little enclave where I used to sit with my sketchbook and notepads, feverishly scribbling or drawing, and drinking cans of Guinness. Everything here, even in the dark, feels layered: immediate barriers formed by fences, trees and hedges, providing a glimpse of a tantalising middle distance: so close but rendered somehow inaccessible.
The lights in the far distance seem impossibly romantic, and in my early youth I would imagine that they were like America. Even this path itself seemed somewhere different and exotic: there was enough space around it, and in my mind, to let that be the case.
I'm at the end of this first part , and I turn left onto the open stretch which forms one of my earliest memories. It's too dark for that to carry much resonance tonight though, and is more reminiscent of the times I've sat motionless and silent against one of the fence posts, watching foxes to-ing and fro-ing just a few yards away in the field. Or just being here and thinking, and being myself, by myself.
The hum of the road and the interplay of the lights. Everything in silhouette. The sky a muddy colour above where the streetlights are concentrated. Not right above where I am though, that's more of a Prussian blue, deep and endless. The occasional dark cloud tinged with russet.
I pause a while, and drink that beautiful background noise in. I used to come out here with sketchbooks and paint at this time of night, after the pub. I had to work out a system of how to use colours that I couldn't even see. Inadvertently scared the shit out of some unsuspecting bloke who happened to be taking his dog for a late evening walk.
Through the middle of this field, down to a strangely ornate gate in the hedge, and onto another
more definite path. Thick hedges on either side provide further clear delineations between near and middle distance, punctuated by the occasional tree, which positively looms. I can't help but think of the sheer weirdness of the countryside, these little pockets of space, this silence, the enveloping darkness, how much potential there is to project so many fears, fantasies and superstitions onto the surroundings, amplified by occasional unexplainable sounds.
I wonder if it's my imagination, the occasional movement in the periphery of my vision. One dark shape against another.
On I walk, past an intersection between three fields. There used to be an old, rusting piece of farming equipment here. I'd come out here at a similar time of night a few years ago and recorded the sound of it being repeatedly kicked and pushed and scraped, for a sound piece I was working on at the time. Once I was satisfied with the results I turned round to see the silhouette of a horse, presumably regarding me rather quizzically.
The path slopes upwards now, and again becomes more like a tunnel. I stumble towards the murky patch of light (well - not light, but less dark than the rest) I can see at the end of it. The sheer, enfolding darkness raises the pulse again, but I don't allow it to quicken my pace. I know this place better than I know anywhere, after all - and soon I'll be out in the open again. Over a stile, and out into an open field which will soon slope sharply downwards again.
It was here, at the top, in the open, that me and SB used to sit with cans of super-strength beer. We'd wax philosophical: the place lent itself to such musings as the nature of space and of infinity - here at the top of this hill, there was a sense of everything being below us except for the sky and the stars. There would always reach a point in our conversation where I would try and convince him that the fabric of space and time was curved, and he wouldn't be having any of it. As we continued to drink, the discussion would soon descend to cheap personal insults, then he would usually throw up and I'd feel superior even if I was more drunk than he.
This was half a life ago, and it makes me smile.
I start walking gingerly down the slope. Not because the path is precarious, but because I do not like the bit at the bottom of the slope one little bit. There's something about it. The darkness renders it indistinct - a dark mass of trees - but down there somewhere is a tiny footbridge over a brook. I reason to myself how silly it is that I can walk as far as this, through all this darkness, without any problem - that I can dismiss unreasonable thoughts, fears and superstitions as fantastic nonsense. For some reason, it's not as easy at this point to cast such things from my mind.
It's colder down there, I know it. Of course it is, because there's a brook, but it's not that kind of coldness I'm talking about. The darkness and the silhouettes on the rest of this walk feel quite diffuse and fuzzy, but down here it feels more like sharp spikes. Tales about the place abound - some feasible, some not.
I keep my pace steady.
I remember someone telling me that a marching band had been seen down here - he'd been walking nearby and heard music, and here was this phantom band marching right through (as in, right through) the trees. Bullshit, of course, and I remember wondering whether this guy had seen far too many reruns of Sapphire and Steel for his own good. Nonetheless, I stupidly find myself listening out for old marching music, and filling my mind with all sorts of ghostly images which serve to make me feel as nervous as I feel silly.
It's more overgrown than last time I was here, and I can't immediately see the way through to the bridge. I'm starting to flap a little, until I see a way through from one side. The adrenaline is really flowing and I'm feeling like a scared child.
Over the footbridge. Quick. And, despite myself, I run up the slope on the other side, relieved to get out of this particular trough. I curse myself for allowing such silliness to unsettle me, not to be able to dismiss it so easily.
This last field slopes upwards sharply and then opens out, a lone tree in the middle, still some distance away. The first time I walked up here on my own at night, I was relieved to have gotten over the bridge (in case of what, exactly?), only for my heart to nearly stop when I looked up the slope: it had been a foggy evening, and the lights from the farmhouse beyond the field had served to bathe it in a quite unearthly light. Up on a brow at the top of the slope were the silhouettes of six horses, standing in a row staring at me, their shadows slicing through the fog and into the distance like dark beams. It was quite a sight.
Tonight no such spectacle awaits but the two or three horses nearby come up very close to me, nudging against me almost aggressively. This unnerves me but I pat them and continue, relieved when they realise I have no food for them and plod off in another direction.
Upwards I go, the slope more gentle now. The hedgerows taper in and converge at another stile at the far end. I'm almost there. This final part is the darkest in a literal sense - a tiny path, completely enclosed overhead - but it doesn't perturb me, certainly not in the way that the bridge at the bottom of the field does. I clamber over and feel beer cans underfoot. It's impossibly dark, and I'm almost stumbling, but a short while later I'm out into the open, and on the road.
It's just a couple of minutes to the pub from here, and my pint feels well deserved.