The first day of the New Year. The land white like a clean sheet of paper. A heavy overnight frost had transformed my corner of England into Narnia. My friend, fellow writer and all round good egg, Anthony Nanson, was staying over – we went to a New Year’s Eve party together at Mairead’s the night before, watched fireworks exploded over the city while toasting in the new year with champagne (later we had both shared bardic efforts, along with Marko Gallaidhe). After a hearty hobbity breakfast we headed for the hills – ‘into the wild’ as Strider would say, or into the Mendips at least, which usually seem tame, but today felt like more like Dartmoor: slightly edgy. A wildernessed zone of white death.
We put on our boots, drank some edifying coffee from our flasks and set off – following a bridleway up to our first destination, the 375, of Beacon Hill. The hawfrost was half an inch thick on the branches and evergreen foliage. Nature’s attention to detail was, once again, astonishing. No film set could mimic this so completely. Coleridge called it ‘the secret ministry of frost’, and I mentioned the pleasing notion that we may be walking in the Romantic poet’s footsteps – as he and Southey (who became Poet Laureate) used to walk across the Mendips. Here they hatched their plans for a pantisocracy – a utopian society based upon the idea that two hours work a day is all man needs to survive, the rest of his day spent in creative or leisure pursuts, the ultimate idler’s paradise. Anthony and I are no slackers – indeed we are both close to certified workaholics (when it comes to our writing), but the idea of a lifestyle where our own creative endeavours took precedence over the treadmill of existence sounds tantalising. We both endure the grind of marking – it’s somewhat heartening to discover that Tolkien did to. My mind was saturated with Tolkienian arcana, having just finished my radio drama, The Rabbit Room. To anyone else, my harping on would have been a bore, but Anthony shares my enthusiasm, and indeed our whole walk had an Inklings-ish feel to it, as we discussed matters literary, philosophical and spiritual as we traversed the bewintered landscape.
From the trig point, where we were surprised to discover a cluster of other hard-core walkers, who’d had similar notions of New Years Day walks – we made our way down into the forest of Rowberrow – which had its own micro-climate, lacking the frost and being noticeably milder. We then ascended to Dolebury Warren – using a convenient break in the stone wall, like the gap in the border between this world and Faerie in Stardust. No threshold guardian appeared, although barbed wire halted our progress when, breathless, we got to the brow. Instead, we followed the ridge along to a proper gate and stopped for a chilly lunch on the lee of the hillfort; some honeydew mushrooms our ‘hearth’, cheering us with their bright orange colour in the bleak landscape. I found the wintry vista sublimely beautiful and for a while we just stood and stared at the muted tones, fading into visual oblivion. I observed how ‘grey’ can have so many nuances. All the vibrant shades of the natural world were softened by the pervading whiteness. Soothingly gentle after the often garish nonsense of Christmas and New Year – a true stillpoint. Blissful stasis. The wheel, it seemed, had mercifully stopped. Fellow Firesprings David Metcalfe described it as ‘a day outside time’ – having driven over the Mendips to Wells that day. It did us both good, Anthony and I, to have a day off – having both worked over Yuletide, either on teaching obligations or our own projects. It was salubrious to be forced to focus on the physical, on simple needs – food, warmth, shelter. This was hardly a survival situation, although it easily could have become so – if one of us had slipped and broken something. But we were both suitably equipped for such predicaments, although it fortunately didn’t come to that. It was only a hike in the hills – and plenty of other people were around: mountain-bikers, motor-trikers, families… It was hardly Antarctica! What I loved was the way the frozen landscape had its own acoustic: the brittle crunch of ice beneath one’s boot, the satisfying crack of an ice-pane in a puddle, the scittering of ice-shards, the dull thud of our progress on the iron hard ground. Our words were distinct as cold pebbles, forced from blood-sluggish mouths. The frost-world muted sound as well as colour, but at the same time made them stand out even more. At one point we followed a path of ruddy soil, strangely exposed and unfrozen, flanked by endless white heathland – like a trail of blood in the snow. It could have been a scene from Fargo. Yet this was a Mendips Nifleheim and our conversation was ‘the director’s commentary’ of a different DVD. Two writers in search of a pen in a world of endless paper – the land a tabula rasa of our imaginations and ambitions. Swinging back east towards our starting point as the brief hours of daylight began to wane, we passed the magical dell of Rod’s Pot – where Old Man Willow himself seemed to guard a stream-crossing, his mighty limbs covered in moss – and further on, Goat-church Cavern, hidden amongst the downy folds of the hills. We arrived back at the car after a good three and a half hour yomp. Gratefully back inside its artificial warm cocoon we drove through Burrington Combe, passed Aveline’s Hole and the Rock of Ages, which inspired the famous hymn after a passing Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady took shelter there in 1763. Nature had similarly provided our sanctuary that day.
“Rock of Ages”
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.