Country diary: a walk before dawn on a moonless path

Sandy, Bedfordshire: My feet swish through leaves and I’m conscious of many missteps, slight stumbles over roots and slides into dips

In dark December, so many walks traverse the fold between night and day. A yearning for unpeopled landscapes sends me out before dawn, past houses of spent Christmas with winking fairy strings and tinselled porches, down to the water’s edge.

Sometimes, I encounter moving lights, the bob-bob nod of a jogger’s head torch, or the zigzagging coloured collar of a dog that sees with its nose. But I always go unlit, with only my stretched senses and imagination for company.

The moonless path shields a frail man who walks with the aid of a stick. I cannot see him, but know that “scuff, scuff” and step back into the willows to give him space. The river is all sheen and shine, drinking illumination from the mustard sky, drawing trees and bushes in its mirror. A sound like a gushing tap comes from beyond the pike pool.

When the traffic wakes, the running weir will be drowned; I never hear it by day. A walker is never so aware of their feet as when they can barely see them. I am conscious of every strike of my heel, every roll of a sole, and the splish of rubber in puddles.

Alongside the old Roman road, the grazers stand to attention: on one side, the vaguely discernible outline of a big-footed horse, on the other, three white goats, their beards bunching closer at my appearance. A cock crows; a scritch of owl answers; the eastern horizon ahead is fired up with a red ribbon of cloud.

I slip into woods where twilight lingers and wind up a path between trunks that appear before me like slalom posts. No birds sing, save a drawling crow. The clock of the big house on the hilltop tolls seven. My feet swish through leaves and I’m conscious of making many missteps, slight stumbles over roots and slides into dips. It is my turn to scuff.

When I break out on to the heath, a thud of bolting hoof and a flap of white tail into the broom tell me I have startled a deer. Clear sight comes with blue daybreak, and my step quickens with the exhilaration of returning to a diurnal world of old familiars.


Derek Niemann

The GuardianTramp

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