Three nights of rain and the woods are sodden again, standing water where the seeps debouch on to the old railway line. Dogs mud to the armpits, tracks under an inch of limestone slime. Jogging uphill becomes this duckfoot struggle, then cautious slithering and windmill arms on the other side, the green lane a foetid downhill slot where it isn’t polished stone like ice. I thought we were past all that. I thought the year had got going. I feel betrayed. I feel heavy. I thought the problem from now on would be drought, and metatarsalgia from the hardpack. That’s what I was looking forward to. That was to be the nature of my complaint. I expected at least to dance along between the trees. Saturday in the Burbage valley we met a runner with two very small terriers like chopped and dropped poodles with pushed-in hairy faces. They were truncated. They looked like handbag dogs–in some lights they looked like mops–but by god they could keep up with him as he ran between the boulders. They were up for it in every way, boiling into and out of the loud tea-coloured streams, giving the impression that they were an entire pack of dogs. Size was not an issue with them. That’s what I’d like. Be thirty years younger, maybe six inches taller, power round the Burbage skyline every other day with a pack of nameless, grinning little dogs and a wide grin on my face too. Instead, I struggle in the muddy woods like a clownish re-enactment of The Road Not Taken.
People with a European 4×4. People with an Asian 4×4. People with scarves. People who think they have a sense of direction. People wearing a complete outfit of rural fashion clothing– including identical oiled cotton jackets and hats– and carrying a peculiarly long kind of walking stick, who ask you if you’ve “been through the cattle” as if it’s a crime, or a rite, or the adventure of a lifetime. People with a “working dog” they can’t control. People who are telling each other as you pass, “Of course it’s still very Catholic round here.” People who, in the coming days, will have a wall knocked down in their Richmond home and find a great hoard of household rubbish–broken beds, cheap soiled mattresses, used unpaired shoes stuffed into plastic bags–which has been bricked in by a former owner, and for whom there will be no psychic upshot or metaphysical learning curve, only the end of the story. Or so you expect.
Down to the Iron Bridge. Upstream along the abandoned railway to the power station. Three hundred feet up from there via the first set of wooden steps to the top of Benthall Edge. Over a fence and into Patten’s Rock quarry; out of the quarry and into the woods. Down steep slopes between fallen trees, abandoned lime pits and rotted-looking streams. The light on the moss here is beyond being described as “radioactive”, “fluorescent” or any of those kinds of words. You can’t think of a thing to say except that another world is inside things or implied by things; and you’ve said that before, so many times, and you can never take yourself at your word. One of the pits features a twenty or thirty foot waterfall, less picturesque than it sounds. A further steep diagonal descent across the scarp–black mud under dead leaves, sphagnum moss and hartstongue fern–leads back to the railway line; immediately climb the shorter set of wooden steps up to Workhouse Coppice. Emerge on Spout Lane. Back to the town via Quarry Road. In a garden on Bridge Road I saw a thrush with a beak full of nesting materials. My knee’s a bit sore and I think life owes me a sausage roll.
I thought I might describe every single step of this staircase, every crack, flaw and grain in the oak as if it were a landscape. But if I can’t describe what’s outside the window–the way the winter sunshine falls on houses half a mile away while the High Street lies in shadow–how can I attempt something that much more complex? Close up, as far as language is concerned, the stairs exist off the edge of resolution. I continue to be an observer who was never much good at observation, stuck with a means of communication which can’t carry enough information. No wonder there’s this constant retreat to metaphor. The attempt to push through into something else is always a failed attempt to be in the real.
Woods at the beginning of winter. Cold air. The residue of sunset visible between trees. Lights on in the power station, early night in the medieval quarries. Time in arcs like that, invisible layers of time along the side of the hill, time lacing the branches together, in among the leafmould like a hard frost. Three grey lurchers! Running down the muddy hill! Holly. Your own breath. The sense that you still function. The sense of an ending and of someone keeping pace with you not far off.