“Since the pandemic I have been walking in the same places year-round and it’s brought the truth home to me.”
— Tamsin Grainger on Caught By The River
After what seemed like endless rain showers in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay as we call it here, there is a bright blue-sky day. The first one of 2023.
We lace our boots, still crusty with mud from the last outing, and go up the small hill near our home.
The soft afternoon light of midwinter. Frost still in the shadows. Busy birds. As we walk, my partner says, this hill was our solace in those dark months. He often forgets this — particularly on days when the sky is grey or there’s thick mud underfoot — but not today. It’s too perfect.
I never forget. This hill has etched something on my heart now, after so long living quietly, and I will always be in its debt.
Back in the winter of 2021, I counted how many times we’d been up this small hill since the first lockdown. Nearly one hundred. You may think at this point that it’d be boring, that there would be nothing new to notice, but if so our opinions of the outdoors must be very different. I believe nature always has something to whisper into your ears or show to your marvelling eyes or leave rooted in your broken heart.
To bring in the new year we follow another path. A list of things we see: the skeletons of rotting farm buildings and a tree-swallowed cottage. The old sandstone quarry from the other side. Forgotten stone walls, fences, rope swings, ruins. Quite a lot of plastic rubbish. Then into the golden meadow, grasses catching the light, before the steep drag to the scalp of the summit. It’s empty, quiet, cold. The Forth ribbons in the wind below us.
In the spring months, before the cows return to the fields, we often walk here after work. But with the darkness of autumn and winter our visits are less frequent, tending to happen only on holidays or weekends, when we save up our worries to hurl them into the wind.
I think there’s something about doing a well-known walk that unroots your problems. Perhaps the familiarity of a repeated trail means you’re not looking at the superficial, new-to-you scenery, but rather you notice the detail and the depth of things, both outside and inside of yourself.
So for a moment on the hilltop I let them in. A pattern of harsh winters. The pain of festivity. People I love being unwell. Worrying about what this unkind world might serve up next. The weight of society’s moulds for marriage, children, mortgages, promotions, particularly as a woman. Feeling lonely. Feeling confused.
I may not have the same lightness that I used to when I was younger about resolutions, new beginnings, dreams — but I can be grateful for the tiny things. For being able to write. For video calls. For a view of leaves from my window. For relationships, however complicated or simple. For kestrels and deer and bullfinches. For the microcosm of history, nature, and life all captured on the slopes of that small hill I love.
As the sun ebbs, we take an rough trail in the meadow to its higher eastern edge. Again it’s not the route we usually go, but we’re breaking our routine today. Beech kernels crack under our boots as we approach an outcrop of boulders that does not appear on any old maps I have saved on my laptop. Although we’ve been here a few times, it always takes me a moment to find the shapes on the rock. The scheduled monument sign is lazily tied to a nearby tree.
We look down on the prehistoric cup and ring marks. The sun is low and everything is golden. It feels, for a breath, as if we could touch the centre of the circles and be taken elsewhere, to another age, where all our worries fade into history. Isn’t 2023 just a number, an idea, a moment in time?
Side by side, we are just matter.
Don’t touch the stone without me.
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