A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
An after-dark wander in the company of lost deserts, nocturnal hunters and spectral ammonites.
One cold December night not so long ago, I was woken by an extraordinary sound. It was a sound quite unlike any I had heard before, and as it faded while I was trying to place it, I began to assume it was a hypnogogic hallucination. If you’ve not heard the term before, you’ve almost certainly experienced what it describes. Sometimes, as you’re just dropping off, or indeed emerging from sleep, a sound or vision will suddenly wake you. Visually the most common of these is when you step from a pavement or down some stairs, with the accompanying falling sensation jerking you from sleep. The auditory equivalent may be a slammed door, a dropped book, or most disturbingly, an unexpected voice in the darkness, particularly when you know you are alone.
And then it came again. This sound though, was not sharp or sudden, but something alien, unearthly; a quavering, fluting call that rose through the night air and through my open bedroom window. It seemed to be emanating from the graveyard of St. Cuthbert’s church, a couple of streets away, and though I was sure the call wasn’t designed to attract me, it was certainly having that effect, and I felt compelled to go and have a look. I got up, the floorboards cold on my feet, and pulled on yesterday’s clothes before descending the stairs, fishing out a torch, and letting myself quietly out of the front door. The weather had cleared since I turned in, and the temperature had plummeted over the past few hours, freezing the surface of the pond in the front garden. The moon was full and high, its light glinting from the uneven contours of the ice. After having endured seemingly unceasing rain for the better part of a week, the cloudless sky was a welcome sight.
I turned left at the garden gate and made my way towards Frog Lane, any vestiges of bedwarm bleariness dissipating quickly on contact with the chilled air. Because I’d not brought gloves, I had my hands jammed firmly in my jacket pockets against the cold. This meant that when my brand new boots met the surface of a puddle turned to solid ice, I was forced to embark on an impromptu and frantic balancing act, combining elements of traditional Irish dance, and pro level figure skating. Or so I like to think. I recovered my balance almost as suddenly as I’d lost it, and although this test of nerve and skill had been unwelcome, it had at least served to get the blood pumping and prime my wits.
Now past the pub – now a low, attractive pink and pantiled building, but serving in former centuries as the city gaol. The courtyard was once used as storage for a gallows and the various implements of torture designed to make the inmate’s stay as unpleasant, and sometimes short, as possible. All it held now were those hard to get into benches, impaled by umbrellas advertising lager. I turned left, then left again, the tower of the church now directly ahead, and the fluting call still emanating from somewhere close to it. The stonework of the tower glowed amber in the streetlight. It’s Doulting stone, from a quarry on the Mendip hills. It’s formed of sand and crushed sea-shells, laid down in the Jurassic period a hundred and fifty million and more years ago, when the hills were islands, rising from warm shallow seas, and fringed with tropical beaches.
The colour of the stone seems to change with the weather – on clear sunsets it shows almost purple, and when raining it appears lifeless and dark, but in the height of a summer morning it seems to radiate a genial golden light of its own, as if releasing rays absorbed from those long gone summers.
Tonight though, the darkness of the graveyard beyond drank the street light to nothing, and the full moon made little impact, this close to the centre of town. I peered in, as if that was going to make a difference, before steeling myself to enter through the gate. I moved quietly past the base of the church tower and continued into the graveyard. I could see very little, but knew that as long as I had the tarmac path under my feet, there was almost no risk of coming a cropper. The source of the sound was difficult to locate exactly, but seemed to be coming from a line of dark, squat lime trees, their thick arm-like branches raised in surrender to decades of pollarding.
Someone else was awake quite nearby, as I could smell woodsmoke. It smelt like cedar – an odd choice for firewood. Perhaps some artist or nocturnal scribbler in the alms houses a few dozen yards away had just put their pencil shavings on the fire.
I moved in closer, trying to stay as silent as possible, and attempted to home in on the sound, gradually reducing the possibilities to a single tree. Standing in front of it, I listened as the creature continued to call. Without warning, a shriek pierced the night behind me, so loud and so close I simultaneously froze and spasmed in a useless response that resembled neither fight or flight. I managed to refrain from expletives, at least audibly, as this call was familiar enough. It was the contact call of the female tawny owl. She called again, and I was able to discern a slight pale patch in the looming mass of a nearby yew tree.
I picked her out with the beam of my torch. She didn’t seem to object to the illumination, and actually called again while under scrutiny, but I clicked it off anyway, not wanting to disturb her too much. The other, alien call continued, and after a little while I got the distinct feeling that I’d stumbled on a private affair. Unwilling to interfere in owl business, I decided to take my leave and look into the subject of night bird calls when I got home. Then a further shock; a sequence of four rising and lowering ear-splitting chimes rang out from the bells in the tower, followed by two deep tolls. With nerves jangling, and thoughts of returning to sleep evaporating, I decided to follow the moon to the edge of town and then see where it took me. . .