A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
And in short shrift I reached the third bridge. This is another oddity, a leftover from the railway years. It spans the path but that’s all. Rising from the field on the left, it descends to the verge on the right, where the field it would have led to is now a road. Unused, the bridge has developed its own micro-environment. What was once a concrete roadbed is now a carpet of mosses and grass, home to a colony of rare orchids. They’re there now, above my head, all energy reduced to the confines of a bulb, waiting until spring, and the ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ as Dylan Thomas so succinctly put it. It is also very useful perch for the tawny owls that hunt along the railway path.
This bridge felt like an exit, as when I passed under it, the sky widened out as the banks of the cut fell away either side and left me suddenly walking on top of a causeway. I was no longer hemmed in, and the character of the night was altered. To the left over the fields, and neatly silhouetted against the stars, I could make out King’s Castle, the Iron Age hillfort and early nucleus of the town. To my right, five miles or more distant, streetlights shimmered on the flanks of Glastonbury Tor.
There was an ash and birch plantation ahead, a strip of woodland along the verge between the old track and the road. Under it runs the river Sheppey, which I’ll cross again before long. The water flowing some way below me emphasised the fact that I was on artificial high ground. In amongst the slender trunks of the young trees, a light flickered. It was indirect, filtered through orange tent canvas. As I passed, I heard the unmistakable tink-tink of a metal spoon against an enamel cup. I found the familiarity of the sound oddly comforting, until I thought of the poor blighter inside the tent – too cold to sleep, or brew the first cup of tea outside. Not much comfort there.
The path forked a little further along. I took the right hand path that flowed away from the causeway here, descending alongside the bank. In the autumn months sloes, blackberries and elderberries grow in tangled profusion in the contrived ravine on my left. At the far end of this otherwise featureless stretch was a low, roofless stone walled building – a local archaeology group were renovating a stock pound. It was built in the eighteen hundreds when the railway company originally ran a track through here, as part compensation to the village for the disturbance. They planted a pair of Lombardy poplars to make the pound more visible from a distance – these tall, rapid growing trees are still here, rearing up into the night either side of the path, having fared better than the pound itself.
Stock pounds were once a common feature in rural areas, strong buildings in which stray livestock could be kept until their owners could reclaim them. I was gratified to learn that the word ‘pound’ describes an enclosed space, as the word ‘pond’ describes an enclosed body of water, the two words describing a wet or dry version of the same enclosure. This particular pound is often flooded, and hovers somewhere between the two definitions.
Tonight, visible in the now returned moonlight, it corralled a pair of office chairs, placed at slight angles to each other, as if an interview was due to take place later on. Or indeed had already been conducted.
Just beyond the structure another narrow, talkative stream ran. It had carved out a diminutive but deep cut of its own, so I didn’t hear it until I was almost on it. I paused for a while. The ringing gossip it produced was generated by the formation of the stream bed, the various submerged stones creating eddies and micro-falls. The shapes of these were reproduced on the surface, where the silver moonlight traced the contours of the displaced liquid. I imagined voices, whispering, just on the other side of comprehension. I know it was just my brain attempting to make sense of the input, and teasing half formed possibilities from the white noise, just as when we have our eyes closed the visual cortex will try and mould an absence of input into familiar configurations, and startle us with faces as we’re falling asleep. I knew this. And though the voices refused to resolve into a decipherable signal, I grew uneasy with the slight possibility that I may begin to understand them, and moved on.
The path terminated at a road here, with a choice of bridges. Go right, and I would echo my way through the concrete underpass that lead to Launcherly Hill, Glastonbury Tor, and the Somerset Levels, but that’s a walk for a different night. Or possibly day. I headed left, under the Victorian black brick bridge, to emerge in the tiny hamlet of Dulcote, and the first streetlights I’d seen since leaving Wells. Even then, they’re hardly prolific, and the orange vapour glow they cast gave the scene a peculiar air, transforming the single road and houses into something resembling a deserted film set.