A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
Once over the river, the road began to ascend, climbing more sharply than I at first suspected. Thomas would have probably got off his bike and pushed along here – he made no claims to have ridden all the way. In his words he made the journey, ‘on or with a bicycle’. As I left the avenue behind, a silent white form materialised from the darkness of the fields to the right, and drifted silently above the road ahead, to dematerialise into the darkness of the fields to the left. It was Tyto alba, or the barn owl. Like the tawny, it hunts using its exceptional hearing. The lead feathers of its wings are specialised, their form creating an almost silent flight which is useful for two reasons – the first is that prey animals won’t hear it coming, and the second is that the owl will be able to hear its prey. It’s a pleasure to see, albeit briefly; due to loss of habitat they’re not as common as they once were.
I also head across the fields; a cluster of trees sheltered the gate that opened onto the path that Thomas said ‘travels straight through the green meadows to Wells.’
And it does too, at least in daylight. At night the fields aren’t green but glittering silver-black, a combination of frost and undiluted moonlight. I’d changed direction and was now travelling west-ish, with the moon riding high to my left, in the south-ish, and beaming down unimpeded. Until now there had always been something between us – winter branches, railway cuttings, street lights, and then she was behind me as I walked along the road. Now all that lay between us was the atmosphere of our planet, and 240,000 miles of vacuum.
There was something of a breeze here, which numbed my ears and nose, and made my eyes water. On the horizon was an enormous billow of cloud, sitting there below the stars like a frozen wave. And below it, at the terminus of the straight pale path over the meadows, I could see the truncated towers of Wells cathedral, and the single tower of St. Cuthbert’s, hovering above the washed out glow of the obscured street lights. Off to my left, about a quarter of a mile over the open fields, was the looming mass of the woods, bisected by the line of trees which demarcated the railway path we walked along. The sensation of terror I experienced there seemed quite distant now that there was a clear path to civilisation ahead. Laughable almost, though I didn’t laugh. I may have been out of the woods, but I wasn’t yet home.
At that moment, the city bells sent another sequence of rising and lowering chimes, followed by three deep tolls towards me, as if to emphasise this realisation. Well, not towards me as such, and not exactly at that moment. The bell towers were around a half a mile away, and seeing as sound travels at roughly 767 miles per hour, they had actually rung two and a half seconds before I’d heard them. And what I meant by not exactly towards me is that the percussion waves would be dome shaped, and racing up towards the stars and out into the surrounding countryside in a wide circle, diminishing in strength as the atmosphere, hills, trees and grasses absorbed their energy. I’m not sure they’d reach even Glastonbury, around five miles away. Though the sound of that town’s bells would also be racing out across the levels and fields – perhaps they meet and cancel each other out halfway between the two ancient settlements.
Out here in the fields, the beaming white of the near-full moon felt like a spotlight, and I was reminded that it was the moon that had prompted this nocturnal amble. I took a moment to look at its surface, wiping my eyes until the tears no longer blurred my vision. While in the West we have a man in the moon, of which I am yet to be convinced, in China and other Asian countries, they have a hare or rabbit. This figure is easier to apprehend if you know where to look, and but once found, is impossible to un-see.
I once calculated that at average human walking speed, it would take me approximately nine years and four months to walk to the moon. The word ‘moon’ comes from the Old English ‘monath’, which is also where we get the word month. Early astronomers thought of it as an oceanic place, assuming the darker patches on its surface to be bodies of water, rather than vast, basalt planes they are. The largest of these had all been named as seas, with smaller features being identified as lakes, marshes, lagoons and bays, and being named accordingly.
There’s Mare Imbrium, or the Sea of Rain for instance, and Mare Humorum, or the Sea of Moisture. There’s also the Sea of Clouds, and the Sea of Vapours, after which follow mental states such as The Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Tranquillity, and the Sea of Crises. My favourite is the Mare Cognitum, or the Sea That has Become Known.
From those oceans of basalt rise the bright atols of impact craters. They aren’t confined to the plains however – the most eye catching, Tycho, dominates the southern highlands, radiating lines of brightness for hundreds of miles, the ejecta and debris lying where it fell a hundred million years ago, with no atmosphere to disturb it. This feature was named after the astronomer Tycho Brahe, but I prefer Pierre Gassendi’s Umbilicus Lunaris – or the Navel of the Moon.
And there is a provable, gravitational umbilical between the moon and the earth. In addition to oceanic tides, there’s such a thing as earth tides. The earth’s crust is more elastic than one might imagine, and quite responsive to lunar influences; during a normal tide the ground directly beneath the moon is raised by around seven inches, and during a New or Full moon, that number can double. This can’t be detected without instruments of course, as the effect is spread out over a large portion of the globe.
The opposite is true when the moon is on the other side of the planet from us – it will dip by a corresponding degree. Elevation and depression, every twelve hours, with extremes every fourteen days. It is this action that ensures rocks always rise to the surface of a ploughed field, like hazelnuts to the top of a bag of muesli.
Wind off the levels turned the frosted grass and numbed my ears further. There’s often wind here, while it’s calm elsewhere. There’s no high ground between here and the Atlantic ocean, and my vision blurs again as I hunch up, grateful for reaching the end of the long straight path, which terminated in a gate watched over by the lively trunk of a crack willow, an ancient looking creature which seems to have been lightning shattered more than once. The gate shrieked on its hinges as I passed through it, loudly enough to have woken the dead, surely. Here I crossed the Keward Brook again, rising in volume, both in sound and flow, before I emerged onto the corner of the Bishop’s Palace moat. The boundary between city and country here is ribbon thin.
The water that fills the moat is from the springs trapped behind the tall curtain walls surrounding the island of the Palace, and in summer the population of three-spined sticklebacks peaks tremendously in response to tourists throwing bread in for the swans. The resident kingfishers also benefit from this influx of nutrients, and can be regularly seen hunched in the overhanging willow branches, or on the wing as blue and ruddy flashes, stray pixels. Daubenton’s bats replace them in the evenings and nights, skimming the surface tension for insects. They’re now retired for the winter, roosting in the squat towers of the Palace gatehouse. Nothing stirred that night, but for a fine cold mist rising from the water, illuminated by a spotlight at the far end.
Thomas remarked on the rookery in the elm tops along this stretch, but the elms are gone, replaced by sturdy sycamores. The rooks, however, remain in good numbers a little further down Silver Street, in the tall ashes close to the Medieval tithe barn. I was tempted to cut through town that way, but instead carried on by the moat and Palace, behind which hovered the cathedral. Another M. R. James story was filmed there, for the 1974 BBC Ghost Story for Christmas strand. This time it was an adaptation of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas in which an academic treasure hunter follows clues to unearth a valuable sack of coins, hidden some hundreds of years previously by a bishop with a reputation for wickedness.
While he and his young protégé are up on the cathedral roof being menaced by a fluttering apparition, the camera swings away and shows some of the surrounding countryside, including the long path down which we’ve just walked, and in the distance, Dulcote Hill, but disappointingly, even in 1974 the profile is much the same as it is now.
The academic eventually discovers the treasure secreted in a culvert wall; the culvert that feeds the gutters either side of the high street. In the TV adaptation he meets a somewhat stickier end than he did in the short story, but perhaps that’s an exaggeration – as with many M. R. James tales, with one or two exceptions, the protagonist rarely meets with an end at all, but instead has to live with the terror their actions have brought upon them, and spend the remainder of their lives in a reality altogether very different from when we first meet them.