Earth Tides, Night Calls and the Ghosts of the Deep Midwinter
An after-dark wander in the company of lost deserts, nocturnal hunters and spectral ammonites.
Edit: this is quite a long read – over 9,000 words. For those of you who aren’t keen on reading from a phone or laptop screen, it’s also available in Kindle format. There was no option to make it free, so the lowest price of 99p was selected. There is no limitation on devices, so feel free to share it with your friends and family. And now we continue with our main feature. . .
One cold December night not so long ago, I was woken by an extraordinary sound, or so I thought. It was a sound quite unlike any I had heard before. And as it faded and disappeared 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 as lifeless and dark as stone should, 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.
The medieval layout encouraged me to take a meandering route to its boundaries, the streets guiding or following the flow of the four million gallons of water that rise daily from wells of St. Andrew, a cluster of cold water springs, forced to the surface by a large subterranean conduit fed by streams which have splashed and tumbled through caves which, though not exactly measureless to man, are none the less impressive in scale.
The springs have been an irresistible draw to wild animals and humans for millennia. Though the upwell is confined to within the walls of the Bishop’s Palace, the water itself can’t be held against its will for long, and escapes along a number of routes – most famously down either side of High Street, where it runs along gutters chiselled from Blue Lias, transported here from nearby quarries at Glastonbury and Street. These rocks are famous for yielding the fossilised ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that swam in the aforementioned warm, shallow seas surrounding the Mendips, and are likely to have inspired the wealth of dragon folklore in the county. The springs also fill the stickleback inhabited moat of the Palace, overflowing into an un-named tributary, and increasing the flow to the point whereby it was considered worthy of a title; Keward Brook. And it’s this brook that defines, quite sharply, the Southern edge of the modern settlement. Passing the bottom of Silver Street to the bridge that crosses the brook, bright moonlight glanced off the frost that ornamented the car roofs and house windows. The water whispers and rings under the diminutive span. A cat, crouched on the wall of the bridge caused me to pause. It was sniffing at something on the wall; the remains of a pasty by the look of it. As soon as I stroked the cat’s back it began to scoff the bits of pastry immediately, almost as if it had been waiting for permission, and once it had started tucking in it had no time for humans, so I carried on, heading into Morrison’s car park.
It’s around here, as far as I can tell, somewhere between the supermarket and the Premiere Inn on the other side of the road, that the corpses of the Monmouth rebels would have been displayed in 1685, after being sentenced by ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries at his Bloody Assizes held in the market square.
Or parts of them were displayed at any rate. After they’d been hanged, drawn and quartered, their limbs were dipped in bitumen to preserve them, and then sent to outlying towns and villages to be exhibited as a warning against further rebellion. Though knowing the Somerset character, I imagine it would be equally likely to act as an encouragement.
Jeffries was, at the time, equally feared and despised for his actions. Some have attempted to explain his cruel behaviour with the suggestion that he was suffering from pyelonephritis, a debilitating kidney disease, for which his doctors prescribed large quantities of alcohol as a method of pain control. Others are happy to work on the hypothesis that he was simply a colossal arsehole.
The site would have been chosen for its proximity to the Glastonbury road, the main thoroughfare at this end of town during that period, and it’s quite likely that body parts would have been on display on the Bristol and Bath roads too. But this end of town was entirely reconfigured in the 19th and 20th centuries, firstly to accommodate a railway, and then after that had been dismantled, a two-lane A road.
The car park was deserted, and as I neared Morrison’s, I saw myself reflected back from the wall of dark glass that fronts the dimly lit supermarket, a tiny and insignificant figure against the night. As I neared the end of the edifice, I paused at the large glass doors, behind which there were a number of Christmas trees, reams of tinsel and swarms of fairy lights.
The decorations sparked a realisation about the turning of the year. Yesterday was the winter solstice, and as usual, regardless of good intentions, I’d yet again failed to mark this pivotal time of year and, what’s more, had a vague recollection there was something particularly special about this one. I checked my phone for a reminder. In the shop window, my face was illuminated by the bright screen beneath it, lending me the appearance of a pantomime villain, and super-imposing it over the decorations, like a ghost at the feast. The comparison made me smile, which really did nothing to improve the image. I decided to move on – perhaps there was an employee in there hiding behind a Christmas tree, waiting for the weirdo outside to make himself scarce before they emerged. I know if I was them I’d want me to go.
I read as I crossed the car-park, heading away from the shop lights. According to the first source I came to, it was not only the last full moon of the year, but it had risen less than a day after the exact hour of the winter solstice. This last happened about eight years ago, but isn’t scheduled to happen again until 2094. And there it was, beaming away, high in the sky to the south, emitting a stark, led white light that you tend to only see in the winter months.
Given that I’ll be long dead by the time this happened again, I decided to stretch my legs and explore the night further. Leaving the carpark there’s a stretch of pavement that runs parallel to the road, past a new but diminutive estate to the left. The people indoors, asleep and dreaming, were the first to do so on this site. Before the houses were built a few years ago it was a brownfield site next to a chemical company, and before that, during the 1940s, strips of allotments to feed the wartime city. Imagine that – the first community of people to dream in this place on earth.
Passing this settlement, I left the fringe of the city behind, and came to the first bridge of the walk. It’s a stock and footbridge, put in when the road was built in the mid 90s, so the farmers of Palace farm could move livestock between their fields on either side of the road.
It’s not much to look at; a purely utilitarian modern concrete affair, but it’s also a bit of a portal, the frame-like arch delineating a cut-off point between here and there. On this side lay the human world of electric light and sleeping houses, and on the other side, utter darkness and all it sheltered.
On stepping through, the absence of artificial light revealed a high, rippled veil of blue-white water vapour in an otherwise clear and star filled sky. The face of the moon bounced the sun’s used rays down across the landscape. Ahead of me, and three shades darker than the night, the black bore of the railway path gaped. It was quite forbidding, and I almost changed my mind and headed back to the house and bedwards. But instead I flashed the torch down it for a cursory check before continuing. I don’t know what I expected to see, or why I felt reticence; I know the path well by daylight. There have been no brigands in these parts for a few centuries, and no animals large enough to inconvenience me for even longer than that. But I’m merely human, and we have ancient mechanisms to dissuade us from plunging incautiously down night-paths.
On entering, the pavement gave way to well-trodden earth. Water trapped in the soil had turned to frost, and pushed through in a million pins of ice, sparkling in the lunar light and crunching under my boots. The trees at the entrance, mainly young oak, hawthorn, goat willow and ash, crowded either side of the path, leafless branches almost touching overhead.
Darkness, almost complete, silence, and an accompanying drop in temperature. Off to my left and right, and now I think of it probably responsible for the sudden chill, a small nameless stream ran from the fields to a culvert under the path and road. Its complex liquid voice dopplered as it passed underfoot, and acted as another inference that some barrier had been crossed.
After a shortish trudge, the first landmark appeared on my right. Its form and purpose were at odds – its purpose was to provide a pair of seats, but its form was of a pair of large, clubbed tentacles or feelers which emerged from the earth and curled back on themselves. The white peeling paint lent it the air of some monstrous fungus, decomposing and throwing off a feeble luminosity. I didn’t linger.
A rough, human-shaped figure materialised from the shadows on the left, but I’d been expecting him. It’s the Old Man. We know each other from daytime walks. It’s a modern monolith, a waymarker with a cryptic route to Glastonbury carved into its surface. A bronze facsimile of the tor is recessed into the stone, a colony of snails clustered in the hollow behind it.
Quite quickly the banks defining the path gained height, and again the gloom increased, while the temperature again decreased. The left side rose higher than the right, and there’s an earthen ramp that leads you up into the main body of Park Wood, should you want to go there which, tonight, we didn’t.
Straight ahead is the second bridge of the walk. It’s another blank, concrete affair, unremarkable but for the trio of grey human bodies hanging beneath it, rendered in concrete. They’re affixed to the underside of the structure, hovering above path and walker horizontally, naked swimmers chasing the feet of the one in front, partially visible in the moonlight, with a nano-fuzz around their edges. The longer I looked, the more the rods and cones of my eyes stirred the swimmers into a greyscale molecular riot.
A male tawny let out a sudden low hoot from the woods, and put the wind up me momentarily. This caused a small but effective dose of adrenaline to be dispensed; my pupils dilated, and my night vision improved accordingly.
Just after this bridge, though invisible tonight, are the ruins of the one it replaced. The stumps that remain in the earth bank hint at a more attractive affair, built out of carboniferous limestone, no doubt brought here either from the quarry at Dulcote, or Cheddar – though the two places are separated by a good 10 miles or so, it’s all part of the ancient compressed seabed.
The current bridge connects Park Wood, so called because it was part of some ancient bishop’s deer park, to the fields on the far side of the road. The wood itself used to inhabit this space, until the railway bisected it. Even then it was, but for the cut, largely intact. Then at some time between 1938 and 1960 a large square section, a full third of its area, disappears from the maps, the land put under the plough during World War Two. The remaining third is an island of pale columnar beech.
And even on this side the main body of the wood contains some mature beech at its eastern end, rising through a haze of bluebells in spring. Much of the remainder is oak. Not spectacular in size, but the swiftly-tacking branches support colonies of epiphytal fern, even in winter, which lends them a shaggy and ancient aspect.
I imagine the lapse which followed, and which I’m about to describe, must have been due to a combination of the dark woods, the cold, the monolith, and the figures suspended under the bridge, perhaps along with thoughts of the hanging Monmouth rebels. Another contributing factor might have been the tree growth; the ash of the deep cut were once coppiced, and the bifurcated trunks, struggling to grow against the shade and reach the sun, have resulted in a multi-limbed attenuated growth that lends the perfectly innocent trees the appearance of a kelp forest, with the lonely wanderer anchored on the seabed, staring up.
Whatever triggered it, it’s here, just after the second bridge, that something unexpected and wholly unwelcome occurred. I felt a creeping sensation of terror, an old, cold, electric pull that tugged on the back of my head like a spectral spiderweb, and urged, dared me to turn and look behind. I was terrified in a way I hadn’t been since childhood, but managed to somehow ignore the near-overwhelming sensation whilst being utterly aware of little else. The only alternative – and this option was begging to be chosen by the way – being to run pell-mell into the darkness and away from the woods and whatever malevolent force I imagined occupied them.
I told myself this was merely some survival impulse left over from our wild days. A few of thousand years of civilisation is a piffling blink to the processes that protected us from predators for millions of years of long, dark nights. Instincts don’t die that easily, or we would too. Logically I knew there were no large predators in the area, and therefore that this was a misfire, a bug, but it was none the less a highly unpleasant one.
To settle the matter I could easily have shone the torch behind me, onto the path, and into the trees to confirm there was nothing to be alarmed about. But my treacherous internal voice was asking a very unwelcome question; what if I did this, and the beam illuminated something I couldn’t explain? A half-glimpsed form, or creature of unfamiliar design? I didn’t believe it would, but there, alone in the night down a cold, darkened train track, with the main town some distance behind me, and the nearest settlement a mile ahead, I felt somewhat vulnerable even asking.
So I did something very logical and human, and continued to ignore the terror. I kept my pace, and I tried hard to think of other things. What else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t actually flee, gibbering. I’m a grown man, and besides, not much given to running at the best of times. And even if I did, how long was I supposed to keep it up for? Half a mile? A whole mile? It seemed excessive, and the sensation may have followed me regardless. What’s more, unless I made it to the next village I’d still be in the dark anyway.
While I was attempting to quell this rising terror, a rhythmic whistling in the air overhead and behind closed in at an alarming rate. As real panic set in, the new sound was punctuated by a solitary, somewhat comical quack. Either I was being pursued by an uncommonly fast and tall duck impersonator, or more likely, a duck.
The run I definitely hadn’t broken into slowed to a trot, and then normal walking speed. The moment was broken, and the fear dissipated, though I didn’t stop wondering why the bloody hell I wasn’t at home, warm in bed, for the 47th time that night.
This next stretch was the most hemmed in; the earth banks now sufficiently high to cut off the light from the moon. The darkness was increased further by the trees crowding in either side, and reducing the night’s sky to a line of stars echoing the path below. I was down in the mud, leaf mould and ground ivy, where in warmer months slow-worms nosed amongst the lesser celandine and wood anemone, and wrens bustled about their business.
Now the reptiles will be coiled under tree roots, dreaming saurian thoughts, while the wrens, craving warmth in a harsh winter, will be crowded into a communal nest, with up to sixty of their closest friends.
With a clear path ahead I tilted my head back and looked up at the strip of sky between the naked branches, brimming with distant suns. My perspective faltered for a moment, confused by the network of twigs imposed over the view of the galaxy, the two scales clashing – the trees a few feet away, then hundreds of light-years between them and the next solid object
The icy white light of the stellar bodies appeared in sympathy with the frost on the ground, but of course they’re utterly unrelated – each of these tiny pinpoints of light is, in reality, a raging sun, flooding space with staggering amounts of radiation.
On the ground, ice had covered the puddles that remained from the rain that fell a day or two ago, so I watched my step, and regulated my stride, wishing to avoid any further gymnastics. The ice cracked and crunched underfoot, and I became conscious of being a beacon of sound in the otherwise still night. Some people stamp, hum or whistle to break a silent walk, but I prefer anonymity – another reason why I don’t use the torch unless needs must. There’s no method behind this behaviour – it’s probably just another instinct – if you’re moving through darkness and silence, why attract attention?
Ahead of me and to my right, a pale round face floated out of the gloom of the bottom of the cut. It was the disc of a freshly felled ash stump. I counted the rings once on a daytime wander. Starting from the outside and working my way in, they show that the sapling took root within a year or two of the closure of the track in April 1969. It reminded me that although this place is deathly silent now, not so long ago tens of thousands of people passed through this lonely spot, in the battering, clanking, fiery racket of a steam train and attendant carriages. They would have shot through the cut, the light from the carriage windows casting flickering squares across the face of the clean banks, sparks from the engine flying, smuts settling in the wood canopy on either side.
It also reminded me of the pale face in the television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’, a Christmas ghost story written by Dickens, and broadcast by the BBC on the 22nd of December 1976, almost 42 years ago to the day. I was nine when I saw it, and it’s stayed with me. In it, Ian Holme, the titular signalman, had a lonely watch in a cut much deeper than mine, and suffered repeated visitations from an apparition who passed on warnings of impending disasters, but in such a cryptic unspoken fashion that the unfortunate signalman was powerless to prevent them. The presence that menaces him throughout is represented by a dark robed figure, his face, covered by a cloth until the final moments, a palid death-mask, ghastly mouth yawning wide.
Placing my recent howling terror of the unknown aside for the moment, ghosts don’t bother me much. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or the supernatural for that matter. Take our current situation for instance. If there really was some mechanism by which the dead could return to earth, I wouldn’t be able to see for ghosts right now. Due to the rich geology of the area, we would be in a spectacular position from which to observe the afterlife or, afterwildlife I should say. At various points in deep time this patch of Somerset has dressed up in all sorts of environments, and supported a wealth of flora and fauna since gone.
Three hundred and fifty million summers ago, during the Carboniferous, it was part of a great delta, a threadwork of fresh water rivers and lakes. Then, during the Triassic, three hundred million summers ago, it belonged to the interior of a vast red desert. A couple of hundred million summers ago, as mentioned earlier, it was the bed of a shallow, tropical sea, dotted with white-beached tropical islands. A mere five hundred thousand summers ago and it was more like the African Savannah, with a full cast of accompanying megafauna.
So logically, if there was such a contrivance as a soul, an incorporeal presence which could somehow make itself known to us, then I should be buzzed and pestered by phantasmal dragonflies of vast proportions, giant wings glittering in the moonlight. My path would be crossed by skittering, pheasant-like Procompsognathus, and the skies above my head would display drifts of tightly coiled ethereal ammonites, pursued by pods of muscular, dolphinesque, ichthyosaur. There would be spectral straight tusked elephant, eldritch hippopotami, and assorted glow-in-the-dark packs of lion and hyena plaguing my steps.
There were Neanderthals in these parts too, at different times, and heidelbergensis. If modern man can return from the other side of the veil, then why not our more ancient kin? I’m beginning to wish I was wrong. I’d love to see a fraction of those things. Though in truth, the air would be an impenetrable miasma of plankton shoals and insect swarms, through which the larger visitations would have to barge and shoulder.
And also, while we’re on the subject, why are human ghosts depicted as wearing clothes? Are we to infer that shirts, skirts and trousers have unfinished business with the living? Or perhaps they solely have unfinished business, and are just dragging a hapless human ghost around while they get things sorted, after which they can finally fold them themselves up for eternal rest in the great airing cupboard in the sky. And where does it stop? Is there underwear? Are there layers? I’m pretty sure I’ve never offended a pair of pants to the point they would pursue me from the grave. Or am I?
Most of the apparitions in the work of M. R. James, widely acknowledged as the master of the Christmas ghost story, wore nothing but their funeral shrouds. And indeed, the apparition in his particularly memorable short story ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, appeared to consist wholly of something closely resembling the funerary fabric.
This was reproduced with a touch of brilliance by the late Jonathan Miller in his adaptation of the work. It was this production, transmitted in 1968, which was the inspiration for the later BBC thread, ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ which included Dickens’ ‘Signalman’. At one point, in a dream, the actor Michael Hordern is pursued across a monochrome beach by what is generally agreed to be the most terrifying bedsheet ever depicted on screen. This image generated flashbacks of my recent interlude, so I picked up the pace. To paraphrase the 19th century intellectual, Germaine de Staël: just because I don’t believe in ghosts, doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally frightened by the idea of them.
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.
The homes in this hamlet appeared for the most part ancient, one or two of them sporting ecclesiastical stonework, possibly half-inched from Glastonbury, after the Dissolution turned the Abbey into a decorative quarry for building material. The silence of these homes was of a different quality to that of the woods and railway track. I trod quietly here, and was reminded of something Lewellyn Powys wrote of a small Devon settlement in similar circumstance. As he moved through those silent houses, he asked the question ‘In these small, low ancient chambers of births, love-makings and of deaths, chambers smelling of apples kept in drawers, and stuffy quilts – were there perhaps other beings that breathed, revenants irresistibly drawn back, with finger on lip, to the darker local corners of the house never reached by moonlight?’ Night walks, it seems, have always generated peculiar thoughts and unusual images.
The looming mass of Dulcote Hill hovered over the sturdy stone built chapel on the right. It was once a ridge-backed and rocky promontory, a site to see. A sleeping dinosaur. When quarrying threatened to denude its nature, questions were raised in the House of Commons by a Lieutenant Colonel Bowles, who went so far as to state that ‘it is a picture which is looked at by thousands from all over the world in order to obtain spiritual inspiration. It is admitted by all that this view is the object of visits by Americans and people from far overseas, as well as, of course, the Cathedral of Wells and other objects of interest.’
That was in 1949, but work carried on, with the carboniferous limestone roots of the hill being removed at a rate of over 250,000 tons a year. It’s now quarried hollow, scooped out like the contents of an ice-cream tub and, other than the presence of a high-tech commercial unit dwarfed by the scale of the removal, the haunt of ravens, tawny owls, newts and bats.
A surviving natural feature is the reservoir under the quarry floor, a lightless subterranean chamber somewhere beneath the substantial pond. Rarely empty, this water flows underground to the village in which I was standing, and emerges in the form of a calcifying spring. Over the course of a great number of years the calcite rich water has accreted an amorphous, moss covered stone gherkin of human height. This edifice has a sprinkle of water emerging from its crown, and stands in a pool which supports a moderate amount of plant and animal life, and resembles a John Pertwee-era Doctor Who alien looking for a lift.
Prior to this display the spring breaks cover in the form of a well recessed into the front wall of the chapel. Above this is a memorial plaque listing those of the village who died in the first World War, here recorded as taking place between 1914 and 1919. Most memorials display 1918 as the end date, recording the Armistice on the 11th day of the 11th month of that year, but Dulcote, amongst a few others, recorded instead the signing of the treaty of Versailles in June 1919 as the official close of the war.
I mention this only because, had we been standing by the fountain one afternoon in March 1913, we would have seen a youngish man riding by on a bicycle. He has travelled on two wheels all the way from Balham, in search of the first signs of spring, most recently passing the silk mills of Shepton Mallet, stopping in Croscombe at the George for a spot of lunch.
His name was Edward Thomas; a literary critic, and writer of prose and poetry, and he was destined to die shortly in the conflict marked by the memorial we just passed.
The book generated by this expedition was called ‘In Pursuit of Spring’, and though his powers of description are at times of an exquisitely lucid nature, for the most part of the cycle ride he is somewhat jaded and downcast, even pausing at one point to critique someone’s choice of poem on their gravestone. The first time he really comes alive is when he talks with great enthusiasm and authority about the manufacture and use of clay pipes – a particular obsession of his – but for some reason – perhaps shying away from revealing too much about himself – he balks and puts the words in the mouth of a fictional companion, where he regards them somewhat coolly, from a protected position.
He really only perks up when he reaches Glastonbury, some seven miles from here, when he spots some May blossom in the grounds of the Abbey ruins. It’s the first sign of spring, and it comes as a source of relief both for the writer and the reader. However, given that it comes near the climax of the book, you could be forgiven for parting ways earlier.
For myself, I’m glad I stuck with it though, if only to experience a first-hand account of an era with much less reliance on motorised vehicles, and the differences it made to society and remoter communities. The same journey by bicycle in our times would be a much more hazardous affair, and not one I’d recommended without some form of respiratory equipment, and perhaps light armour.
I really only read his work because seemingly every nature writer on earth is a devotee of Thomas, and they repeatedly encouraged me to do so. As is my peculiar wont, I read a biography of him before I started any of his major works, and quickly gained the impression that although he genuinely suffered for his art, his recalcitrant nature, coupled with a self-centredness that would make a black hole blush, ensured his wife and children suffered for it too.
He had, against their wishes, volunteered for service, and perhaps surprisingly had found something approaching peace amongst the chaos, carnage and military hierarchy of the battlefields of France; a sense of being in the right place at the right time, by his own hand perhaps. His was not a long war, however – he was killed by bullet passing ‘clean through his chest’ at Arras, in 1917. His death was a tragedy in the literal sense – his downfall had been the result of his own decisions – but there is an additional dimension to the last of his days on earth; Thomas was experiencing the effects of a newly developed sense of confidence, a product of his recent success as a late-flowering poet. There was every indication that we’d have seen the best of him had he returned, as a father, a husband, and as a man of letters.
We’ll follow Thomas down this road. Dulcote is spread pretty thin either side of the tarmac. There are six streetlights along its length, and there’s a decent pavement and little danger of coming a cropper. Near the halfway mark at the bottom of the hill there’s another river. The water here was deeper and faster than any we’ve crossed so far, and had a more urgent voice that echoed under the low arch of the bridge. Where the moonlight caught its surface, it looked like freshly knapped flint.
This is the Sheppey, the river that gives Shepton Mallet its name, and which bypasses Wells, flowing through fields, back under our railway line, and onto Coxley, a small village with the Iron Age and Rome in its roots. From there it meanders out onto the Levels and eventually to the Severn Estuary. The bridge has been here for a long time, and was mentioned by another traveller and poet, John Leland, in 1542. Leland spent a great deal of time on the road, commissioned as he was by Henry VIII to examine the libraries of every major religious house in England, after which he took a following commission to conduct an itinerary of England and Wales; a book hunt to end all book hunts.
This is where our poets cross, as Thomas is heading into Wells, and Leland up Dulcote Hill and onto Shepton, after having visited the library at the cathedral, and that of the Abbey at Glastonbury. I didn’t pause for long – the temperature was dropping further, and continued to follow Thomas through the remainder of Dulcote village, where the streetlights and houses soon ran out and were replaced by an avenue of towering lime trees.
Ahead, perched on a hill I couldn’t see, and glowing through the bare trees of Castle Wood and Peace Plantation, was a string of six ruby red navigation lights climbing into the darkness – they’re attached to the Penn Hill mast, which climbs almost a thousand feet into the sky, and is constantly broadcasting on a variety of frequencies. One of the gigantic guy cables that tethers and supports this structure is anchored right next to a long barrow from the Neolithic period. These monuments often contained generations of the dead, watching over generations of the living below. Ancestral CCTV.
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.
Reaching the end of the moat, I passed though the Bishop’s Eye, an arch that peers through to the marketplace, the shining cobbles of which contain numerous examples of Jurassic corals. The marketplace itself is a wide square, fronted by a number of more or less ancient buildings, and best known in the mind of the public as the scene of the final shoot-out in Hot Fuzz.
It was also the site of Judge Jeffries’ Bloody Assizes, where our rebels were sentenced to their grizzly ends, and where on September the 3rd, 1753, Susan Bruford was burned at the stake for the alleged murder of her husband. And there, on the corner of the square, Thomas Penn gave a speech from the upper window of the Crown, before jogging off to America and founding Pennsylvania in 1681. It became plain that I’d wandered from the quiet countryside and contemplation of the moon, into the noisy, violent territory of history and civilisation.
But outside these thoughts it was quiet enough. The only sound came from the gutters flowing with clean spring water, reflecting back the glittering lights of the Christmas decorations hanging above the road. I followed the water downhill, and in no time found myself passing under the tower of St. Cuthbert’s again. I stopped and waited by the graveyard a while, listening intently to the darkness, until I was sure the ocarina call had ceased.
It was January before I discovered the source of the call that had roused me from my bed. I found a YouTube clip on the channel of an artist by the name of Robert Fuller, who had managed to catch it on a nestcam. It’s the mating call of the male tawny owl, who employs it to lure females into a newly acquired nesting spot for her approval. And it sounds like. . .
And thanks also to the supremely talented Ruth McDonald for generously allowing me to include two of her paintings. She can be found at http://www.ruthmcdonald.co/index.html