A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
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.