Friday, 17 February 2012

Landscape of Ice

North Herefordshire, 11 February 2012
Morning walk: Lyepole/Paradise Bridge - Sned Wood - Lower Lye - Barnett Wood - The Camp - Upper Lye. Afternoon walk: Shobdon Hill Wood.

Riverside Dawn
I arrive at Paradise bridge at around 5.30am on a cold, frosty morning. There is a small stream tumbling off the hillside and I park the car by this so that I can listen it as I doze in the car for an hour or so. The moon is bright and the landscape far from dark. It is bitterly cold and a hard frost has brought ice to everything. Apparently there was a slight dusting of snow yesterday and now, under the moonlight, the hills and fields reveal their silhouettes even though the sun will not rise for another hour or so.

The last couple of weeks have been very cold with snow and frost in many parts for the country. I left home in Bedfordshire yesterday with several inches of snow on the ground and had decided not to camp out in the car overnight this time just in case it was too cold. I actually felt cosy as I lay back in the car for I had piled on the layers and covered my legs and feet up well to keep warm.

A gentle breeze bites through me as I walk out into the brightening landscape. Some cloud obscured the moon a little while ago but the day is forecast to be clear and sunny. The blue-grey hazy hills around me look stunning against the grey sky and pale frosty fields. This is a landscape I feel at home in, and one that draws me back time and time again. The river gurgles gently under the old stone bridge. Blackbirds begin to chatter and an occasional dipper flies by with its distinctive 'cheep cheep'. I always seem them here. After the warmth of January this cold spell is a reminder of how winter can take hold any time. February often used to seem a dark and dead month in my younger days - the very end of the past year before nature springs to life. But now signs of spring can be found earlier each year. All is very still around me. It is almost as it the frost comes and asks all to "stand still". A leaf hanging above me on an oak tree just moves very slightly in the soft breeze. The river and stream move, but otherwise everything just seems to be as still as it can. I hear a few tits nearby.

The sky brightens and clouds in south east have pale pink bases but it will be a while yet before this place in the shadow of the hills will see the rays of the sun. I saw otters here a few years ago but I don't feel I will see any today. The river water looks cold and uninviting. The surrounding fields are empty of sheep; I hear a buzzard up above me over Sned Wood; I hear a woodpecker drumming in the distance; pigeons fly past very so often, always from east to west - presumably leaving their night's roost. All the conifers on Mere Hill and Shobdon Hill Wood are outlined in frost and look very decorative. This is a beautiful place and I always look forward to returning to this part of the country. It isn't a stunningly dramatic place but it was a subtle attraction that I never tire of. Later I watch a heron fly slowly over the riverbank keeping low to the ground and then heading downstream just a few feet above the water. Eventually the sun rises above Mere Hill Wood and the landscape is bathed in the pale golden light. Colours awake and the cold seems to become less intense. I think a kingfisher flies past, not that I see it but I'm sure I recognise its call. There are several blue tits in an ash tree by the bridge.

Hills of Ice
I climb up the 'scenic' route onto the forestry track along the edge of Sned Wood. This involves a rather steep, nearly impossible, informal climb straight up the side of the hill through the trees. I disturb a woodcock which takes off through the trees - I see one later in the day too. This is one of the few hills I have never walked over before even though it is mostly forestry land. The heavy frost covers the ground and everywhere is covered with beautifully big ice crystals. My footsteps crunch through the dead leaves with a seemingly deafening sound amidst the silence. I don't like making a noise in nature, it always seems un-natural and inappropriate.

At the top of the hill I stand in the more open space between the oaks and look around. The sunshine pours through the trees. Suddenly I become aware of the ice that surrounds me, not just the crystals of frost that cover the ground, but actual ice. Against the sun on the larches I notice how every twig is covered with a thin layer of ice - sparkling brightly in the sun like long necklaces of diamonds hanging from every branch. Yesterday's snow must have partly melted and then refrozen overnight. Grasses too are covered with icy jewels and even a cobweb looks like it is threaded with diamonds. I walk on and come to a silver birch - its deep red-brown branches and twigs are totally encased in brittle tubes of ice. On one branch, a patch of lichen inside a rounded blob of ice looks just like a round glass paper weight. Around me I can begin to hear the gentle drip of water as the ice begins to melt on the trees. (Later on in the day I walk up onto Shobdon Hill Wood which is a bit more wild and exposed. The scenery here was very dramatic with huge great swathes of the natural landscape covered with ice. Everything from grasses to each pine needle of entire conifer plantations were covered with a deep layer of ice. It was just like the whole landscape had been dipped into a pool of molten glass to create a brittle glass encapsulated sculpture.

Up on this hill today it is all about water and light. There is a sense of beauty and awe at the interplay between these two elements. There is the way that the frost lies on the landscape - what it touches and what it doesn't. Shapes and forms that may normally go unnoticed become highlighted. The shapes of twigs, the broad flat expanses of the fields in the valley, the outlines of leaves, the way the sunlight passes through the tall trees, the brightness of the sun on the frost, the darkness of damp tree trunks and the dazzling effect of the ice on natural surfaces.

Four Oak Trees
The trees stand in grazing pasture on the edge of a small hill in a quiet valley, surrounded by wooded hillsides. Icicles hang from the larger branches and I can hear the dripping melt-water in the warming sunshine. A robin hops from branch to branch near me as I sit on the grass and look at these silent friends. Its presence seems unusual in this setting and it the bears the only colour red in the landscape. Silently they stand, there is no wind today. I'm used to seeing and hearing trees when a wind makes their presence more noticeable, here we are both meditating upon each other in a landscape that breathes silence. The robin watches me and a blue tit flits among higher branches looking for things to eat. These are superb trees, probably once part of an old hedge that has long since gone as they stand out in the open but only a short distance on from, and in line with, a small trackway I have just walked down. Apart from the chirping of birds, the dripping of water, buzzard and a small stream down in the valley bottom there is no sound. The lichens on the branches are bright green in the strong sunlight and new buds are just waiting for the spring. In isolation, trees are so much more stunning and their shape, form and presence is so much more tangible. I just sit and look, being aware of their composition and presence in this landscape. I give thanks to whoever has left them here over the years to grow. Fortunately this is steep sheep pasture and unlikely to be ploughed or cleared. These trees have given to me today a gift of deep presence in a fairly hidden valley.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


I am standing on the shore. Waves gently wash over the tumbling pebbles. Too and fro, in a rhythm of sound and voices that have sung continuously since their creation on this cosmic anomaly. Looking around I see the shore extending away from me - a place of constant movement and change between the land and the sea. The air is fresh and the water unpolluted, as it will remain so for millions of years to come. For I stand alone. The only one. There is no-one else, that is all to come. The pebbles are rounded and well worn, precious minerals gradually being eroded and dissolved into the sea. They have only just begun their journey of transformation into the web of life. I have not yet been created. Man has not yet been born, and yet here on this sea shore I feel the beginnings of his birth. Here, where water, air and earth meet life will begin its epic journey. If I were able to foresee, and with control over the deep creative energy that embodies the earth, would I allow the evolution those that would destroy this fragile creativity. I know what will happen to this place.

Picking up a pebble I hold it in my hand. It shines in the bright sunlight and its strong colours reflect the untouched beauty around me. One day this pebble may become part of me and we will touch again.