For some time I’ve been aware that I’m not at my best during the winter months. I love the mists and colours of autumn, and later, the magic of a good snowfall. But the days of little light and long dark don’t suit me well. I’ll get by with my light-box and books, keep myself busy with work and family, try to see friends and get some exercise to lift my mood.
Two separate winter walks brought me a poem a few years ago. I’d been up to Croft Hill, the highest point in my rather non-undulating part of Leicestershire. It’s above a quarry where stone has been taken since the Romans used it for the nearby Fosse way, the road that linked Exeter to Lincoln. I’ve read that Croft is derived from the old English ‘Craeft’ meaning ‘craft’ , and that the craft in question might be that of quarrying.
There are peregrines nesting up there, and the odd finch flitting about. In most seasons there are runners and dog walkers. Once I saw an impressively patient and authoritative young woman up there, shepherding a group of wildly energetic and talkative kids who I imagine had been excluded from school.
The hill is an isolated landmark rising above the flood plain of the river Soar, and at 128 meters it’s not exactly a mountain.
But the shelves of the quarry with its toy trucks and conveyers are an impressive sight from the path that skirts its lip, and the walk takes you up through patches of broad-leaved woodland, across scrub and grassland and clots of gorse to the white trig point on a granite outcrop that is almost at the physical centre of England.
I’ve been up there to practice for poetry readings, standing in the crown of stones, reading my poems into the wind. A dog walking local told me that the next highest point was the Ural mountains in Russia.
A few days after my walk on Croft Hill, I went around the block where I live to stretch my legs. As I passed a tree in the failing light I noticed a blackbird in the lowest branch and the first lines of a poem came to me. I didn’t have any writing materials, so I spoke the beginning of the poem into my phone and wrote it down when I got home. I like to think the rhythm and cadence of the poem comes from the rhythm of walking, and I hope the poem says something about the possibility of finding solace in solitary song, even in dark time.
Blackbird in Winter
He’s on a branch above my head
velvet feathers at touching distance
yellow ringed eye locked to mine.
Is an alarm call frozen in his breast,
the urge to fly curtailed by heavy air,
or is it to preserve energy and heat
that he keeps still? Can he sense in me
a lack of threat, recognise the need
to move slowly through slow air,
to sing a sub-song, out-live
short days by swallowing dark,
holding on to what light there is,
braced against the grip of a wind
unchallenged and un-breathed
since it skimmed down from the Urals?
From The Sun Bathers, Shoestring Press, 2013.