The frost has set-in during the night, and everything is held captive by a thin rind of crisp ice. Every leaf has a filigree border. The dangling tendrils of the silver birch, which usually want only a slight breeze to start lashing about, are rigid and unmoving. I catch the tip of one branch as I walk past, and it snaps off. I am not the first: the path is littered with odd lengths of frozen birch twig.
It is early morning, and the visibility isn’t great: the water vapour has been held low and dense by the cold, and I can’t see the horizon. At the train tracks, I have to listen to check it is safe. On my left, the fog seems to swallow the light; on my right, eastward, the sunrise has turned the fog a beautiful milky yellow.
I take the usual path, across the train tracks and stop briefly just on the other side. There is nothing special about the spot – it is just a corner of a field, hemmed-in by a country lane and the rail lines – but it has become special to us. The grey poplar that dominates the corner has its own personality that we watch change with the seasons. Today, it is majestic, bare of its leaves, the upper branches just beginning to fade into the fog. The fallen branch, still attached and still alive, has almost disappeared into the frozen undergrowth.
I step onto the carpet of grass, fallen leaves and tiny nettles, all of it crunching like gravel under my boots. Everything about this morning feels fragile and delicate; yet this is really about strength and endurance. Beneath this frozen crust, life continues: I only wish I looked this good at -3*C.
Back on the country lane, I continue through the hamlet (six houses, perhaps twenty people). There is no one else about; the early hour and the bitter cold seem to have dissuaded even the habitual dogwalkers, so I have the morning all to myself. I prefer it this way: something inside me craves landscape and isolation.
Winter walking is often like this: solitary and calm. I suspect people are deterred by the weather (and with good reason: ten minutes outside in wind and heavy rain is enough to dissuade anyone attempting it again), but assuming the weather is fair, low temperatures alone should not prevent a long countryside walk. Personally, I much prefer slowly warming into a winter walk to overheating on a summer one.
Winter walks offer more than just refreshing exercise: with the distractions of summer stripped back, the countryside has a simpler beauty, and the more subdued palette means the rare flashes of colour – the red of a frozen haw or rosehip, or the bright yellow of beech leaves – are even more striking. In these weeks of Advent, evening walks offer the added benefit of seeing everyone else’s Christmas lights and decorations.
I take a farm track into the field on the left, past the remains of an old brick shed and the tangled thicket of brambles and hawthorn, through thigh-high spears of icy grasses that explode into falling snow when I pass, climb a final slope, and I have arrived.
It feels like the edge of the world...
This is another favourite spot. I would not recommend it to a tourist – it would not rank well on TripAdvisor – but I have walked these lanes almost every day for the past four years, and I would call this a ‘hidden gem’. They say familiarity breeds contempt, yet that is rarely true of our natural environment: these hedgerows, verges and trees have only become more important to me the more I see them.
On a clear day, this hill rolls down to the River Lark and the imposing silhouette of the local British Sugar factory, usually spewing such huge volumes of water vapour that, as a child, I had imagined it was a cloud factory.
This morning, however, there is nothing. Just a wall of fog, in every direction. It is as though I am the only person in the world, as though I have stepped out of time.
What I at first thought was silence was in fact a general cold crackling from a million million frozen branches, twigs and leaves. Silence is – except perhaps in laboratory conditions – a concept rather than a possibility, and it is moments like these that make it possible to imaging silence as we might want to ‘hear’ it.
I take another step forward, and the undergrowth a few meters to my left explodes in an eruption of ice and feathers, as a family of seven pheasants that had been hiding there shatter the ‘silence’ and disappear into the fog. Peace returns.
I spend a few moments enjoying the stillness and solitude, and then pick my way down the slope, through the frozen grasses, past the hawthorn, the brambles, the tumbledown shed, and back towards home, warmth and a cup of coffee.