Sunday, 24 January 2010

Another wander into the past

She had just set off from the village when the sky began to look ominous. The clouds were darkening to steel grey and although there was still a glimpse of the sun shining through a gap, the landscape had assumed that yellowish hue that it did before a summer storm, with the grass turned a sickly colour. The ivy leaves began to jangle in a rising breeze and the bark of the ash and oak, naked of leaves, turned yellow ochre as the lowering sun aimed one last beam before dipping from sight. She had 4 miles to go: the entire length of the valley. It was already fiercely cold and had been for nigh on a week now. There were hard frosts each morning which never seemed to thaw in the winter shadows of the valley bottom, and water at the shallow rocky margins of the river had turned opaque and milky, areas of intense freezing causing darker rings like frost ripples. Boulders were glazed with ice from river-splash until they each had a solid cap of ice which thickened with each passing day. Cascadings of water droplets formed a frilly edge like a petticoat around each rock. As the cold intensified, the river had been concentrated into one moving central column where the current was the fastest, but in slower parts ice had formed, carried downstream and slowly adding to the frozen border. Hollows scooped by the water from the slate riverbed were filled with the rounded heave of ice boulders, and the Heron stalked the water meadows now in hope of a meal.

As the light faded, she found the whirling of snow confusing her and a number of times found herself stepping into the ditch at the roadside. She stumbled back onto the road, trying to find a reference point in the fading light. Trudging forwards she thought she could hear running water to her left. Whilst she couldn't' see it in the blizzard, she was certain it was the small waterfall which cascaded down through the thick woodland by Ty Coed. She stood a moment, trying to make out the movement of the water through the spiralling cloud of flakes, as big as florins some of them. Taking heart from the fact that it was the waterfall, she knew herself to be half a mile closer to home now. After a little while she thought she saw a light which might come from Pensarn, a small farmstead which hugged the edge of a small copse, but rather than seek shelter she continued towards home, for fear the children would try to cook a meal in her absence and fall into the fire like Betty Evans' little maid had.

For a moment, she could have sworn that she heard the rumble of thunder in the distance, but then scolded herself for such a silly thought. The sudden awful crashing overhead was earsplitting. Ann instinctively dived off the road, landing with a flurry of flannel petticoats in a bank of snow which had already been blow into snake-like contortions by the wind. The thunder growled throatily like a rockfall down a mountainside and close behind it came a flash - indeed, a sheet, of lightning which illuminated the valley before her - each tree encrusted with snow; dark margins of hedgerows sinking into a sea of opacity, a brief glimpse before the magpie elements of night and snowfall closed in around her again. She was terrified. She hated thunderstorms and was still childlike about them, and felt very vulnerable without a roof above her head. She scrabbled in the hedge bottom trying to find sanctuary, some protection. A second clap of thunder and slight delay before the lightning gave her a chance to get her bearings. A hundred yards ahead she saw the darkness of running water, which must be the stream which powered the little farm mill at the ruined holding of Nantgwaun. Beside it would be the trackway which ended at the first of the barns. She clambered to her feet, breath catching in her chest as fear grasped her tightly. She half-ran forwards, twisting her ankles in the cart ruts now hidden by the snow, falling into a half-frozen puddle which soaked her lower skirts, gasping for breath as the cold air assailed her, snowflakes bursting into her face, freezing her cheeks, stinging her hands as she shielded her eyes to search for the trackway. The barn was only a short walk from the lane but it might have been a mile as Ann struggled uphill now, slightly sheltered from the weather by an overgrown hedgerow which bent, untended, across the track. She lurched like a drunk on Fair Day as the uneven path revealed itself as gullies and runnels beneath her feet. She fell again, dragged herself up and pitched forward once more and hitting her head on the frozen earth, lost consciousness briefly.

She opened her eyes and was aware of a damp mildewy smell, as of mouldy hay. Her legs were still wet and chilled by the weather, but above the waist she was out of the wind, which was now soughing and sighing overhead. She stretched out a hand and felt a rough wall. She scrambled into the barn on all fours, settling in a corner out of the draughts, shaking the worst of the snow from her clothing. Here she would bide until the storm had passed. Her head ached. She ventured half-numb fingers to her forehead and found she had cut her head in falling. She watched the snow falling steadily for a while, arms clasped around her knees to try and keep warm, as the thunder began to rumble away into the distance beyond her valley. She became aware of a slow, steady harsh breathing in the barn that was not her own: rather guttural, like an old man with a bad chest. It grew in intensity, the outward breath a slight whistle. The hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end and she sent up a fervent prayer that she had not stumbled upon the old tramp who was sometimes seen in the valley, and who spouted Bible quotes at anyone who would take time to listen to him. Bible Bob they called him, and he certainly knew his Bible. She wondered how he spent his days, especially the short bleak days of winter, with no company beyond the fire spitting and hissing beneath the old black iron kettle. She stood up abruptly: she would rather face him on her feet rather than looking at his boots. As she did so there was a sudden flurry of wings and a white shape swooshed out of the darkness and through the barn door - a Barn Owl. Her breath followed it in a sudden lessening of tension.

Peering out, the flakes seemed smaller and the darkness less intense with the snowlight and she set off towards home again, though her boots soon began to rub her wet feet and her wet skirt and petticoats were very uncomfortable out in the wind again. Finally she passed the steep hill up to Ty Coch and home suddenly seemed much nearer. The stillness was intense. Any beast out in this would be cwtched up in the lee of the hedge, waiting it out. No lights were to be seen in the hillside houses, for no hillside houses could be seen at all. She thought of the Davies family with their two little girls, snug around their fire in their little cottage halfway up the slope and she wished herself home with her own girls. Perhaps Annie-stockings had looked out for them when this weather came in - it was the best she could hope for.

She was deep in thought when she heard her name called and looking up, saw a buttery yellow light swinging towards her through the snow, a light held by a tall figure. It was Will. She had never been so glad to see anyone in her life - even the Devil would have been welcome company on a night like this! His broad shoulders were sheathed in sacking too, and his hat appeared to have only a brim, so covered in snow was it. He clasped her arm, just briefly, enough to tell her he had been worried. "It's getting late," he said perfunctorily, "not a good night to be out." Will's snow-covered shoulders gave no hint of the internal struggle he was fighting as she followed him home through the snow.


  1. I want to read the rest of the story! Such descriptive detail and so obviously of a route you know well--perhaps not much changed from the times you write about. I've had a few experiences of that momentary fright that comes with being confused in a dark landscape that is usually familiar--easy to lose one's wits and sense of direction.
    I've read this sitting in a warm room just at first fuzzy white daylight, with a mug of coffee to hand--but I felt Ann's frozen feet and sodden skirt, her panic at the flashes of lightning, her need to be home with her children,
    Good writing, my friend; I'll endorse the whole book!

  2. What wonderful writing,I am a great reader and have been since age of six(now I'm sixty three)and seldom have I read such evocative writing.Alison Uttley and Flora Thompson spring to mind.When are you going to put it together in a book ?

  3. Gosh, bless you BOTH! Rosemary - those are amongst my favourite writers, so I am very flattered to be even mentioned in the same breath!

    MM - this has been waiting to come out for a bit. All through the snow in fact, but I didn't feel like writing then - I just switched off instead! It's a route I know very well - on horseback, on foot, in the car . . . I've taken liberties and changed the order of places, and renamed them but the "book" (hah, bet it never gets finished, as I know me only too well, but . . .) has a few more words now.

    The scenes are just what I witnessed recently, in the cold spell of this January and last Jan/Feb too. The pyroclastic flow of the snow I have experienced whilst out riding and it was almost terrifying seeing it roll towards us down the valley. I have walked in a blizzard and experienced that thunderstorm I wrote about and blardy scary it was too! Especially as I was in an open bit between trees and was the tallest thing around . . .