A chapter from Nightwalk by Chris Yates
Published by Collins on 26th April in hardback and ebook
The two trees seem to stand more dominantly on the hill now that the sun has just set. A gang of young rooks almost landed in them a moment ago, spinning round the topmost branches and shouting frantically. Perhaps they had spotted a waking owl or maybe they were thinking of starting a new republic, but after a few overhead sweeps they realized it was getting late and beaked off home to their rookery. It is not really late, though. The clock may be saying almost nine thirty, but with the light sinking so slowly there will be plenty of time to savour this pot of tea and still begin my walk before dark.
I prefer to set off on a night stroll at dusk. Not only can the eyes adjust more effectively than if I stepped directly into full darkness from a lit room, I like the way my familiar surroundings are differently transformed by the twilght as I walk through them. Some things melt into their background, others remain solidly fixed yet reveal surprising new identities. Also, there is sometimes an interesting meeting between diurnal and nocturnal nature, like when early bats and late swallows swoop together or a hare is startled by a badger.
Through my open window the sounds of the evening chorus are diminishing and fragmenting, though the song thrush is chivvying what remains of the choir to ‘Keep up! Keep up! Keep up!’ I can see him sitting in the top of the yew tree in the corner of my garden, chest puffed out, head back, oblivious now to the other songsters, consumed only with his need to proclaim himself. Since he struck up his first tune at five o’clock this morning he has hardly given himself time to breathe let alone feed or attend to any domestic chores. No other songbird can match his endurance. Somewhere nearby his mate is sitting on the nest with her second brood. Is she impressed by his epic daily performance? Is she not a little sick of all the endless repetitions of signature phrases? Surely the message has got through by now. Would she not prefer him to offer more help with the children? Occasionally he smashes a snail and brings it to them, but they are not as important as his song.
He is defiant, like a bugle, while a blackbird is seductive, like a flute, and there is one – a real maestro – calling from the apple tree in the other corner of the garden. If the thrush wakes me before sunrise, as he has often done since April, I can sometimes get irritated ( I am never in bed till well after midnight ), but if this particular blackbird rouses me so early I just smile into my pillow. His tone is unmistakably blackbird, but the improvisations, the liquid looping phrases and the unexpected key changes are his alone. He makes a thrush sound mechanical and a nightingale seem monotonous. (There are no nightingales round here any more, but even if there were, late June is always too late for their song.).
Though the owls –tawny owls – often call in the half-light, they usually allow a short interval after the last songbird before they announce themselves. Depending on their mood and the conditions, they are sometimes mute all night, particularly at this time of year when they have owlets to feed. On other nights, during other seasons, every wood and valley for miles around will be softly echoing to their melancholy voices.
I came to this area with my young family twenty-five years ago, attracted by the rolling chalk downland as much as the streams and rivers that flowed through it. My childhood home was on the North Downs, a hundred miles east, so the topography here seemed familiar despite the hills being higher and the woods more extensive than the ones I used to amble amongst. It is my favourite kind of walking country, and this house, an Eighteenth Century estate worker’s cottage, is set right in the heart of it. I can step straight out of my door, climb the tree hung slope behind the house and set off along paths and tracks that continue uninterrupted for miles. The only people I am likely to meet in the daytime are occasional fellow walkers, shepherds (on quad bikes) and gamekeepers (in Land Rovers). At night, because I go quietly and never carry a torch, I only ever meet the true natives.
Though this evening’s excursion will probably be the only one of the year that leads through to dawn, I have always been enthusiastic about night rambling, even if it is just a short stargazing stroll after supper. My children, too, by accompanying me on moonlit jaunts when they were very young, soon overcame their instinctive fear of the dark and would go on nocturnal adventures of their own.
When I was a child, my parents would take my sister, brother and me for long Sunday walks through the fields and woods that began at the end of our street, but we were nearly always home before dark. In midwinter, however, when the sun sets at four in the afternoon, we would sometimes find that the dark had overtaken us. Though my parents tried to avoid such lateness, I liked the way the orderly landscape seemed to grow wilder and more mysterious as the twilight faded; and I liked how the prospect of darkness chased everyone else away long before us so that it appeared we were walking through an unihabited country – uninhabited, except, of course for the local fauna.
During the last mile of one cold December trek, when the frost was starting to crisp the grass and night seemed to be tugging at our collars, I heard a rustle from the trees behind me that stopped me in my tracks. My family tramped on, unaware, while I hesitantly turned round. Just for a moment or two, I was held by the sight of a skeletal wood clustered against an icy blue aftergow and the faint white snick of a new moon hanging above it. There was something else; a vague movement along the trees’ edge, something running not quite soundlessly, yet very fast into deeper shadow where it vanished. Fox? Deer? Goblin? I had no idea, but then I was seven years old and all I had seen of the wild, apart from birds, were rabbits, red squirrels (this was 1955) and hedgehogs.
Despite the fact that an animal running for cover in the dark is an unremarkable event, what made it magical was its first timeness and the way my senses, already sharpened by the half-light, almost convinced me I was leaping foreward in pursuit of whatever it was. Being fearful, I never moved an inch, yet however brief the encounter it was a foretaste of what was to come when, less and less hesitantly, I began to venture out into the dark on my own. I discovered that the landscape had two lives: in the day there were birds and other fleetingly glimpsed creatures, but there were also people who disturbed the birds and made the earthbound fauna disappear completely. At night there were no people anywhere, not even bogeymen; the only birds I saw were owls, but there were all kinds of other creature, each one casually going about its nightime business, a whole secret world coming alive in the the undisturbed dark. So I learnt not to make any disturbances myself, to creep like a mouse into a wood and sit still for maybe an hour, focussing with my ears, using the sounds of paw-patter or antler-click to colour in the invisible shapes until I could identify them or they came into shadowy view.
And if, later, I ever came across, say, a deer out in the open in broad daylight, it never had the same effect as when I glimped it moving under trees in dappled moonlight. In the daytime a deer or a fox only borrowed my eyes, but at night everything was stolen.
But now, at last light, because these words are fading like invisible ink into the greying page, I shall put down my pen, pull on my boots and see what this new night has in store for me.
We are proud to be hosting the launch of Nightwalk at Rough Trade East, London E1, on 26th April. Join Chris for an evening of reading, discussion (with John Andrews) and Q & A. Nightwalk will be on sale and Chris will be happy to sign all copies purchased.