April Showers. Words and pictures by Malcolm Anderson.
The sky is dark as week old tarmac as I reach the top of the Yew lined track above Winchester, the bustle of city life long forgotten behind me.
The first rumble of thunder is faint, miles away across the dry chalk landscape but I’ve got a bit of a walk across open downland before I reach the cover of woodland so I put an inch to my stride, whistle for the puppy who’s busy digging in the hedge and step out into a world of yellow.
Following a set of tractor tracks through the rapeseed I slowly head up and across the smooth shoulder of open ridge that leads towards the jagged slit of deep shadow marking the start of an area of ancient woodland in the distance. The bright yellow of the field sits in stark contrast to the dark brooding sky; a Rothko painting made landscape scale.
The temperature drops noticeably as I approach the woodland’s edge and the wind suddenly shifts direction, causing consternation in the pigeons that had been feeding on the scraggy margin of the field. With a chaotic explosion of wings and a light shower of loose ice grey feathers Mungo and I are alone; two small figures stranded on the green shore of an aureolin sea.
As I push through the barrier of Hawthorn that borders the wood the atmosphere seems to solidify and close in around me. The sunshine and honey smell of the open field is gone, replaced by the scents of leaf mold, heavy earth, thick wet moss and something faintly perfumed that just tickles at my memory. There’s something otherworldly at work here, a feeling of being nine turns widdershins away from a fairy tale.
I feel as much as see the first explosion of lightning as it arcs across the sky on the far side of the leafy roof and the thunder when it arrives a heartbeat later hits my chest like an audible punch. The hard-edged billiard ball of noise ricochets off distant grassy hill forts, hidden tumuli and sleepy farm buildings before slowly fading to a tinnitus-laden silence. Raindrops fall with an increasing tempo on the canopy overhead – rat-tat-tat-tat – a meteorological percussionist meting out the rhythm of the world.
Stepping through a small clearing, little more than paddling pool width across, another lightning flash splits the sky and the tall wooden sentries bordering the clearing are frozen in harsh electric light for a millisecond then fade back into shadows. Rain falls in a vertical sheeting column, splashing my cheeks as I dart across the open space and push my way back into the woods dark embrace.
Moving around a stand of long forgotten Hazel I almost don’t notice the little path wending off through the leaf mold and with no fixed plan of where I was going anyway I turn left, off along the animal trail and into the green tinged gloom. Around the next bend, a large old yew is lying across the path, sitting at forty-five degrees, young shoots growing vertically from slanted old limbs. Under the trunk is a gap of about three feet and unthinking I duck down and squeeze through, soaking my knees, my hands pressing into the dark syrupy soil.
The woodland has changed here; I’ve crossed a line from ancient to modern. Gone is the tangled underbelly and the heavy, sombre atmosphere. Gone are the Yews, Hawthorns and unmanaged Hazel Coppice. In their place are young beech trees, perhaps only 50 years old, well spaced and ramrod straight. The storm outside has passed and a weak sunlight is illuminating the leafy ceiling with a vibrant chartreuse colour. However, it’s not the neon sky that catches the breath in my chest, it’s the floor.
Underfoot it’s as if a summer’s night sky has fallen to the earth. The woodland floor is a carpet of bluebells as far as I can see interspersed by small delicate white stars of greater stitchwort. Thin fingers of post-storm sunlight are poking through the young canopy and falling on wet petals, creating faint rainbows in the misty air. I physically don’t know what to do with myself it’s so startlingly beautiful, unreal almost, so I go to the nearest trunk prop myself against the wet mossy cushion and sink to the woodland floor to watch, wait and wonder.
With the bricks and mortar of Drove Cottage being nothing but fond memories now, a victim of the crazy winter just gone, I have to work for my headspace instead of it being there as soon as I open the window. I have to consciously choose to step out of my routine in order to find those quiet moments to do nothing but stop and stare. In the style of Izaak Walton I actively seek to escape, not as he did from political repression but from the stresses of modern life and the constraints of my ever-present Crohn’s Disease, by studying to be quiet.
I may have nodded off, I may just have zoned out for a while but either way Mungo comes panting over and sits, checking I’m still alive perhaps. With a soggy lopsided grin he plops down and proceeds to fall asleep. So here I sit, with a faintly snoring dog on my feet amongst a sea of flowers, feeling at peace with the world.