Caught by the River

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Nick Small | 5th February 2015


Walk Out To Winter words and picture: Nick Small

As some weather befitting of the winter season finally starts to arrive, it’s tempting to succumb to the warmth of home and to watch the world through double glazed windows instead of getting out and about. It’s cold out there. It’s wet and windy or icy. There are plenty of reasons to eschew that excursion into wild spaces.

It’s a mistake though, to turn your back on the riches that nature bestows whist the sun sits low in the sky and the green stuff is sleeping. The elements themselves are invigorating….that bracing chill brings a refreshing tingle to the cheeks and, when the snow lies thick on the ground, the sensations of walking are a joy in their own right….the satisfying soft crunch of ice crystals compacting beneath the soles of your boot.

The other week the media found yet another elemental event to make a fuss about: a weather bomb. Now, I can remember half a century of winters and never before have I had to worry about such a cataclysmic sounding storm so, when it arrived, I put on my running gear and set off for an 8 mile canter over England’s rooftop: the wild expanse of Thornton Moor. It was, it has to be said, windy….but then it often is up there, with nothing at all to break a howling gale’s progress from the Atlantic. It was also a bit chilly, but with a couple of layers, a decent lightweight waterproof jacket and a woolly hat, I was pretty well equipped. Some studded fell shoes would give me a little grip. Half- way through the run, 1500 feet up on the most exposed portion of my route, I found myself (inevitably) alone and doing battle with the mother of all hailstorms. A winter squall. The icy blast was carrying a dense cloud of large hailstones at speeds of around 70 miles per hour. It was a bit uncomfortable for about ten minutes but I continued to run through it (stopping would have been trouble) and eventually it cleared….replaced by an insipid winter sun appearing through an improbable pale blue hole in the clouds. The entire left side of my body was cased in white ice. A few minutes later and it was gone.

That kind of direct and intimate contact with the winter elements is as important to me as feeling the first warmth of spring sun on my face. It’s a learning experience. Being exposed to the brute forces of nature teaches you to respect them and embrace them. We sometimes insulate and anaesthetise our incredible sensory organs. Subjecting them to all out assault….the battering of the wind, the chill of the air as it enters the mouth and the lungs, the taste of the rain…is one of the most enervating experiences it’s possible to have.

If this all sounds too much like the ramblings of a hopeless masochist, then perhaps think of winter’s more obvious charms. Think of those crisp and clear mornings, where mist hangs in the valleys and the hill tops bask in the glow of pinkish sunshine and frosty crystals sparkle on the long grass. The woods have a rich carpet of copper coloured beech leaves….a colour which extends out onto the low moors where bracken lies brown and broken. Troops of tits move systematically through the trees and shrubs, chattering as they go … blue, coal, great and, the cutest of all, long tailed … all mingling as they search for food. Squirrels bounce around the forest floor, searching for their stash and winter visitors like redwing, fieldfare and waxwing announce their arrival from Scandinavia.

If you’re really lucky, and you go quietly, you might even happen upon Roe Deer. With the thick scrub of the woodland floor stripped of its abundant summer growth, the lack of cover makes spotting these delicate and shy creatures so much more likely. There may be no snow or ice in the photograph here but it is unmistakably a picture of winter: the low golden sun, backlighting the woodland edge; the ground thick and rusty with beech leaves; and the clear line of sight for the mutual ogle that the deer and I shared for several minutes, fascinated by each other. It was a moment to savour, cherish and now share.

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