Caught by the River

The Wrong Neighbourhood

18th March 2023

Dan Lewis goes off-piste under cover of darkness.

It’s night and I’m driving across the hills above the city, heading home. For the first time this winter, it’s snowed heavily. I realise I have my hiking gear in the back and on impulse, turn off the main road into a lane I know. As I drive, I pass a few unlit buildings but see no one.

At the end of the lane, I park on a muddy bank and turn off the engine, the music stops and the headlights go out. Outside it’s black and noisy with melting snow, water dripping through the trees, and hitting the car in small thuds. Sitting half in the car boot and pulling on my waterproof trousers, it crosses my mind this is how a suburban man might die: not on a first ascent or in war, but on an ill-conceived night walk. I imagine twisting my ankle and freezing to death, far from the Himalayas, but two miles from a shopping centre with Europe’s largest car park.

With these thoughts I reach the stile, balancing on top to look across the valley. The snow lies ankle-deep over the fields, reflecting the moonlight back into the low cloud. The air is clear. Beyond the next ridge, there’s the glow of the docks, but here the light is violet and tinged burnt orange. The hills are round, small, and steep, sitting together snugly with dark streams running in their creases. Small copses appear as black patches in the half-light. Distantly, I can hear the sound of traffic, but in this enclosure of hills, everything is silent.

I start down the slope, my boots crunching, and reach a gate under a looming oak. As I pass under and emerge into the next field, a flock of sheep regards me coldly and without concern. I feel like a boss arriving at after-work drinks uninvited, and walk on quickly.

The first time I feel fear is when I reach the bottom of the valley. Both sides are steep and the snow packs into ice as soon as you step on it. If I needed to run from here, I couldn’t. There are no roads or houses within earshot. There is also no danger here, no people, nor animals that could harm me, but facts don’t help my anxiety. The path up the opposite slope forces me alongside an impenetrable wood and the child in me wants to turn back. I look to the top of the hill, where a gate is silhouetted, broken, and twisting off its hinges. It’s an unhelpful image.

By the time I reach the top, my pulse is quick and I’m sweating. Below me a river flows in darkness towards the estuary, at its mouth is a firework of lights, orange and brilliant white, red flashes at the top of factory towers. A cargo train weaves under a motorway streaming with traffic. It’s heading towards a container ship sitting high in the water, its bridge brightly lit, a warning blinking from the helm. Hulking cranes slide along the dockside. Pylons and wires thread through more lights, green, yellow, and rose gold. This view is mine alone.

I go to the highest point and look back the way I’ve come, to the fields radiating in the snow light. Half a mile away, in the fold of a hill, a single window shines in the creeping mist.

The atmosphere and solitude, the unrepeatable, visceral experience, it all comes to a peak. Euphoric, I spread my arms and laugh in delight. I think things that are true, but also ridiculous: that I am king out here, that no animal could kill me, just look at me – I’m wearing pieces of other animal’s skin! But as I move from my vantage point, down into the valley and among the trees again, something in me shifts. With the woods comes the unseen and unknown, mentally I go from predator to prey, alert for sounds, and fighting the urge to run.

I retrace my tracks up past the sheep and as I approach the stile, I think to take a last glance back. Towering clouds have sunk behind the ridge I was just on. Lit by the floodlights below, they are the colour of fire. On the crest, mist drifts through bare black trees, stark against the blaze of light. Above it all, smoke from the refinery billows into the sky. A blitz skyline. It is beautiful, apocalyptic, and as surreal as if The Snowman had come gliding over the horizon, followed by helicopter gunships and napalm. Within a minute, the scene is carried away by the wind. 

Twenty minutes later I’m driving into the city, and the windscreen is smeared and glittered with rain. Here are the shops, buses, and adverts. Flashes and sirens as vehicles speed to crimes, fires, and accidents. Within a mile of my home, I know of three murders, several car crashes, burglaries, and assaults. Some of them may be unseen, but nothing here is unknown to me. I feel safe here, among the people, chaos, and the familiar.


Dan Lewis is a writer based in Bristol, with interests in mental health, nature and the city. You can find him on Twitter here.