The darkness is beginning to linger. I remember how short the days were in the depths of last winter; the blanket of black that hung around until late in the morning and returned, it seemed, just a few hours later. Sometimes it was hard to leave the warmth of the cottage. Inside these thick walls, where the lamps and fire glowed, all was comfortable and safe. Outside, in the after-dark landscape, familiar places, the woods, the lanes, the fields, became strange and, in my mind, out of bounds.
But recently I read Chris Yates’ Nightwalk, and his tales of moonlit rambles inspired me to try and reclaim my winter nights. He describes – beautifully – this secret world that comes alive in the undisturbed dark. If you sit quietly in the woods when everyone else is tucked up in bed you’ll glimpse it – the badger going about its business, the owl passing overhead, the cold stare of a hare. As I turned the last page, I decided it was time to drag myself away from the hearth, ignore the stab of primeval fear and enter the night.
A cool breeze swished through the leaves. The stars showered and pulsed in the velvet dome of a sky, and to the west the last of the twilight slipped behind the hills. Ahead of me the lane was a pitch-black tunnel. Then almost imperceptibly, things began to take shape and reveal themselves – shadows and traces and suggestions of forms I recognised. I walked slowly, gingerly, towards the woods, the only sound the steady flop flop of my wellies.
In among the trees the darkness closed in, becoming deeper and denser. I found my way through to a clearing and stood still. The ancient oaks crouched in a circle around me. Timber creaked, something shuffled its way through the undergrowth, and, far away, the waves lapped the shore. Each noise was magnified by the silence and my sharpened senses.
I heard the snap of a branch on the hill just above me. It was most likely a deer. Still, my heart raced at the prospect of a face-to-face encounter with a beast out here in the dead of night. I was beginning to lose my nerve. Just as I left the edge of the woods and began to cross the field, I heard a horrifying screech from the trees. The sound strangled and then swept out over the loch. I hurried home.