I would like to draw together two very different winter journeys to introduce January. The first is a description at the beginning of Robert McFarlane’s 2012 book The Old Ways:

I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out. A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.

At the southerly fringe of the suburb a last lamp post stands by a hawthorn hedge, and next to it is a hole in the hedge which leads down to a modest field path.

I followed the field path east-south-east towards a long chalk hill-top, visible as a whaleback in the darkness. Northwards was the glow of the city, and the red blip of aircraft warning lights from towers and cranes. Dry snow creaked underfoot. A fox crossed the field to my west at a trot. The moonlight was so bright that everything cast a crisp moon-shadow: black on white, stark as woodcut. Wands of dogwood made zebra-hide of the path; hawthorn threw a lattice. The trees were frilled with snow, which lay to the depth of an inch or more on branches and twigs. The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself.

Robert McFarlane

This is the opening of a book that follows ancient ways, paths that humans have trodden for centuries, even millennia. That it begins in the dead of winter, as the snow falls on an ordinary suburb of Cambridge when the ground is “unmarked” may be read as a metaphor for the way in which humankind has a need to imprint its routes on nature. What also strikes me is the estrangement of the lone figure, making his passage past houses in which he glimpses through windows a social world from which he is excluded. The clipped sentences, recording his observations emphasise his separation from the warmth inside. He steps away from society, into a hole in the hedge, (rather like Will Parry steps through a portal from ‘the fabric of this world and into another,’ in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), and follows a path into the untamed winter.

Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, composed in 1827, just a year before his untimely death,sets poems by Wilhem Muller. The opening lines of the first song ‘I arrived a stranger, / A stranger I depart’ points to a vein of melancholy similar to McFarlane’s. Winterreise tells the story of a young man jilted by his lover, who sets out on a chill journey that comes to represent his own depression:

My heart is as dead,
Her image coldly rigid within it;
If my heart ever melts again
Her image, too, will flow away.

Mein Herz ist wie erstorben,
Kalt start ihr Bild darin
Schmilzt je das Herz mir wieder,
Fliest auch ihr Bild dahin.

Wilhem Muller

The bleakness in the German words is rather lost in the translation. The landscape which the narrator travels is unremittingly grim and seems to epitomise Romanticism’s expression of the individual pitted against a malign universe. Ian Bostridge, a tenor who has performed the cycle many times and has written a fine book on it, points out the way in which Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings uncannily illustrate many of the themes in Winterreise. One example he gives is the haunting picture of a soldier lost in a wintry forest The Chasseur in the Forest. A crow sits on a stump, presaging the man’s inevitable death.  

The wintry landscape is always a reflection of the wanderer’s inner desolation, with the icy weather seeming to take over his physical being:

My heart sees its own image
Painted in the sky.
It is nothing but winter-
Winter, cold and savage.

Mein Herz sieht an dem Himmel
Gemalt sein eignes Bld.
Es ist nichts ais der Winter,
Der Winter kalt und wild!

Wilhem Muller

Late in the cycle the outcast is pestered by a crow, a bird imbued with uncanny significance:

Crow, you strange creature,
Will you not leave me?

Krahe, wunderliches Tier,
Willst mich nicht verlassen?

Wilhem Muller

In the song the word ‘Krahe’ is given a harsh, almost dissonant sound, making it a creature of ill-omen and loneliness. Krahe is in fact very close to the guttural Kraa call of Carrion Crows. Muller and Schubert are delving into a substantial body of folklore associated with crows. Winterreise intimates that the traveller is journeying towards death and this would fit with the myth that crows are soul-guides, who carry the dead into the next world.

It may be fanciful to carry images from high Romantic art into the modern world but I have found myself returning to these songs during my walks in January. There are times, even in the closeted south of the country, when the weather can seem pitiless and the walker is driven inwards, as if to protect him or herself. I have also observed the behaviour of our crows, Jackdaws, Carrion Crows and Rooks. These birds are very prominent in the bare trees and the wide, open fields and all are noticeably active at this time of year. Carrion Crows are usually solitary birds, whilst Jackdaws and Rooks are gregarious and live in large colonies. Having said this I have seen large numbers of crows gathered on fields in the area, feasting on some invertebrate delicacies.

The crow family have a bad reputation with farmers, which is why scarecrows were commonly used as sentinels in newly seeded fields. Up until the nineteenth century children were often employed as crow-scarers and there is an old rhyme which says, ‘One for the pigeon, one for the crow/ One to rot and one to grow.’ In Ewhurst most of the fields are pasture, so crows do not pose a problem and I have been struck by how many there are, in the outlying areas around the village. They fly low, with a slow wing beat and may be heard calling to other crows. Omnivorous, the crows also come into gardens to feed at bird tables; they are clever birds and I recently saw one lifting the suet feeder off its hook and dropping the contents to the ground before making a getaway with a whole ball in its beak.

We seem to have fewer Rooks in this area and I am not sure why this is. This month I have spotted more and saw a large flock on the Baynards Estate, just outside of Cranleigh. Rooks are early nesters and form, sometimes vast, rookeries; next month we may see lots of activity in tree-tops that the Rooks have colonised.

Early in the month we walked up the Hilly field from North Breache Road. A bitterly cold north-east wind cut across the open land; somehow the field seemed bigger, perhaps because the surrounding woods provide less of a boundary without their leaves. Lone figures on this expanse of land we felt a vulnerability, exposed as we were to the elements. I thought of how Thomas Hardy describes Tess D’Urberville’s terrible experience when, a fugitive after her separation from Angel Clare, she ends up working on a chalk down land farm called Flintcomb-Ash. It is winter, the working women have barely enough clothing to protect them from persecuting weather, as they dig up swedes:

It was so high a situation, this field, that the rain had no occasion to fall, but raced along horizontally upon that yelling wind, sticking into them like glass splinters till they were wet through.

Thomas Hardy

He goes on to describe how their, ‘thick leather gloves could not prevent the frozen masses (the swedes) they handled from biting their fingers.’ Hardy, the countryman, sympathizes with the plight of the poor agricultural workers, whose nomadic existence and dreadful working conditions would appear intolerable. Wrapped up warm and knowing that I only have to be out in the elements for as long as I wish, it is hard to imagine the unrelenting lives country people suffered in earlier centuries.

Wildlife has elected to go to ground and all we see is a flock of Wood Pigeons making for the cover of woodland in the strange grey afternoon light, which ebbs towards darkness. Later in the week there has been snow on the hills and in the village wintry rain is flecked with sleet. We make our way towards Holmbury Hill but decide not to climb the steep slope to the very top. Just as we reach Hurtwood House a Heron flies past, its passage down the tree-lined valley and then out across open fields. They are massive birds and Jackie says it looks like a pterodactyl, which is true and looking at this creature it is easy to see the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds.

On the side of the path there are patches of snow and the field which we cross turning back home has remnants of the fall. A chilly fog hangs over the hill, which by the time we get back to the bottom has dispersed. With the hills circling around the village it is interesting how micro climates can mean that quite different weather conditions may be experienced in areas which are geographically close.

In the middle of January we decide it is time to find some new routes and re-visit ones that we haven’t walked since the summer. When we last walked from Sayers Croft Nature Reserve on the westward path towards Cranleigh it was high summer and the field you cross from the reserve to Lemans Farm was a sea of grasses, with wild flowers giving colour and House Martins skimming over catching insects. Now it looks glum, with grass just managing to survive in claggy soil; there is, however a spare beauty at this time of year. It is cold and misty, the rain is keeping off and we plod across not expecting to see anything much, when a Roe Deer, alarmed by our presence runs to cover in the bordering wood.

Reaching the farm the path turns to quagmire and a good deal of the rest of our walk is spent navigating boggy terrain. Ewhurst is infamous for its mud tracks which become virtually impassable in winter and I often wonder what it was like when there was no tarmac and routeways were tracks, which would have been churned up by horses and carts.

We struggle on bravely, consoling ourselves with the thought that we are burning up extra post-Christmas calories, as it takes so much energy to pull your boot out of the wallowing mud bowl. I found a lovely word, “slobland”, which aptly describes the sludge and ooze of our winter terrain and sounds as if it is derived from Anglo-Saxon, slob laend.

I find farm yards fascinating places, in many ways they are the hub of the countryside, though many in this area have been gentrified. They are little worlds, isolated from other farms or habitations by surrounding fields which provide their livelihood. Mysterious out-buildings and barns house animals or machinery: on Lemans Farm there is an old air-raid shelter, a monument to war-time but now storage space. I’m surprised it is here, as I would have thought that places in the midst of open country were not often in danger from enemy bombers during the war. This one is constructed of galvanised corrugated metal, an Anderson Shelter I believe; it has stood the test of time. The name of this farm is intriguing as well, indeed place names in general reveal much history; in this case Lemans can be traced back to Middle English in the thirteenth century, with the word meaning, lover or sweetheart. Is it fanciful to imagine this land was bequeathed to a long-forgotten mistress?

Beyond the farm the footpath enters the northern tip of Canfold Wood. I don’t think that I had realised the extent of the wood, taken together Upper and Lower Canfold woods cover an acreage nearly the size of Cranleigh. Ancient, mixed woodland such as this supports many species of plants and animals and it is heartening that there is so much of it in this area. Our walk will take us from this point to its southernmost edge.

What disturbs me as we walk the path is way the Carex pendula, an invasive perennial I mentioned in the summer, has taken over the woodland floor. As an evergreen plant its presence makes itself felt in the winter and it does seem to have spread everywhere in this part of the wood. It will be interesting to see whether the spring flowers such as Bluebells, Celandine and Wood Anemone have been suffocated by this less than attractive bully.

We soon get to the junction of paths; today we are taking the south branch but we make a mental note to explore both the north route, which eventually goes to Winterfold Heath and the east path, which crosses Cranleigh Showground and thence to Barhatch Lane. Our path follows the edge of the wood, beyond the bank lie grassy fields and to the left is a steep slope with lovely, mature beech, oak and birch trees. I get a strong sense that this is a passage that has been used for generations. The banks with beech trees along their tops are boundary markers which are clearly hundreds of years old and I think back to Robert McFarlane’s book, which I quoted earlier, and I’m reminded of the past wayfarers who have passed along these routes before me. It is a humbling thought.

Apart from a few grey squirrels scampering up the trees and some reclusive birds rustling in the undergrowth, there is not much wildlife around. The wood is spacious and you can see deeper into it, so the topography is visible in a way that is masked in summer by the leaves and other vegetation. Where leaves and bracken lie in the glades a tawny brown, which is a warm colour, takes away some of the chill air. Woods in winter are both protecting and menacing at the same time: it is easy to see why Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is so atmospheric when his pilgrims find themselves in deep and ancient forests.

Most of the time we have only enjoyed the sounds of the countryside but as we approach Bookhurst Road the constant noise of traffic wakes us up to the modern world. The path loops back to the east, passing behind the reservoir and after a track we notice that quite an area of woodland has been cleared: since the track gives access to the road, it makes me wonder if anything is going on. The threat to these woods and indeed other woodland in the area seems to be a constant issue. Moving on we come out at the Canfold Cottages and cross the road to follow the lane down to Bowles Farm. On the right of the track is Fir Tree Wood, which now borders the new housing estate; not surprisingly, most of the trees are conifers. There are several paths which go to Cranleigh, the main one linking with the Vachery Estate but we carry on as far as the farm. This is the most southerly point of Canfold Wood and after the farm the route goes across fields, which all have large oak trees in them. By this time there is a light rain and mist is forming; I spot a small flock of Redwings, which scatters as we appear. It has been a long walk and we are tiring, as the going is far from easy: the fields are saturated and marshy in lots of places. Getting to Old House, we turn north and homewards.

We are very lucky in this country to have a network of Public Footpaths, allowing access to our countryside. It is possible to go for many miles without having to walk on a road. As far as I know this is a unique feature of Britain. In a bid to find new walks I thought it would be nice to walk over to the Cranleigh area and discover the countryside to the south of the village. I have been drawn to visit Vachery Pond for a long time, as I gather it is a sanctuary for water birds and so we set off along paths new to get there.

There is a long path which is picked up behind Old House in Ewhurst, We have taken the eastward branch of this path several times but instead go right in a south-westerly direction. This takes us through the edge of Great Copse, which is very beautiful mixed ancient woodland. It is slightly different to other woods in the area, with greater numbers of Beech trees and also some of those very ancient, mysterious trees, the yew. Where these occur there are dark enclaves where light cannot penetrate the old growth and thick, evergreen leaves. Something mystic lingers in these places, reminding one of early Christian and pagan associations with death and immortality. It is easy to imagine, as the branches form a tunnel through which walkers pass, that the passage from life to death may well be symbolised. Although Sylvia Plath saw only darkness in the tree:

 And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness

 And silence.

Sylvia Plath

Struggling out of magical entanglements we carry on; it is sunny and we can see the fields to the south as only a thin line of trees separates us from them. The good weather has woken the birds up and we can hear Great Tits, Blue Tits and Robins chirping happily in the branches, no doubt enjoying the sunshine on their backs. The path is a long one and eventually the Great Copse merges with Whitehall Copse and it is at this point that the view opens out across the Weald. Here we are right on the Sussex border and, whether this imagination or not, it does feel different.

The last part of the track skirts Norley Farm, where there appears to be a play group with very unhappy kindergartens wailing, a sound not unlike that of the mating foxes we hear outside our bedroom window at night. We reach the Horsham Road, on the brow of Longhurst Hill, a blind bend which is quite hazardous to cross. The footpath is clearly marked, taking us past a quaint house whose owners must be eco-warriors, as they have countless placards extolling passers-by to be environmentally friendly and never to fly by plane. They may have got their wish on the last one, as this route lies on the Gatwick flight path and I remember visiting a friend’s garden on the Vachery Estate one summer and hardly being able to think because of the low-flying aircraft. Today I don’t think we hear one jet pass overhead.

We are in uncharted territory now and find the path weaving through a mixture of mature trees and more recent Laurel, which is probably a garden escapee. This joins a made-up road and the sign directs us up this and this is where we go wrong. We intended to make for Vachery Pond but ended up going in a big circle around Baynards Park. I was wondering why we didn’t get to see the pond and nothing tallied with my map. Still it was a pleasant walk through fields and farms which I had never been to. It was here I saw the flock of Rooks that I mentioned earlier; there were lots of hedgerows with birds flying in and out, Dunnocks and House Sparrows mainly. Later on we heard a knocking in an oak tree and saw a Nuthatch pecking vigorously at the bark. It was possibly searching for spiders and insects but Nuthatches in autumn and winter will feed on beechmast, acorns and hazel nuts: the birds have been seen to wedge nuts in cracks and crevices in trees or other sites and smash these open with strikes from the beak.

By this point in the walk I was not sure where we were; we seemed to have strayed onto the Downs Link walk for a while and then crossed Cobblers Brook, near where it enters Vachery Pond although the pond was nowhere to be seen. This led us to a tarmacked road, which turned out to be Vachery Lane. Here we should have turned left, which would have led to the outskirts of Cranleigh but we went in the wrong direction, taking us back to Longhurst Hill where we started. Apparently it was once possible to walk around the pond and it was popular with birders, dog walkers, runners and ramblers; now the land-owner has forbidden entry, for reasons no doubt best known to him.

So it was that we ended up re-tracing our steps of the morning through Great Copse and to Old House: we had intended to track round the back of Cranleigh and walk back through Canfold Wood. We will try our original plan another day.

It is mid-January and we decide to climb up to Pitch Hill, another walk we haven’t done for a long time. The weather is not promising as we trudge up to Gull’s Isle, and the hill ahead of us is shrouded in low cloud; the wind is also getting strong, a prelude of Storm Christophe, which comes in full force that evening. As we cross on Path Four Acres I notice that the Horse Chestnut tree has “sticky buds” on it and that the White Poplars that form an avenue also have buds. These are welcome signs of spring coming.

The long, slow incline up to Isemongers Farm is made harder because of the wind but as we get near the upper field I see lots of small birds flying in front of us and then landing in oak trees at the edge of the field. Sometimes birdwatching can be frustrating, because of the dull weather I cannot make out their markings, even through binoculars. I am pretty sure that they were Bramblings and certainly the way they were behaving would suggest it but I cannot be sure.

Picking the steep route that cuts off a big loop on the road, we wonder halfway up it whether this was a mistake, it is a strenuous climb; however we do notice that the fog has lifted and between the hedges we are getting glimpses of the view, as the sun breaks through the cloud. Once we’ve had a rest before the final ascent we can begin to take in the change of scenery. It is always exhilarating to feel that you are stepping into a different world; the Green sandstone is much more porous than the clay and this means the drainage is better and the paths much easier. The slender silver birch show up well as the sun catches their white bark and the gold brown of the dead bracken throws the trees into relief. There are some Gorse bushes in flower and the bright yellow is a joyous sight in the wintry scene. We are lucky as we now have a clear view over the Weald, as far as the South Downs and there is a lovely feeling of freedom and space on the top of the hill.

The nice thing about getting to the summit is the knowledge that most of the way back is downhill. As we follow the track we are accompanied by running water, which will drain into our local streams. Passing by Rapsley Farm I am intrigued by the remains of a Roman Villa, which I don’t think there is public access to: I wonder how much remains of it. After the farm we go to Coneyhurst Farm and here we see yet another clear intimation of spring, a group of Snowdrops are in flower on the roadside. We cut through the farm and climb Shippen Hill, from here it is possible to look back at Pitch Hill and Winterfold. I am also reminded we are back on clay as I slip over and break my favourite walking stick.    

An enchanted world, the snow has come and has transformed the landscape, covering the ground with two or three inches. Ben, Jess and myself set off for the Badger Wood while there are still flurries of snow in the air. There are lots of people out enjoying it and parents have resurrected sledges from lofts and garages and are pulling children, squealing with delight, along slopes and roads.

The path from the Shere Road has become a snowy avenue as the trees and bushes hang over under the snow’s weight. It brings to mind Lucy’s passage into Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe:

And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air……………

She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and through the wood towards the other light.

In about ten minutes she reached it and found it was a lamp-post.

C.S. Lewis

Pauline Baynes’s evocative illustration of the lamp-post adds another magical dimension to C.S. Lewis’s atmospheric invention. For us low winter light is refracted by the whiteness of the snow throwing dark and light from the tree branches until it seems there is a kind of spectral dance going on in the trees.

I am eager to see if the badger setts have been used since the snowfall: the snow started falling at about nine o’clock when most law-abiding badgers would be safely snuggled up asleep, so it is not surprising that the sett holes are fronted by virgin snow. The little stream a tributary of Cobbler’s Brook is in full spate, ice cold meltwater making the waterfall into a noisy torrent. It is near enough to the Badger’s home to keep them awake but perhaps they find the sound of flowing water soothes them to sleep.

When we enter the main part of the wood there is a cushioned silence, as if all sound is being absorbed by the snow. The mix of trees means the snow canopy is at different levels, with the Scots Pines topped high up against the skyline and Hazel, Holly and Silver Birch catching clumps of snow that have fallen through the canopy. A Jay breaks the peace with his raucous laughing call; we don’t see him. Footprints mark out the paths of earlier walkers with their dogs and we comment on the distinctive sound trudging through snow has: it is a sound that awakens long-forgotten childhood experience. It also calls to mind a unique piece of music Debussy wrote in 1909; under five minutes long his prelude Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow) creates a world weary vision of man’s desolation in the winter. You feel, in the sombre notation, heavy footsteps trying and failing to find their way in the landscape. It seems to me to present another musical version of Winterreise, drawing on elusive memories that hover on the edge of consciousness.

Standing in the midst of the wood, looking out across the fields to signs of civilisation and seeing hazy sunshine breaking out of the heavy clouds I think of another poem concerned with a journey, Robert Frost’s enigmatic Stopping by Woods On A Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

As with the Debussy Prelude, this poem faces the imponderable, offers no answers in its fleeting insight in which nature is at one with a landscape of the mind.

Leaving the wood behind, a Buzzard circles over oak trees at the edge of the field; it is mobbed by Jackdaws. Birds asserting their territory. On the far side of the field Redwings congregate on branches with their feathers ruffled against the cold.  Refugee survivors from bitterer climes. At the cross point somebody has built a snowman, an ephemeral cairn, already half a memory. Snowman by the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is a thoughtful and profound meditation on the ‘mind of winter’ with which we can leave January:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun: and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens

2 thoughts on “January

  1. The Canfold woods are being felled – and replanted too! So the felling is presumably just part of the cycle. We couldn’t see exactly what the new trees were, but they were deciduous. Apart from horse pasture, woodland seems to be what does best in ‘slobland’!

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