The glitter sparkle of ice in light. Tiny crystals in the grass, on the pavement. From the height of the train, Basingstoke almost appears to be in a valley. Can’t be more than 100 meters in elevation between here and home. I roll out of town. Sleepy villages in shallow hollows. Smoke, or more likely steam, rises from a few chimneys. The gold of dawn still burns as much South as it is East. A white landscape spills out before it. The world seems at peace, beautiful almost. I feel I’m conditioned to think this. The expanse of empty fields are green and pleasant. Please ignore the damage to the environment. People have always spoken highly of the land I come from. “It’s so green, ” they tell me. Admiring the unbroken fields of grass. Opposition to a new housing estate declares some of these fields “the lungs on Basingstoke.” You are, of course, not allowed to visit the lungs, to cross the threshold. The sign on the gate always reads the same. “PRIVATE. NO PUBLIC ACCESS.” I pass through the industrial waste of Micheldever. Cuttings and carriages. A weird nowhere place that not only received a station and was allowed to keep it. The train delivers me to WInchester and I disappear into an office block for another day of work.
The weekend arrives and I’m already in Oxford. Another train ride carried me here from work. In the morning Rachael and I agree to get up and go. Or more like I accept her view of get up and go. If we’re out the door by 10am we’ll call it a win. Thick fog rests over the city. Ice lays across the car. Visibility increases as we roll over the downs, falling again in each valley. We park in a side street in Chipping Norton. Why do I know the name? No idea. A quick Google search suggests it’s famous for wool production in the medieval period. I have no idea why it’s familiar to me. We pass through a children’s play area, over a small hump back bridge and in to the farmland on the edge of the Cotswolds. In a chewed up, heavily ploughed field movement catches my eye. At first I assume it’s a dog, but the vulpine features suggest something else. A big, probably brown fox looks almost grey in the thick fog. We make eye contact before he changes his mind about crossing the field and trots back to the tree line.
Rachael and I stomp through the frozen puddles. The ice cracking under foot. A small stream crosses the footpath. Wobbling stones rise just above the surface of the water to aide in a dry crossing. We follow another couple, walking their tiny dogs across the fields. They climb and turn. We climb and turn. We reach out first destination. The Whispering Knights might be a tomb. They might be men turned to stone. Once upon a time they might have formed a portal to the underworld itself. They might just be rocks, placed at jaunty angles for reasons known only to the people who did it, 5000 years ago. Lying in a hollow on the surface of one stone, a handful of weathered coins. Offerings to the dead? Buying luck? A little further on there’s a ring of stones; the Rollrights. On the edge of the Rollright stone circle, a tree is littered with string and bags. Whispers and promises, hopes and prayers. The blonde girl wandering the stones looks like she’s wearing a bright blue druid’s cape. Hard to be sure beneath the black coat over the top. A drone flies overheard, buzzing like a wasps nest. Getting the only good angle of the stone circle. At the foot of the King Stone, batches of reeds. Asking for I know not what. The best explanation for all this is the stones were once men. The king and his army. One of them, maybe all of them, upset a local witch and she thought I haven’t got time for any of this, and turned them all to stone.
The return journey coincides with the thawing of frost. Frozen footpaths are now slick with mud. A spring, a leak, water spills over a field. The footpath is chewed to bits. We slip and slide to the safety of shade, and the ice firm ground beneath our feet. We come to another stream crossing. A style ends in the water. Two logs have been placed to form stepping stones. The far bank is steep and slick enough to pose a problem. I take the lead. It can’t be much more than a year ago when I was waste deep in a river estuary wondering how much deeper I’d go before the far bank began rising before me. Now I’m sort of stuck at a stream less than a meter wide. I own more pairs of shoes now than I did then. I make the crossing. Stump to stump, and throw my weight forward. If I slip at least I should land in the mud, rather than the water. Rachael has as much difficulty. I don’t know how to help. I move around the bank, offering my arm if I can get close enough. “I’ll pull you in,” she warns me. She might. There’s nothing else to do but leap. She goes for it. Landing, moving forward. Staying on her feet. We’ll be home dry after all.