Setting off backwards, with a view to the west from my seat on the train, the sun is so bright that it hurts my eyes. A storm is forecast, it should be here by now. The weather is running late. Rabbits are frozen like ornaments in a scrap of scrubby field alongside a stream. The stream is bordered by gnarled hawthorn. Sheep graze in an unkempt field; they’ve been thrown turnips that look like misshapen burst footballs. The low sun dazzles. I need to close my eyes. I feel the flash and dapple of strobe lighting as we speed past a high fence of wire mesh. The first growth of silage looks impossibly green; it is low, spiky and lush. It reminds me of the child I saw swaddled into its mother’s chest at the M&S checkout yesterday, a thick crop of hair, remarkable on one so young. Few crops have been sown in the mostly bare fields; they are either ploughed clean or slovenly dressed with pitted yellow stubble. Crossing the River Wear, south of Durham, I watch it flow, brown and silted with the run off from recent downpours. In spate, it has broken its banks. Drowning tree branches bob up then disappear, moving swiftly towards a North Sea burial. I’m on the wrong side of the train for the Angel of the North, instead, from my window I see two Shire Horses grazing on a steep hill with rolling bumps as if someone has thrown a giant green blanket over boulders. Scattered around the same field is a convention of around twenty magpies – we move too fast for me to count. I’m almost relived when cloud drapes the low-slung sun in the west. One forgets to travel with sunglasses at this time of year. Skeletal oaks with bulbous heads show no sign of spring. Clumps of daffodils on the boundaries brave the changing weather, with each gust they dance valiantly. I imagine a farmer at the side of a field, pushing in bulbs with the heel of his boot, knowing they will cheer him, on a day like today. There is a glint of colour in some scrubland in north Northumberland – a pheasant. In the same flattened grey-brown stubble, left over from last year’s cut, I see a flash of what might be a buzzard’s wing as it swoops upon its prey. A copse of spindly Scots Pine have blown in on each other. Everywhere, lambs. Two, one all black and one all white, share space on their mother’s back, a game of leaping from there to the ground. Half a dozen wind turbines on the near horizon turn fast. Behind them a dark navy cloud washed with light grey promises more rain. Approaching the border everything is sodden and marshy. The austerity of the terrain makes me order hot chocolate from the lady with the trolley, something I never do. It is comforting. I keep watching. Two swans are hunkered low in a field, how do they feel about this storm closing in? I glance out of the window at the other side of the carriage, east to the sea where the sky, for the time being, is less threatening. A flock of black-headed gulls lift as one from a field. The train rocks now, as the wind gains strength. At Lindisfarne it is high tide. The causeway to the island is submerged. Somewhere south of Berwick the view is confiscated and replaced with steep banks where a colony of plastic bags is caught in stumps and gorse. Crossing the Tweed I look up river, inland. The breadth of it surprises me. Hedgerows are cut, some neatly clipped, but some have been gouged and torn. The ripped and frayed branches are like limbs in a bomb blast; impossible to believe there is any seed of life within them, that in a matter of months they will be lush and full and will obscure this view. I pass a piggery, gasping at the size of the waddling pigs. Penned in by ancient stonewalls, they are mudding up, pink skin turned terracotta from bathing in wet earth. Close to Edinburgh, four wee Shetlands graze with coats on. Ten minutes to go and the sky closes in, the wind gets up, and the sea on the other side disappears. Today’s journey has not been one of boastful beauty. Indeed, you might say that on a day like today nature is dressed in its dirty overalls, that winter has arm-wrestled spring back into submission. Yet there is something appealing in the day’s drab attire, through which I spy sparks of hope. I hurry home through a city where dusk has arrived too early. If I had a fire I would light it. I turn the heat on, as high as it will go.
The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.