The Winter Heath: The Poets Hunting Ground

Whilst archiving some work and planning this year’s pieces, I came across an unfinished blog that never felt quite ready to post, and was left hanging in my files. It explores a connection with the heathland in winter, and how a landscape and nature can inspire my writing, both prose and poetry. As the new year trudges through dark dreary January, it seems an appropriate time to finish off the last few sentences and share this with you now.
I hope you enjoy!  – Sophie May. 

The Poets’ Hunting Ground

Whenever I find it hardest to write, the semi-wild swathes of commoner’s land act as my lungs, filled with breaths of inspiration. It is where I find my words, drinking up lines from the land, absorbing stories from the peat-earth, ore-stone and cobwebbed wood sage. I love the heathland, this landscape of contrasts and contradictions. I have begun walking here frequently, learning its moods, which are as fickle as the seasons and can change with the softest stroke of sun.

By August, the sand will seem to vibrate with the pure energy of the baking sun and the intensity of it will force me to retreat to the shade of the woodlands, languid and aimless. 

But now, in winter, the apparent bleakness of this landscape seems somehow fitting, a stark contrast to the scenes of summer excess in which I will bask later in the year. It is at this time of year when my relationship with the heath is at its peak. This capsule of heather-clad, pine-and-birch-pierced ground perform the role of decompression chamber, allowing me to escape and process the pressures of the season, when all too often my mood seems to match the weather. There are days in January and February when the sun shines and the weather is mild and all seems magnificent; false springs, that although they have little substance do much to lift the spirits and brighten a winter-logged heart. Then there are days when the luminous-yellow gorse flowers seem drastically out of place in the desolate half-light, their brightness almost obscene in contrast to the ash greys, iron browns and chromatic greens.

Sometimes I think this is how I like the heathland best, muted and lonely. There is poetry in its austerity.

Heather-wire, woody, rasp-dry,
Leaches cold colour down from mist-thin sky.
But there is no hope there, 
the sky is over-washed grey.
A warped pine, 
three black crows, 
Black as mourners, 
harsher yet, 
One calls, ditto. 
Scavenge light from the day.

I say that I head to the heathland to escape, but it is not that really. I am not running away from something, in fact I consider myself lucky that have little of such horror in my life that I have any wish to leave it behind, but rather, I think I am running to something – that intangible indefinable thing just over the horizon, promised yet ever unobtainable. Once out on the heath I can often find myself gripped by a sense of adventure and wonder; I supposed you could call it child-like. If I were to allow myself to entertain a 7-year olds playful imagination for a moment, the heathland would be a portal to all the imagined worlds. Because there are stories here, chapters of history and happenings that have played out over, and shaped, the heathlands through the centuries.

In the south east of England, you are never far from ‘civilisation’, and so it is that the whine of traffic on the main road and the rising hum of a plane are ever present to anchor me in the here and now. But just sometimes a glance sideways, a little off centre, may suggest a rumour of outlaws or highway-men watching the road or the lingering acrid scent of fire.
Gorse from heathland such as this fuelled the bread ovens of the crowded city, and it is thought in turn perhaps also fuelled the Great Fire of London. Grazing of animals, cutting of turfs and the collection of bracken for bedding kept the heaths open and prevented the trees from advancing.

Now it is the digger and the chainsaw, and workforces of volunteers, which perform the duties in the absence of the commoner, for fear of loosing these strange wild-faced yet human-forged landscapes forever.

A landscape of contradictions indeed: at once manipulated and formed by the lives and whims of people and yet a raw and stark nature-scape that seems to encapsulate the last of the land’s wild spirit.

Sometimes I encounter these work-parties in their efforts to conserve the heathlands, or I bump into others who are drawn to this place: dog walkers, horse riders, bird watchers. I wonder, do they see out the corner of their eye, how the bonfire smoke swirls and eddies around the form of ghosts of young soldiers who trained amongst these heather hummocks long ago?

Perhaps it is unwise for me to spend too many hours upon the heath in the dark heart of the year, for surely it is on the days when the mist clings low, that the fay weave their spells unseen. I should return in the spring when sunlight washes the rumples of heather and gorse with colour, and the birches are strung with the finest bunting of toothed green leaves.

It is interesting the word green, how few synonyms we have for it. All other versions are inextricably linked to the plants in which their origins lay: fern, moss, grass, hazel. Or else they are paired with other colours, as though the green itself were not sufficient: grey-green, brown-green, blue-green. Brown on the other hand is rich and burgeoning with alternative wordings: russet and tan, ochre and bronzed, tawny and umber. A quirk I suppose of the English language. A language which, if squeezed hard enough, offers up such near-lost gems as ‘apricity’ for the pleasurable feeling of warm sun on a winters day or towards the end of the season.

My moment of apricity often comes on the heath. Walking the track through the legion of pine trees that are encamped near the road, the slanted sun, rising higher day by day, reaches low fingers deeper into the naked wood, and me.

The path I follow is a barely perceptible clear-way, flattened by passing feet and refracted around the trees so it bends at once towards the road then recoils back towards open heath. The spongy surface, formed by year-layer upon year-layer of copper pine needles, is flecked and dashed and crosshatched with roots; like a giants game of pick up sticks, disrupted and forgotten long ago. On one occasion a duo of roe does sprung from the shadow-lights, the curve of their rumps in grey winter coats matching the mounds of heather. They were only spooked for a moment, stopping a few metres out from the tree line to stand and stare back at me.

The deer held my gaze for a few heartbeats, as though to silently communicate they knew this place better than I. “You’re not here for us” They seemed to say, “but hunting words. You’ll find them here.”

2 Replies to “The Winter Heath: The Poets Hunting Ground”

  1. Sophie May, what a beautifully written piece, including the poem! I have no doubt that I will return to this wonderful piece again and again. Happy New Year.


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