8th Jan, 2010. The sun is well up before I manage to drag myself into the day, but it is nowhere to be seen, obscured by cloud that covers the entire sky. In fact the cloud is invisible too, seamless. It is just a lid of paleness, evenly coloured from east to west (a whiter shade of pale perhaps), reflecting back the whiteness of the land below, covered in snow, dissolving the horizon. Without sun the light is flat, and even the snow seems dull. This fell with some intensity two days ago, a real snowstorm, big flakes like pennies tumbling thickly out of the sky, followed by a lighter fall yesterday, and again last night. Apart from the tarmac’d roads, black and wet, pretty much everything is blanketed. It is cold, very cold, surely 3 or 5 or more degrees below, in fact I wonder if I should be out in such conditions, sucking in great lungfuls of freezing air, ingesting tiny ice crystals by the bucketload. I have, for the first time brought my mobile, just in case, and to keep K happy. In these conditions, with no one out and about, even in commuterland, a fall out in the further fields or tracks could result in hours (days even?) of lying in a ditch of freezing water. I begin to imagine all sorts of dramatic and scary scenarios. Then I remember that there would probably be no network coverage anyway, and the phone would no doubt die as soon as it hit water. But I am well-wrapped, with five layers on my upper half – a thermal underlayer, long-sleeved tee-shirt, another tee-shirt, a fleece, and one of my son’s less offensive hoodies, topped off by my biking neck fleece worn as a balaclava, and a wooly hat.
I turn east as usual, to take the fifth of the shorter routes, marginally more challenging because it has a hill of sorts. I run in the roadway, through and out of the village, the pavements being too treacherously trampled. I turn northwards at the guided-busway, along the service track of pea-gravel that runs beside it. It will be safe to run on, because though covered in snow, I know it is flat and even, not yet ruined by vehicles and therefore unrutted, virgin. No hidden clods, stones, holes or hoofprints to waylay my ankles.
And then into a biting Arctic breeze – the cold penetrating to my chest in spite of all the layers. There is barely an inch of snow on the track, and my shoes leave neat crisp prints. Then I am surprised – someone has preceded me here. Some fellow runner has been foolhardy enough to run out into the freezing morning ahead of me. These are relatively small footprints, going in my direction, must be a size 5 or 6, and therefore surely a woman. Then I know exactly who it is, for our paths have crossed several times previously, and this fits her route. She is young, fit, grim, professional, training for the Olympics perhaps, and she never returns my greeting. I am distracted now by snow tracks, and begin following them off-piste – a great many bird prints, large and sharp, stamped into the snow like cuneiform wedges, each one connected to the succeeding one by a single line, a trailing hind claw perhaps or tail feather. These are evidently rooks, for a gang of them is rooting around on the track up ahead, and they are the most numerous bird around. They are accompanied by some jackdaws who seem to be sentinels rather than hangers-on, breaking the silence with their penetrating ‘chucks’ or ‘jacks’, which may have given them their name. Then there are the tracks of what I take to be the ubiquitous muntjac deer, and rabbits of course, and others I do not know. A single dark squirrel, almost black against the snow, who should be hibernating surely in this weather, bounds over the track with the undulations of an otter.
The northern sky takes on colour, bruised and brooding, and suddenly snow falls. It is coming at me from the north, face on, at 45 degrees, but it is strange stuff, tiny balls of fluff that cling to me like polystyrene pellets, perfectly round. No doubt the Inuit or Lapps have a hundred words for different kinds of snow but we are dumbfounded in this regard. It is falling thickly and soon obscures the snowprints, light diminishes, sounds are smothered, visibility contracts and the world closes in.
I turn east onto the bridle-way that runs from Longstanton, past an isolated remnant of apple orchard, only 5 rows deep and about 150 yards long, each row headed by a more upright and taller pear-tree. The snow stops after about ten minutes, as suddenly as it started and the sky brightens. Then I turn south into Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway that runs from Ely through to Cambridge, called Portway (‘Carrier’s Way’ or ‘Market Way’) in Rampton, and Gun’s Lane towards Histon. It is generally open and ditched rather than hedged, but here there are small trees on either side of no great age, saplings planted as a hedge no doubt, and then neglected. A tractor growls somewhere in the distance. We are alongside Beck Brook, here more of a tamed and straightened channel at the bottom of a deep wide ditch than any sort of natural stream, its banks deprived of everything but grass – no reeds, bushes, overhangs, saplings or stumps. A wildlife wasteland. So I am delighted when my muffled footfall flushes a green woodpecker from the bank, his dull yellow rump flashing unmistakably as he weaves away silently, without a single yaffle in greeting. He alights in one of the young trees edging the track, and I try to stalk him, but he is much too sharp, always keeping one flight ahead of me. It is a brief encounter, but one worth the pain of the run.
The track takes a turn and climbs a long gentle rise, barely a hill, but telling on my calf muscles, and I have to walk. At the top, the highest point hereabouts, the sun breaks through the cloud at last, and the land is lit. It is a spectacular transformation. I can see for miles over the huge white fields. I run into the sun renewed, downslope now towards the jumble of Lamb’s Cross Farm. At the bottom of the slope, where water has ponded on the track, a tractor has broken through the ice and thrown up jagged slabs of the stuff, three inches thick and gray like concrete slabs. The place is littered with trailers, bits of agricultural machinery, telephone poles, old caravans and cars, pallets, rusty bits and pieces, wire and fencing. The chained dogs set up a duet of paranoid barking. The sweet and lovely smell of cows pervades the air, and somewhere inside a barn a radio plays.