November 15th, 2010. The first hard frost of the season last night. At 4.30 p.m., when I manage to get out, it’s already dusk. The sun has set and the light is dim. It’s a clear, cold night in the making. I had intended to gather rose hips and chestnuts today, but there’s little chance of the latter since I haven’t noticed any sweet chestnut trees in the district, and finding the trees in the dark, let alone nuts, is clearly out of the question. Rose hips are on, I know where to find them. I walk up the B-road, commuter traffic in full flow, bright lights looming up fast, red tail-lights receding. Sometimes I feel like the last pedestrian on the planet. The rooks at Westwick stand sentinel on the tops of tall trees, still and silent and black against the evening.
I turn into the old trackway, into tranquility. On my right, beyond field after field of ploughland, a long spread of marmalade sky rests on the far horizon. Up above, a ragged three-quarter moon. It’s too dark to see any nightlife though a fox or an owl would make my day. The track is muddy, churned by tractors and horses and I have to pick my way through the worst of it. On either side now, a black latticework of hedgerow. I soon find the dog roses, and begin plucking the dark wine-red hips. Despite the frost, some are still hard and won’t come away from their stalks. But there are plenty of soft ones, and for ten minutes or so I gather the miniature flasks of vitamin C and drop them into a plastic bag. Too late I realize the bag is getting no heavier, it’s ripped at the bottom, probably on some stray briar, and I’m just chucking rose hips onto the ground. So much for night-harvesting. I rescue a double-handful and call it a day. I’ll simmer them in honey and throw in a chilli, to strain and make cordial.
It’s a dark, silent walk up the trackway. A roosting pheasant rockets out of the hedge like a firework. The rustle of wings, and dark thrush-like shapes bolt one-by-one from overhead trees, jinking through the dark. I think it’s a flock of over-wintering redwings. Reaching the village, I walk past thatched, timber-framed cottages next to the church, the remnants of the old settlement on the highest rise of the land. Yellow-lit windows. The flicker of televisions. Inside the King Billy IV, a cluster of mates nurse their beers. Out of the village, I turn north on a farm-track, led by my foreshortened moon-shadow. The way is obscure, but the puddles are silvered and shine in the dark. The stars are out. I locate the North Star by means of the Plough and follow it home. I listen for night sounds. Only two break the black silence. First, a couple of harsh calls overhead. Must be fairly big birds, not rooks or geese, or anything I’ve heard before. Then from the midst of a field, from the ground, two or three shrill pipings, answered nearby, then silence. The sweet silence of night, out in the fields.