It’s a dour day. Stoking the smouldering coals of melancholy.
And it’s further than it seems, the journey.
A sign catches my eye.
‘Stone circle,’ I read aloud. Then add, to my own surprise, ‘let’s go’.
It’s a while before we can turn off this sliver of a road, hemmed in by bare twiggy hedgerows. But turn off we do, then start to climb through barely visible hills.
Park at the corner of a potholed track. Walk the rest of the way.
‘It’s really mild,’ I say, not bothering with gloves, ‘there’s barely a breath of wind.’
December should be biting, by now.
The path rises through green fields devoid of people. As paths mostly do, to stone circles.
The winter dampness numbs my fingers and nose. I stuff my hands in my pockets. Then take them out again, for balancing. The rain of months and the passing of feet has rendered the ground a quagmire.
We reach the top in mist. Air wet with myriad droplets.
Resilient turf is springy underfoot, reassuring after the slopes slick with mud.
And there are the standing stones.
A dog pads to my side and sniffs. A black dog. I ignore it. Walk towards the stones while there are still no humans to spoil the moment.
‘This would be a good place to see the sun rise on the solstice,’ says the man who knows more about these places than do I.
I say nothing.
This is my weather for stone circles.
I want no clarity.
I want my fog of unknowing. Of wilful ignorance, you might say. The space where magic could exist, if I let it.
Reality intrudes. We must find our hotel for the night.
Next morning, convivial food having been eaten in the company of old friends, I hear my resident archaeologist asking after novelist, Mary Webb. She visited the hotel in which we spent the night.
‘Is there a house or anything, nearby’ he asks.
I cringe and walk away.
Mary Webb. Precious Bane. The House in Dormer Forest. Books that held me spellbound.
But literature’s not on my mind today. And this is my annual selfish day.
‘Let’s drive,’ I say, ‘to the nearest hill fort. Then, let’s just go home.’
The promised five miles are long, country miles, narrow roads toiling through a landscape of farms and cows. Fields speckled with sheep, warmly lit by muted sunlight.
I’m not deceived. Rainclouds gather – and threaten.
The car park is small and oppressed by trees.
‘They say it’s heavily wooded,’ said the man in the hotel, ‘but it’s not, there are wonderful views from the top. And it won’t be muddy.’
I fasten my duffel coat. Eye the gravelly path rising through the far-from-lightly-wooded slopes. Begin to regret the choice. It’s plainly quite a stride.
But at least there’s no wind. No rain.
Once the car park vanishes from sight, though, the guardians of the place perceive our progress.
The wind is conjured.
The fir trees shudder and toss their arms around.
A low growl of warning begins. A guttural discouragement.
Soon it’s a howl. A roar. A threat.
But on we plod. My hands cold. My own hair whipping my eyes to tears.
At last, emerging from trial by woodland, we leave the gatekeeper spirits behind.
And the wind lays low.
Ahead is a kissing gate. A cattle grid.
The hills circle around us like family. Several host similar forts, they say. I could imagine beacons lit on each. A ruby necklace of warning for a dark, dangerous night.
‘You know,’ says he who knows these things, ‘more recent thinking is that they’re not forts so much as community settlements.’
I imagine sunny days and lush greenery. Hens and cows and babies. Leather clothes and smoking fires.
‘I could imagine that,’ I say. Because I can.
‘But there is the small matter of all the sling shots in the ditches,’ he rejoins, ‘and why would pastoralists live at the top of hills behind ramparts?’
‘To keep the wolves away,’ I say, with little hope of convincing.
I’ve been re-reading the Box of Delights, a children’s book by John Masefield. A story of snow and wolves and magic and Christmas. ‘The wolves are running’ – the watchword known only to the good. A phrase that ignited a flame of fantasy the first time I read it.
I have no more heart for debate.
Eyes fixed on the ground, avoiding slippery mud, looking for gravelly traction, we trudge back to our world.
There’s barely a rustle in the woods.
The gatekeeper wind has retreated.
Seems not to mind that we’re leaving.
And – neither do I.
I’ve stocked up on magic and mystery.