A winterís day walk in the Quantocks

PAUL JOHNSON

I shall remember Saturday 20 January 2006. What it was like elsewhere I do not know, but in west Somerset it was the perfect winterís day.

A great surge of happiness ran through me as I set off for my walk in the hills and coombs. It had been sunny the afternoon before but blustery. Now all was still and the sun was majestic in the cerulean sky, summoning his court. And they came! I swear a multitude of things had happened since the day before. In my garden were irises, peeping through the foliage, and japonica had just appeared, and winter jasmine and its coeval, honeysuckle. I found the first snowdrop in the churchyard. Then I spotted a whole ancient grave covered in these touching tiny white bells, harbingers of a mass of flowers which in company and succession cover this hallowed ground throughout the late winter and spring, with yellow, white and purple crocuses, aconites, primroses — my favourite flower for its colour and endurance, as it was Disraeli’s — and regiments of varied daffodils. Oh, the daffodil! The sun has brought out the first of these perfect flowers in the garden, a brave, minute spark of pale yellow perfection, catching an imperceptible puff of wind and dancing gravely.

It is wondrous how quickly nature responds to the first gesture of warmth from the long-absent sun. You can almost feel the earth, thawing fast, stir with subterranean energy and begin to heave with growth. In the first big field I cross, a young mare, still in her winter wrappings, is rolling over the ground with joy. At the bottom, by the stream, appears from nowhere and nothing a cloud of gnats, released from months of confinement — or perhaps just born, I do not know — and they, too, whizz about with delight in the sunbeams. Best of all, above my head, a dense flock of seabirds gives an aerial display in salute to Phoebus, a sudden flash of silver-white as they expose their bellies, then vanish as they turn on the wing. Perfect formation; exultation to be alive and warming; wheeling and swooping and darting, changing direction, following their invisible air marshal’s commands, and with no mundane purpose to their magical manoeuvres save to give and receive pleasure in the act. It is a dance, as surely as the rhythmic motions of my little daffodil.

The sun is still low on the horizon, though it is noon, immensely bright, dazzling to the eyes. I plan my walk so that it is mostly at my back, and bathing what I see in solar power, picking out every minute detail of the winter scene. The colours are light straw and dove grey, the palest of olive, washed-out seashore greens, watery limestone, the highlights picked out by the deep evergreens of the woods. There is glitter everywhere, multitudes of tiny pinpoints of light, each struggling to reflect the maximum of the sun’s rays. Impossible to paint such glory, not being a Bonington, of whom Delacroix said (they shared a studio in post-Waterloo Paris), ‘using the tip of his tiny watercolour brush he could turn a scene into a mass of sparkling jewels’. I try all the same, sitting gratefully on a convenient bench which has a plaque saying ‘To the memory of Connie Cook’. I salute her, and pull a little postcard-sized pad, paints, brushes and meagre water-jar out of the deep pockets of my old Barbour, and daub away industriously.


Country stillness is the silence of health: you breathe it in as you do the pure, cold, oxygen-packed air, and the faint scent of winter blossom. It is interrupted only by the unrehearsed sounds of animal nature.


The bare trees are good to paint. Without leaves, their shape and structure, their interior dynamics, the way in which they shoot up a branch, correct it, divide and re-divide it, then shoot up another for balance or arcane reasons of arboreal economics — all this becomes plain, which in other seasons is hopelessly obscured by foliage. The winter skeleton tree is a teaching object, instructive and nourishing to draw. Then the colours are so subtle and particular, a deeply planned medley of greens, yellows and very pale browns, all merging into each other, according to no chromatic system but of their own intuitive devising, and which must be rendered with meticulous exactitude of hue to secure the truth I see. It is hard, concentrated, delightful work, and I am totally absorbed in the task. Suddenly, I become aware that I am being watched. A dozen very young, woolly and densely black bullocks, with shiny wet noses, and big, interested and lovable brown eyes, have crowded round the gap in the hedge at my back, and are looking at what I am doing. They are still, silent; I can hear their heavy breathing. Inquisitive creatures, aren’t they? Bored, perhaps, with their bovine existence. I feel a comradely regard for these handsome young fellows, enjoying the sun as I am, glad to be living, the execution sheds of carnivorous humanity unknown on the horizon. I turn to get a better look at them, perhaps to do a quick sketch. But my sudden movement alarms them — timid creatures only a few months old — and they scatter clumsily, bumping and banging each other as they spread for safety.

I resume my tramp through the leaves, and rejoice at the stillness of it all. The street where I live in London is very quiet, but there is always, in the background, a deep coagulated susurrus of sound, composed of the infinite distant noises of a great metropolis. Here, when the wind is still, the silence is absolute. You can, in a paradoxical way, hear it. The sheer absence of activity speaks to you, reassuringly, soothingly. It is quite different to the infinite silence of space which made Pascal so afraid. Country stillness is the silence of health: you breathe it in as you do the pure, cold, oxygen-packed air, and the faint scent of winter blossom. It is interrupted only by the unrehearsed sounds of animal nature. High overhead, our two buzzards, on their regular midday patrol, mew to each other politely, softly, a gentleman rider and his lady. The other smaller birds keep prudently quiet and still when the Big Two are around. But they are still anyway on this glorious day. I start another sketch.

Then, along the lane, comes a little crocodile of town-people, led by their mentor, who keeps up a worthy flow of information about what they are seeing. It is an official ‘walk’. I know what he is going to say to me, and he duly says it. ‘Oh, are you painting, then?’ ‘Yes,’ say I. He repeats this valuable piece of information to his flock. ‘He’s painting.’ Then they pass on, but their accompanying dog, with his own notions of urbanity, decides to have a good bark at me. ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow!’ Just like Tintin’s Snowy, only louder. This is taken as an affront by the three dogs who live in the yard of the neighbouring house, big, medium and minute, and they respond with a chorus of wuffs, yaps and rusty-nail screeches. These, in turn, are echoed in the farmyard up the road, where the turkey cocks who have miraculously survived Christmas do their irate gobbling turn, red in their gills with music-hall rage. Their rivals in simulated wrath, the geese, join in, making their Donnybrook racket, and soon the ducks are at it too, auditioning for Disney. To cap it all, the hullabaloo sets off old Roger, the bull, three or four fields away.

Gradually the hubbub dies down, and silence falls again. The crocodile has gone too. I have finished my sketch and get to my feet. What’s this — bees? Can’t be. But it is — making for the wintry flowers on the honeysuckle. Nature snatches the good days and is grateful. I say a prayer of thanks for a grand winter walk.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "A winter’s day walk in the Quantocks." The Spectator (February 4, 2006).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson



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