There would be no beautiful dawn today. The sulphurous glow of the city turns to pitch as I climb towards the hills; I will not see them this time. The road, flooded still from the weekend’s rain, gleams in the headlights as the wipers clear the screen, their movement a parody; a metronome counting moments lost to necessity. The long dark of a wintery morning stretches ahead for predictable hours as the familiar journey takes me through sleepy villages, each with their cenotaph still garlanded with the sodden paper poppies of memory.
The market traders in Bakewell seem the only ones awake as I drive through the town, passing the tiny cottage by the church with its sign that says ‘To Let’ leaning awry in the wind. Then on, into a darkness broken only by the glare of headlights. In these first miles it seems as if that darkness is complete; as if nothing else can exist beyond the small patch of brightness that I cast before me to illuminate my own path. Strange shapes loom from the roadside, glimpsed and gone as I drive. The world is silent save for the engine noise and the sound of wheels in water.
As I pass between the twin mounds that guard the way near Arbor Low there is a shift in the blackness and great oaks, ivy wreathed, lift hoary fingers to the sky, vague and illusive giants that clutch at the clouds. Ashbourne, devoid now of the bunting it wears all summer is decked with the skeletal shapes of the Christmas lights yet to be lit. Sudbury, Yoxall… the dawn had met me here on my last trip north. The sun was still hiding beneath the rainclouds today. I could sympathise… the duvet had seemed like a good choice for me too this morning.
The light grows, grey and chill. Birds hunch in the shelterless trees; only the magpies braving the rain and the glassy tarmac in search of breakfast. Only magpies and commuters and impatient reluctance.
Lichfield; a final choice… the long way home or the motorway? I choose the latter with some misgivings, but the road seems clear….until I pass that point of no escape and join the queue of cars, my silver roof just one of the myriad scales of a slithering serpent of humanity that creeps towards rush hour through the grime and spray. We grind to a halt, waiting for the tragedy of accident to clear the route. There are no hawks, no sunrise to lift the wings of morning. Muscles tense, shoulders seize. I breathe a sigh of relief as I hit the final stretch of road… seventy miles to go. Miles of tarmac lie behind, miles of grey, featureless spray marked only by the red glow of tail-lights.
I leave the motorway early, taking the lanes through Oxfordshire villages where rain-damp thatch lies dark over mellow stone and berries clothe the walls in scarlet. Bark, blackened by the rain, highlights the grace of ancient trees and is a perfect foil for their final breaths of ochre and flame, as the trees and hedgerows smoulder into winter, casting the warmth of autumn’s robe over the morning. Cherries drip their last leaves like fire; oaks cling to copper crowns, wrapped in garments of ivy. Beeches shower golden treasure on the road and roses bloom incongruously in the dark light.
A red kite answers a silent call, the great sun-bird spreading its own dawn for me, flame-marked circle on its wings. A welcome. Even the misery of a wet Monday driving south can be touched with beauty.