“Hellooo!” said the unnecessarily cheerful voice at the end of the phone. “You sound wide awake!”
“I am,” I replied, though four in the morning is no time for anyone to be dragged from sleep. I reached for the coffee, let the dog out into the blackness of night and stood shivering on the doorstep. “See you shortly.”
My son was going out and greet the dawn. Being official taxi driver as well as parent and carer, that meant I was going too. There had been a long discussion about where we would go to see the sunrise.
“It’s not natural,” had said my son as I vetoed all his suggested venues. “How can you possibly know what direction all these places face?”
I shrugged. “I just do.” Perhaps because I have done so much driving and spent so much time outdoors, perhaps it is something we all share, a built-in compass…like a homing pigeon. I think it is a sense we all had at some point in our evolution, but having little need for it these days, it has fallen into desuetude. Whatever it is, I rarely get lost, and always know ‘which way is up’.
I knew that we needed a view towards a wide, eastern horizon. Somewhere to park, a bit of solitude and open space.
“How about Hawk Hill?”
“Where we took the camera? Isn’t that a bit far?”
“Only about twenty miles. It won’t take long at that time of morning.”
Which is why at five o’clock I hit the road, heading for Hawk Hill.
The hill at West Wycombe is rather special for many reasons. I have always had a fondness for the place, but it really came to life the first time Stuart came to stay. We had been to Uffington, Waylands Smithy and the Rollrights the previous day and were at a loss what to do the next morning. Everything we tried seemed to be closed, so we went up to the top of the hill and were treated to the wonder of a sky full of red kites, swooping down low. We had followed the kites that day, and our adventures had begun.
The hill itself is interesting. It is crowned with an ancient hillfort, within which sits the curious church of St Lawrence, topped with its golden ball. The hillfort once held a temple, some four thousand years ago, that the archaeologists have likened to Stonehenge. Only the earthworks remain of that sacred space. They once protected a Roman temple, then a Saxon settlement and they now encircle an intriguing place of worship.
A church has stood within the hillfort for fourteen hundred years. St Lawrence’s has sen many incarnations and the current building is modelled on the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra. It is full of strange symbolism and art… and that golden ball is the stuff of legend and was build for Sir Francis Dashwood, the founder of the notorious Hellfire Club.
The pale walls of Dashwood’s home can be seen from the top of the hill, where the imposing Dashwood mausoleum dominates the skyline.
Filled with urns, tombs and niches, the mausoleum holds more secrets still, as beneath it are the mysterious Hellfire Caves, where the Club once met. So many stories exist about this club and its member that we could be here all day were I to tell even a fraction of them again. West Wycombe is a tiny place, but its history, ghosts, folklore and legends are fascinating.
I left my son alone, standing by the car, to enjoy the dawn in solitude, and wandered off to pay my respects to the hilltop. There were still small patches of snow on the ground and the morning was cold. Even so, there were signs of spring everywhere.
Stray miniature daffodils and an odd crocus had survived uncrushed the felling of a tree, but looked rather bedraggled specimens beside their elder cousins. Even so, for the first time it began to feel as if spring was not far away.
The air was full of birdsong and the trees full of movement and burgeoning leaves. Rabbits scurried away as I rounded a corner, disappearing in a flurry of white tails. Squirrels scuttered about in the branches and churchyard seeking breakfast and a pheasant pretended I couldn’t see him foraging in the winter-dried stems.
The weather did not oblige us with a fabulous dawn…just a few streaks of colour on the horizon. We did not mind. The world is a different place when seen in the green silence of dawn. There is just you, the earth and the sky… and a kaleidoscope of life around you that is seldom seen in daylight hours. It is an intimate time.
Overhead, a solitary buzzard shared the skies with the kites as they keened and hunted. They are amazing to watch and they always haunt Hawk Hill. Swooping low, dancing in the air, they tease me, evading the hunting of the lens. The great birds with their incredible wingspan, fly so fast that they blur and manage to appear as no more than dark specks on most photographs, no matter how low they pass. It wasn’t until much later, when I was home and uploading the photos, that I realised I had been lucky.