This midwinter, I’m reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, along with the peerless landscape author Robert Macfarlane and thousands of others on Twitter (#TheDarkIsReading if you want to join in).
The children’s novel, which opens in a very English countryside, on the eve of midwinter’s day, is beloved of many but new to me. The opening chapter is a masterpiece of the uncanny, as ten-year-old Will Stanton notices ominous signs creeping into his familiar, domestic sphere.
Animals are suddenly afraid of him; his favourite rabbit startles away. Rooks wheel above him in the sky, a seething and unquiet mass, then swoop down to attack a strange, dishevelled old man. The farmer gives Will a mysterious gift and warns: “Tonight will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” A more chilling sentence is hard to imagine.
As Will’s family gathers for supper, the snow begins to fall. As one commenter on Twitter observed: “The snow settles. Everything else unsettles”.
This midwinter day in London is unsettlingly mild, although the white sky could presage snow in colder temperatures. Before starting work today, I set out to my local woodland, inspired by the book, for a midwinter ramble.
Sydenham Hill woods was once part of the Great North Wood that covered this part of south London. It’s a domesticated suburban woodland now, but the backbone of the forest is still there; the soaring trunks of oak and hornbeam, straight and dark in the damp air, raising their bare canopies to the skies. Sombre holly hunches beneath (few scarlet berries this year), intertwined with glossy ivy.
I can hear birdsong – warbling blue tits and robins, fizzing starlings, the mournful coo of a wood pigeon. More exotically, emerald parakeets squawk, newcomers to these English woods. Deeper in, I hear the insistent drill of a woodpecker, although I can’t spot him. The wood is alive with squirrels, bounding across the carpet of dead leaves and scuttling up tree trunks.
Alert for the uncanny, I notice cobwebs in the fissures of oak trunks, sudden showers of water from wet leaves, the soft mist shrouding the spire of St Stephens church, rising above the trees. I’m heading for the place where rooks gather.
They are there, a few of them, quietly perched among the bare branches, or taking a desultory look for worms on the grass verge. No swirling hordes, no swoops, no restless cawing. It’s quiet up here at the top of the hill. Traffic noise is muted, the mist softening the view towards London, where the glass towers of the city sometimes glitter in the morning sunshine.
The shortest day, the longest night. There is no sense here of menace, of the rise of the dark. It’s a slightly melancholy day, a dim, muted day for working and reading. Back home, I’m glad to see the white lights on the Christmas tree, promising company and feasting to entice back the sun. Not long now. The dark may be rising, but the light will always return.