Blow the Cobwebs Away
I’m feeling the need for a post-Christmas walk. Traditionally, my family head out for a long walk on Boxing Day or the day after “to blow the cobwebs away” (a lovely fairy-tale of a metaphor which suggests that, like Sleeping Beauty, we have inadvertently been colonised by arachnids whilst hibernating). After a few days of cosy sofa-dwelling, what I call ‘Seasonal Agoraphobia’ can set in: the idea of leaving the log-fire, the comfortable cushion-nest and the Elizabeth Shaw mint-chocolates to venture into the cold, dark world outside can seem positively traumatic, but I always feel better for it in the end.
The contrast itself provides profound satisfaction. The air, bright with cold, dispels the warm, snoozy lethargy of Christmas; and, on returning, breathless, achey and cold-of-nose, home feels like a safe, warm hug. There’s nothing like a little temporary discomfort to help you appreciate life’s luxuries all the more: the weariness of having walked through mud, fingers numb and toes damp, enhances the blissful feeling of stretching out in front of a roaring fire in fresh, dry socks; you feel as if you’ve really earned that hot cup of tea and slice of Christmas cake (and mince pie with brandy butter, and seven pieces of Turkish Delight, and another slice of Christmas cake), festive fullness and laziness being replaced with healthy tiredness and hunger.
We sometimes walk by the sea – the freezing salt-wind whipping my breath away, leaving my cheeks red, my eyes bright and my hair tangled with salt. The waves soar and plunge at the pebble beach in rhythmic explosions of green-grey sea and leaping white spray. Your lungs feel cleansed after a walk like that, oxygenated blood zinging through every vein.
Or, more often these days, we walk around the lakes and wetlands of Stodmarsh. The reeds grow tall here; the air is cold and still – each warm breath billowing into steam in the winter air. Polish Konik ponies graze quietly amongst the reed-beds, shaking their manes in the frosty air, while marsh harriers wheel high overhead. The air is clean; there is a feeling of peace, space – and so much sky. Even in the depths of winter, there is always birdsong here – tiny heralds of hope call to each other amongst the dead leaves and ice-gilded branches, like Hardy’s beautiful Darkling Thrush.
But I’ve stayed out here for Christmas this year, so I won’t be going on these walks with my family (and I’m reassured that the weather has been so awful, any attempt at crisp, Christmas walking has ended up as soggy winter wading). There aren’t many good places to stretch the legs here – besides the fact that it’s too hot to go for long walks for about three quarters of the year, it’s also not exactly designed for pedestrians. Some roads simply have no pavement – or a pavement begins with hearty promise but then faithlessly loses interest and tapers out, and you find yourself skirting nervously along the edge of a busy road, or having to turn back altogether. Some of the parks are nice for walks – the air is a bit fresher and it makes a lovely change to be surrounded by greenery, but they get awfully busy (I ducked two flying footballs yesterday and reprimanded somebody else’s child for harassing a duck). And there’s no real landscape in a park, no freedom or sense of adventure. Walking in a park makes me feel a bit like an animal in a well-designed zoo – I can enjoy the surroundings but ultimately I still feel captive and contained. I also find the flatness and geometry of a grid plan city rather dispiriting – and long for the hills, valleys and twisting roads of a more contoured civilisation. One could, of course, head up into the mountains on the way to Oman, but they are several hours away and require a four wheel drive vehicle to be accessed properly – more of a well-organised day trip than a brisk morning stroll.
Since moving here I have become aware of the bizarre phenomenon that is ‘Mall Walking’. Groups of chatty expat women cluster in the air-conditioned corridors, before the shops open, and wobble about purposefully in their designer fitness-wear and expensive trainers. Inside the shopping mall. If a walk in the park makes me feel like an animal in a zoo, I think Mall Walking would make me feel like a clinically depressed gerbil in a very shiny wheel. I suppose Mall Walking is just about getting a bit of exercise, but for me a walk is just as much about the beautiful surroundings. And I don’t mean Chloe handbags and Kurt Geiger shoes.
There are two places I enjoy walking here – the creek and the beach. In cooler weather, a walk along the colourful wharfage of the creek is a joy. The battered wooden dhows are brightly painted, strung with the sailors’ washing and loaded with an extraordinary array of goods bound for Oman, Iran, India, Sudan, Somalia or the Yemen. There are seagulls here, smiling faces and a sense of authenticity that is sometimes hard to find in this country. And I love to walk along the quiet stretch of beach near Umm Suqeim early in the morning, when the breeze is fresh, the sea a cool, bright blue and the sand warm and gritty between my toes. It’s very pleasant. Of course it’s pleasant…
But I still find myself longing for a good, long walk through frozen fields; less obviously pleasant than a sunny beach, perhaps, but more meaningful somehow – a quiet, complex world of low, shifting clouds and shivering, bleak beauty. Out here, there is an absence of change, texture or variety, in landscape, in temperature and in nature. There is insufficient contrast for my taste: because there is less darkness, the light becomes less precious somehow – it is too glaring and garish to be beautiful. Hardy’s Darkling Thrush, published on this day in the year 1900, reminds us that even on the dampest and darkest of British winter days, at the end of a tired year, there is a subtle beauty to be found: nature offers us a shimmering promise of hope for the new year ahead.
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre-grey,
And winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Thomas Hardy, 29th December 1900