Sunrise hides somewhere behind slate clouds.
The old church hymn sings of “the bleak midwinter,” and our January morning in the English countryside is starting out just as advertised. Sunrise hides somewhere behind slate clouds. The cold ringlets creeping under my collar seem to sweep in directly from the Scottish moors.
We’re here at the wrong time. There’s no going barefoot on the beach. Gardens lie fallow. Sailboats wait in dry dock. Whatever plein air charms we find on this southern coast will come ensconced in layers of damp wool.
Yet we’re hardly disappointed. With our two children, my wife and I are tramping around the Isle of Wight on an off-season holiday of our own making.
On this day, we’re setting out to explore the island’s highland downs. We pack a thermos of hot tea and cobble together a picnic of calorie-packed fare fit for the weather: Smoked herring and aged cheddar on oat crackers. Chocolate. Tart apples left over from a nearby orchard. Hearty chunks of flapjack – the homemade English energy bar with an uncanny knack for sticking to the ribs. Some fruity candies, to be dispensed judiciously at carefully planned intervals to keep our boys, ages three and five, on the move.
When we walk, we go at the pace and meter set by our curious toddler. Which means hiking slowly but with a monumental sense of purpose. Our three-year-old stomps out his feet evenly in a tottering spondee, DUM DUM as in headstrong, a meter that cannot be sustained for long whether in verse or on the trail. And so we push a jogging stroller for the moment when he’ll curl up for a nap with his tattered yellow blanket.
Tart apples left over from a nearby orchard.
We may have followed in the poet’s footsteps, but in all the miles we walked it’s safe to say the cadence of our footsteps never overlapped.
As to whether our toddler hears poetry in his steps, I can’t say. But we are in the literary terroir of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who knew the island as his own. He walked its “hushed companionable down,” as he put it, for half a lifetime. I can imagine him plodding out his verse in a dactylic hexameter as he walked atop the chalk cliffs of what is now known as Tennyson Down. We may have followed in the poet’s footsteps, but in all the miles we walked it’s safe to say the cadence of our footsteps never overlapped.
Like so many who come to this island, we’re drawn to the might and power of the surging sea. We’ve spent long hours at a favorite pocket beach – not at all sandy but cobbled in flint worn smooth and round in the pounding surf – and know precisely what Tennyson heard when he wrote:
“Listening now to the tide in its broad-flung shipwrecking roar,
Now to the scream of a maddened beach dragged down by the wave.”
Along our wintry walk, we encounter hardly anyone at all, but we do chat with a woman out walking her dog. She has on green Wellington boots and appears to live down the lane. As we reconnoiter our route higher into the hills, she kindly, though firm as a headmistress, advises against it.
“It’ll soon be chucking it down,” she tells us, once and then twice, the assonance in her words lending a gravitas to her voice.
We don’t doubt her. But as a family, we’re not ones to stay in on the blustery days. Ann spends windswept weeks counting puffins on barren islands in Alaska. I work at the edge of the Bering Sea, commercial fishing for wild salmon, dressed in rainproof oilskins. If clouds loom, we’ll change our jackets but not our plans.
So despite the dog walker’s dire forecast we know we’ll carry on. As we cross from pasture to sleeping forest and back again through patchwork hills, every new farm gate has a latch – ingenious puzzles to a boy with an innate compunction to tinker with moving parts. The chance of another gate lures them on like candy.
If clouds loom, we’ll change our jackets but not our plans.
What do you see out there, Peter?
This is how it is for them: They see what’s not wholly revealed to grown-ups. Leif declares a driftwood log to be a “balance beam!” (his exclamation point, not mine) and suddenly that’s exactly what it is. What do you see out there, Peter? “Nothing big and growly” he tells us in his singsong voice, and as his parents we happily agree.
When we finally crest the hill, we come upon a hedgerow of tangled bramble and we know that to tuck ourselves through a gap in the hedge will bring us to the view we’re seeking – and finally put us squarely in the lee of these persistent Scottish gales.
I feel my hunched shoulders relax just a little as I pass through the hedge. Standing a bit taller now, I look out to the sea and watch squalls of wind and rain march across its roiling swells.
We’ve made it, but I can now see it’ll soon be chucking it down. We are high atop the downs in bleak midwinter in dank clouds, the sea churning and menacing even from here. As we turn around, I can hear discernible words lain over our footsteps: Let’s find a place both warm and snug.