It’s stopped raining on this solstice eve so I’ve taken the chainsaw and climbed the hill behind the house. There is a spidery mound of wood in the top field, piled there two years ago when the old banks were tidied up. I’ve finally got round to pulling out the useable stuff to burn in the stove: gnarled, fissured ash limbs, some oak, the fluted trunk of a huge old hawthorn. It’s still quite early but the sun is already half way gone and the light is slanting, long and sharp, down off the moor and into the valley, pouring over the leafless oak woods, turning everything to coppery gold. Samuel Palmer light. He came to Dartmoor in 1858 and painted Comet Donati flaring across the sky. This is a liminal place, the edge of the cultivated land, a threshold. The boundary is just across the valley: a quilt of green fields, a wall, and beyond that, brown grass, heather and granite. Another world.
The banks around me are already crested with thick new growth. The felled trees have been interrupted, not killed. Like the banks, they’ve been here a long time. And the banks have been here a very long time. Sometimes, when a tree falls, huge boulders come into the light, slotted together like cyclopean masonry.
We know how old our banks are, more or less, thanks to Hooper’s Law. You pace off thirty yards of bank or hedge and count the number of different woody plant species you encounter in those yards. By Dr Hooper’s measure, the banks on this hill were built in the Thirteenth Century. Around here the forgotten wall builders are called ‘the old boys.’ This would have been moorland then. The old boys must have cleared this ground with oxen and horses and piled these monstrous rocks up with nothing more than levers and their own strength, pushing into the other world, building new boundaries. If we let it go now, the moors would take it back in a lifetime.
The human landscape around me is older than those old boys, though. Over to the east, the walls make a tighter grid. On the other side of the sunken lane that forms the boundary between farmland and wild land, you can follow these walls – just faint ridges in the heather – uphill until you reach the bones of a Bronze Age village, a pattern of low circles and lines of stones sinking into the earth, still graspable – just – as a place where humans lived three thousand years ago.
Just over the skyline is a complex of stone rows, circles and cairns that those people built for reasons we don’t, if we are absolutely honest, really understand at all. They don’t line up consistently with summer or winter solstices, or with the stars. Some are straight, some wander across the landscape. Since the Victorians, we’ve tried to shoehorn the rows of Dartmoor into any number of theories: druids, ley lines, astronomical calendars, temples, boundaries. Before the Victorians, people just used to grub up the stones and drag them off for walls or gateposts. I used to want to know, quite badly, why the rows were there. I would tramp up the hill with compasses, rulers, even dowsing rods. I never got anywhere. The stones defy explanation. They simply exist, inviting the eye to pick them out among the clumps of gorse and tussock grass. I find I don’t need to know their purpose any more. The row builders knew, and over the years that has become enough for me.
On the western saddle that divides our valley from the one beyond, I can just see the dark hump that marks something much older: what’s left of a Neolithic chamber tomb. It has stood there for five thousand years, give or take a few centuries. When the people in the hilltop village looked down on it, they were looking at something as ancient to them as a Norman church is to us. I’d like to think that the tomb builders would have enjoyed this lovely pale light. The oak woods would have been just as golden, five thousand years ago.
The light is beginning to go, seeping out of the sky around the edges, fading to washed out purple. I start the saw again and ring up a few more logs, but it’s getting too dark to be quite safe and my fingers are going a bit numb. Lights are going on in what used to be the old hospital. Built around the turn of the last century to treat tuberculosis patients from Devon and Cornwall, it was abandoned in my lifetime when antibiotics rendered the old fashioned cure of bedrest and fresh air outdated and quaint. Predictably enough it has been developed into tasteful homes now, but when I was a boy I used to wander around in the derelict buildings, poking through heaps of fading chest x-rays and sinister enamelled dishes, wondering how many people had died there. It must have been a good many. The main sanitarium had a long, open veranda where patients would have been laid out on good days. They would have looked directly across the valley to the chamber tomb. On a Solstice evening like this one, they would have seen the sun go down behind it. The ones who were recovering, and the dying, wrapped in corporation blankets, bathing in the ancient light.
The sun is almost gone and the shadows are reaching at full stretch towards the east. Across the valley, the walls of our neighbour’s farm and the stones and scrub on the moorland above them are as sharp as lines etched into a copper plate. Everything is resolving into lines: lines of sight, boundary lines. The year is ending, splitting along its alignment. Tomorrow, the light will stay an instant longer.
As the light goes, birds begin to call and fly home. A pheasant starts to chirr down by the brook and a raven, one of the pair who nest in the giant pine which looms over our house, swoops over me, so low that I can hear the wind whispering across her wing feathers. I look up into the sky and see, not a comet, but two vapour trails that have crossed above the valley and painted, with the perfection of coincidence, a vast white X. I bend down to pick up the chainsaw. When I look up again, the lines are already fading.