176. Ashtead Common 2 – a winter’s trail to spring

winter-dawn-epsom-downs-surrey-england-by-chilsta-flickr.jpgWinter drags in February. The lengthening evenings seem to pack a scary sharpness in their chill, and there’s an unexpected bleakness in these brightening days which makes me yearn for spring.

But it’s not the weather really. It’s my lack of patience for this place, which palls now with every passing week.

The soulless office above the shopping mall entombs me on shivering days like these. Days when inertia sucks the lifeblood of enthusiasm out from in me. Hours spent waiting for the gloom to lift and fall. Days when I don’t feel like running, and I wonder how I ever did.

epsom-crocus-by-osde-info-flickr.jpgThe crocuses in Epsom Park smile indulgently as I pass on my winter’s route towards the dry Chalk hills above the town. They remind me.

Three seasons have come and almost gone since first I explored these streets – and the year may turn full circle before I leave. It’s a depressing thought, and so I turn around to escape the town a different way.

Ashtead Common is where I’m going. Looking for some hope, some relief, some inspiration, some… well, something uncertain amongst the mud. And a few minutes later, I’m running beside the railway, past the homely cottages and into open space beyond.

The woods ahead appear brown and lifeless across the Common, static against a waft of clouds drifting in the breeze. The sky seems bigger here already – there’s brightness, and that’s a start.

ashtead-common-winter-trees-sunshine-by-roadsofstone.jpgUnderfoot, a winter’s tale of swampy mud is lurking soft beside the path. There’s no way through along my favourite route, but a corridor of light is calling me to higher ground between the trees.

I trudge. For a minute or two, the trail rises, and then unwinds, and gradually, finally, my mind begins to open.

These ancient Ashtead trees are old friends of mine, first seen in summer and in a different light. I realise, slowly, reluctantly, that I’m glad to be here, happy to witness this place again, in another season.

Last December, I danced beside the Oxshott Road in swirls of rising fog, trying to catch the last oak leaves as they fell. I caught three, and wished on each. In January, I plodded beside Epsom Racecourse through a soaking rainstorm into a mid-afternoon’s dusk of bone-cold hands and soggy shoes.

ashtead-common-winter-ancient-trees-by-roadsofstone.jpgAnd here, in February, these massive boughs and trunks reach upwards bare and stark and empty, the fallen leaves all pale and brittle now as they blot the mud beneath my feet. Time passing as this winter’s course is run.

So many weeks of churning breathlessly up the Downs have fair reward, and I climb more easily than I did last summer.

This pimple of a hill is now just five minutes of faster breathing and sharpened thought, until suddenly the path falls again. Around a corner, my eyes fall downwards as I skirt more mud, dodging thorns beside the path. And before I realise it, the woodland has cut itself apart.

Between the trees and beneath the sunlight lies farmland up ahead. Sometimes a wide horizon is all it takes to free the spirit, and here it is, a mile or so of open countryside stretching out in front of me.

Empty space, quiet and thoughtful, rolling forwards and shimmering softly. I stop to breathe – and it rises, the hope that’s hidden in the view.

rushetts-farm-in-winter-ashtead-surrey-england-by-roadsofstone.jpgThese fields are green.

For months, I’ve been gazing moodily at the winter darkness, breathing stifling air inside a lifeless office. Trudging through grey lunchtimes and evening mist.

All that time, the winter wheat has been growing grimly. Through cold weeks of rain and fog and wind and mud that have come and gone.

And finally, in February, we’re here together. The sky is blue above the fields. The air isn’t warm today, not yet, but one day soon I know it will be. This winter will reach its end.

I’ll say goodbye to this place, eventually. Time has taught me whilst I was here, though, toiling on my winter hills and tracking round these massive trees.

winter-sunset-guildford-surrey-england-by-roadsofstone.jpgLife is full of seasons. And beneath the sky, you can live them all.

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138. A winter Sunday on the North Downs

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14 responses to “176. Ashtead Common 2 – a winter’s trail to spring

  1. Oh, Roads…
    Again your wordsmithing brings life to each thought as you paint the landscape with your words. What wonderful use of contrasts. I could feel the muted greys of the ancient trees and I could breathe in the green fields of winter wheat. I could hear the splash of your footsteps as you tried to avoid the mud during your run. Thank you for sharing your thoughts toward Spring. It was a brilliant post……

  2. Shadowlands – I hope your spring comes soon, and lasts for ever.

  3. Ah, Roads…there’s true beauty in your words. True beauty.

  4. Beautiful as always, Roads.

    I hate January and February most of all…it’s just one grey trudge from Christmas to spring. But it’s true what you say – sometimes all it takes is a wide horizon to free the spirit…

    …but I live in Grenoble, Roads!! There’s a mountain at the end of every street!! How am I supposed to free my spirit? (And don’t tell me to run up a mountain – I’d have a heart attck :-) )

    At least I’ve got your blog to read – that keeps me sane…

  5. Thank you, Jonas.

    I loved the climate in Switzerland when I was there. A proper winter, with snow and ski-ing, and a warm and reliable summer, too.

    And whilst it never gets as cold here, the raw damp chill often makes it feel colder.

    But although winter is not my favourite season, I couldn’t live without any seasons at all.

    And one of the things which so heightens the pleasure of our long summer days in Britain is all those desperately short grey twilights which masquerade as the winter days before them.

  6. Ah Gigi, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

    The area around Grenoble is surely one of the most beautiful on Earth.

    But would I rather spend February awaiting almond blossom in the early spring of Provence, or endure snowy horizons and chill days for another three months or more in Savoie?

    Now then – I suspect we agree on that choice entirely.

  7. Your words took me right back to my grotty sojourn in Hillingdon and the uninspiring running commutes around there. I’m glad to be spending the winter months close to the easy beauty of the river. I go back in summer but it’s easier to be tolerant of concrete when the sun is shining.
    Glad you found the hills easier, I suppose there is some point to hill training.

  8. Yes, you’re very lucky to run beside the river, Angela.

    I had a close look at the Tideway running routes yesterday whilst walking across Putney Bridge on my way to Craven Cottage to watch the Hammers thrash Fulham. (Well, actually it was 1-0, with a slightly dodgy goal off the elbow of Norbert Solano after 85 minutes, but they all count).

    I’m not a big fan of running uphill. It’s strictly a potential energy problem for me. Too much mass involved.

  9. ‘I’m not a big fan of running uphill.’
    Bloody heathen.

    We’ve had some rare old winter mornings down here in Sussex old friend. The sort that coax you out the door in the half-light, lead you Piper-style into the humps and hollows of the Downs, ignorant of cold, to embrace the rising sun.

    Makes you glad to be alive : )

  10. I wonder how long it would take you to spot that one, Sweder.

    Not very long.

    The mighty peaks of Epsom make for fine running, too, although on a generally more suburban scale than your Sussex friends.

    The views of London from the racecourse are a sight to behold. Even if my head is firmly down by the time I’ve flogged my way up there.

    Hills, even beautiful hills, are hard work for a flatlander like me.

  11. Beautiful wording of how empty the last of winter can be–especially if one is a runner. I think we all are looking forward to spring. I keep looking at the ugliness of the trees and know that in just a few weeks–they will have baby leaves. Here in Western Kentucky, the lawn mowers will be going full blast by the end of March. Yet, today we have several inches of snow. I keep waiting……also for spring.

  12. Yes, spring is on the way. Sunshine, brighter mornings and longer evenings, and my feeling at this time of year is that we’ve earned all those things, a hundred times over.

    Just a week or two of winter each year would be enough for me, Nichole, preferably somewhere with snow. It used to snow in southern England every winter, but the white stuff is increasingly rare these days. We do much more of the wet stuff instead…

  13. That’s so beautifully written. I felt as if I were there.

    The crocus, however, has me mighty envious. I probably won’t see any in New Hampshire till May, not with several feet of snow on the ground. The lengthening days are a promise, though.

  14. Thank you, Ella. Epsom has some wonderful crocuses.

    Several feet of snow still on the ground in New Hampshire? The English winter is surely much maligned – we’re onto forsythia and hyacinths and early cherry blossom now.

    In central London on Friday I even saw a magnolia just about to burst forth into flower.

    Everything is fantastically early again this year. But it’s the advancing light that makes the most difference – it really is.

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