St. Leonard’s Forest, February 2020
The sun hasn’t yet reached St. Leonard’s Forest. Frost covers the depressed spreads of bracken at the edge of trees. A dawn chorus still rattles on, dominated by song thrush posted across this wooded landscape. In the distance there comes the clopping of horse hoofs, a throwback to the days when highwaymen roamed the Weald and when people travelled almost anywhere far away enough, on horseback.
The horse riders appear on the hard track ahead of me. They’re galloping until they see me, surrounded by a cloud of perspiration. Their upper bodies are coloured yellow, green and orange by hi-visibility vests. The man leading the troop glares at me from under his helmet as I pass with birch trees between us. Perhaps he thinks I’m a warden.
‘Good morning!’ I shout across to them, which is met with a murmur.
Off they trot.
Beyond the stands of spruce and pine planted on old areas of heath, the sun is climbing. I can hear the wash of the M23 as vehicles roar through its wound in the Weald. It’s one I use a couple of times a month, too, when heading further south and then east.
The first breaks of sun glow golden in birches and the spreading branches of pines. The remnant flowers of heather persist like leftover decorations.
When the sun breaks the tops of the pines, things begin to change. Rays of light cut through the plantations and light small fires in the beds of bracken. They burn amber at the base of pines.
The birds remain elusive: crests, tits, siskins, woodpeckers. They’re all here but they’ve found all that’s left of the shadows. I can only see silhouettes.
More people are arriving now with the sun, all with dogs. One couple have more than ten between them, one pug-like thing snarls and froths at the mouth, following me for a good minute. Of course, the apologies come. It’s such a common thing, you get bored of saying ‘don’t worry about it.’
I notice a spread of oak trees, the sun crashing down through their boughs. One curved oak with a trunk lit entirely with green moss opens its door to yet more of its fellow species. These oaks are walking out of a cold and frost-bitten night, the icy coating on the vegetation around them steaming as it melts away in the day’s eyes.