2 January 2004. By mid-afternoon I was chasing cage fever so wrapped up in several layers of clothing – leaving barely any flesh exposed to a riving wind – threw on a backpack and headed down Ricker Gill through patches of wet rushes and stubborn heather to the snowline. As I descended the steep slippery banks of Grain Beck the stream ran fast below the old stone limekilns. Enough snow had thawed to swell the waters and I could hear its busy echo long before seeing it. When I eased my way down, trying not to brush against clinging thistles, I fell and instinctively grabbed at the earth to regain my footing and won a palmful of microscopic pricks in my pores. Not far upstream I almost stepped onto a heron’s precisely placed footprint in the snow at my feet. Both the bird and I had taken the same route, so I followed the prints, wondering how long they’d been there. They ended, after a few yards, among thin reeds at the quickening rush of the water’s edge. The stream twists and turns and loses height suddenly so that many pools form and the banks are sheer without footing but sometimes, as it momentarily flattens and meanders, there is a choice of banks to walk on. I chose the east with its slightly steeper grassy slope instead of the west with a flattened track through slippery shale. This is the choice I make every time, I thought, jumping from rock to rock across the water and catching sight of the heron’s imprint opposite, always ahead of me, stalking the water’s edge, one small step in front of another so as not to startle the prey. Slate rock against an overcast sky and the silvery strip of a twisted tree struck by lightning overhung the cliff. I kept company with the stream, where water forges an alliance with rock, and took photographs of the tracks. Grabbing what I could, hunting like the heron, I followed as the light dimmed. The day had been cloudy mostly and it was now fifteen minutes from sunset, with a stiff and potentially hazardous climb to safe footing before the dark overtook me.

a heron

criss-crosses the lashing syke,
fast with sudden thaw,

its spiky tread sunk
in unscuffed snow

and hungry as death

no inkling of urgency
in its measured step,

close, almost overlapping,
at the water edge.

As I approached the tight and sudden confluence of three streams the dark sky slightly brightened and became new with a half-moon above the narrows. A heron, painting air with its primaries, flew past retracing its steps and mine. With only the lunar half-light to find my footing up the narrow clough I stepped across rocks to higher ground until I reached the ziggurat-like track, winding up from the remains of a deserted barytes mine, which was my way out of there. A low jet roared overhead rehearsing a raid on Iraq.

May the sacred river Ulay mourn you,
along whose banks we walked in our vigour!
May the pure Euphrates mourn you,
whose water we poured in libation from skins!

May the young men of Uruk-the-Sheepfold mourn you,
who saw us slay the Bull of Heaven!
May the ploughman mourn you in his furrows
when he extols your name with his sweet yodel!

When I reached the edge of the fell I took a step into myself and found a predatory instinct. A cold wind was blowing around the top of the ziggurat and to stay out of its icy bite for as long as possible I descended again into the deep shadows of the clough to a track level with the stream which would provide some shelter to its source, then up the wind-ripped summit to my home on the hill.

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