Country diary: A gloomy dusk walk that flickers with life

<span>Photograph: Nicola Chester</span>
Photograph: Nicola Chester

Forty minutes before I pick my daughter up from an after-school detention, I’ve just enough time for a dusky walk in a favourite spot with our elderly dog. It’s a quiet lane that passes four scattered houses before narrowing and rising into the old chalk road to the downs. I need a breather. A companionable plod.

The wood on one side stands with its feet in marigold water, as the sun sets. Wide, empty cow fields run up to another wood on the other side; the cattle are housed now for winter. Three hares and a muntjac graze in their absence.

Water trickles down ditches edged with freshly flailed hedges smelling of Christmas, and a strong animal smell that I can’t place. Not cows or horses; not sheep or a fox, but something of all of those: straw, ammonia. At the end of the lane, the way becomes a dark tunnel. Crumbly tarmac fades to twin chalk wheel ruts, glowing in the low light. It’s time to turn back.

There is further evidence of a former settlement here: a rough paddock, fruit trees, a conifer. A handkerchief flicker alerts me to a barn owl, passing through. Its whiteness seems sprung from the chalk itself. Far above, stars are emerging; the light fades and I must hasten. But there is an indistinct bulk against the hedge. The dog stares. A silent rider on a pony? As I remember my proximity to a much older settlement of the Beaker folk – prehistoric migrants from Europe, 4,500 years ago, known for their fine beaker-shaped clay pots – the shape becomes antler-helmeted.

A belching bark from the cow field reveals a fallow doe that pronks away. A staccato splishing comes from the wood beside me and the earlier animal scent suddenly makes sense. I have gatecrashed the night roads of a herd of fallow deer. My bronze-age horseman crosses in front of me, fuzzy-edged and shadowy, his head raised to support his crown of antlers.

A low, wreathing scarf of mist has risen and doglegs across the cow fields. More animals skitter unobstructed through the hedge and canter away up it, as if it were an airy, ghostly road. The grass verge has crisped with frost as I reach the car. Far more than 40 minutes seem to have passed.

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