November 17th - Today was a carbon copy of yesterday, but warmer, and so the mist had risen a little. By the time I got out - again, as dusk fell - the air was clearing and a very quiet darkness settled upon Brownhills. I spun around, enjoying the unusual quiet; up the canal to the old cement works, then up the old railway line to Engine Lane, and back into Brownhills via the Hussey Estate and Holland Park. It’s taken a long time this year, but tonight, I was aware of being in love with the darkness again, or at the least, in love with the things it brings. Solitude, quiet, a new aspect to familiar places.
There’s the dark town, the darkness itself, and the fear of the darkness. At some point in the last 24hours, seasonal lines recrossed and I stopped fighting it. The fear is real: it’s not the menace, or the ghostliness as found here at Coppice Lane, but the fear of never seeing the summer again. I can’t hold on to the year passed,the warm days, long grass and flowers have withered and now, it’s winter. Come Christmas, everything will open out again.
And in the meantime, evenings like this: quiet, dark and beautiful.
November 8th - I’ve noted before, that at night Stonnall is a different place. Darkness has a remarkable effect on the dormitory commuter village that I find puzzling. By day, it’s a nondescript, but pleasant place; old houses mingle with postwar new build and a few ex-council houses with neat gardens and an open, if slightly characterless atmosphere.
At night, however, I’m not sure why, but the place develops a wholly different character. The old buildings here come alive, and the new stuff just slinks into the background. You get hints, whispers of what the old village might have been like, before it was sold out to developer and speculator.
Some places seem lost, but retain their essence at certain points. Stonnall does this on dark winter evenings. I remain convinced that the spirit of some places is never lost, just hidden.
October 26th - A sad day for me, the closing of summertime, and the descent into early darkness. The background susurration of gloom I now feel will not lift until the shortest day in December. Once things start to open out again after December’s nadir, I will feel better.
It was a day that didn’t work out; I left late and had to go to the cycle workshop at Birches Valley, up on the Chase. In my hurry, I decided against all apparent sense to take a shortcut over Cuckoo Bank. It was a disaster. The tracks were boggy and hard going, and once up there, the paths didn’t go where I thought they did. Were I exploring and not actually trying to get anywhere, this would have been great, but I emerged a good 45 minutes later at Wimblebury, way too late to get to my destination.
Instead, I headed up over Rainbow hill, down to Moor’s Gorse and back via Upper Cliff and Lodge Bank. The wind on the way back was merciless. I was glad to get home.
There was light in the darkness though, one last hanger-on from late summer; a single, beautiful foxglove growing in the otherwise dead forest floor at Parson’s Slade. Delicate, perfect and quite alone, I doubt it’s purple flowers will ever see a bee, but they did cheer me up.
It was a great summer, for me. I’m ready for the winter now, I guess. Bring it on.
February 15th - I hopped off the canal and along the old railway line towards Clayhanger. It’s an interesting spot at dusk, and the views over the rooftops on a clear night are wonderful, as is the view down towards the village. As I arrived, there was a familiar rustle in the undergrowth, and out strolled the old dog fox. He looked at me, as if in recognition, then trotted off down the path.
It was good to see him, I was worried he wouldn’t survive the winter. He must be getting on a bit now.
December 22nd - The rain was evil on my return through Lower Stonnall, aided and abetted by a low but sharp wind. As I came back down Gravelly Lane, I stopped to look at Ivy Cottage in the dusk. Ivy Cottage is a landmark for me: it stands at an oblique, curious angle to junction, and it’s lights indicate that I’m nearly home, and have to turn right. It’s a lovely cottage, and looks best in spring. I know the seasons are advancing by this cottage, and the degree of night-time when I pass it on my return from work. Yesterday was the shortest day and winter solstice, from now, for me, spring starts. This is not trivial. From here, everything opens out.
A reader of this journal remarked to me a few weeks ago that I sounded tired in my posts. It’s not tiredness as such, it’s fatigue; the attrition of the dark and bad weather, and the knowledge that worse was to come. For an outdoors person, the nights closing in seems calamitous, inevitable, and depressing. I feel it acutely. From now, slowly, almost imperceptibly, daylight extends. It will creep gradually into my journeys, and in a few weeks, rather than the death and retreat I’ve seen since summer passed, life will return and nature will awaken. I know there’s bad weather to come, but having seen the shortest day, I can now face anything.
I can understand why everyone from the Celts to the Romans and Christians had a midwinter celebration. They felt this point was a symbol of time’s passage. I concur. From here, the riding gets better and better.
November 24th - Finding myself in the dark of Chasewater, the only real light was in the mist over the water caused by the heavy rain. Realising the wind was from the east, I decided to see what the camera could do on a long exposure. It was really very dark, but I set shutter priority and set exposure to the maximum 8 seconds, with the camera stood on the dam wall. I’m fascinated by the results. I don’t know anything at all about photography - I usually just let the camera do it’s thing, and have worked out how to get decent results by trial and error without really understanding the process. Of late, I’ve started to get more adventurous, and the little camera seems a lot more versatile than I thought.
As a side issue, I note the water level of the lake has shot up: looking at the level on the pier woodwork, it seems to have gained about 300mm - a whole foot - in November. With the land saturated, I guess all the runoff is now pouring it. I’m seriously wondering if the lake could be near full by New Year.
November 24th - Oh my word today was grim. It started early, with a dentist appointment, and by the time I or my mouth were feeling anything like going out, it was raining cats and dogs. I headed over to Burntwood to get some shopping in after dark. The wind was low, and I dressed for the rain, and the ride was really quite invigorating… but the photography, as you might expect, was lousy. Crossing the bridge over the M6 Toll at Pool Road, I stopped to watch the traffic. The road surface was swilling with water, and the spray was terrible. I was glad to be on my bike, in a deserted country park, in almost total darkness. Somewhere from the lowland below the dam, an owl was calling. There’s beauty anywhere, really, but sometimes it’s very hard to find.
November 18th - My second attempt to find badgers. On Cannock Chase, In the dark, I found them. They were wonderful, but the light was too bad to take pictures. I won’t say where they were for obvious reasons, and I watched them way too long. I was left to rush home, back through the forest in darkness. It was brilliant, but very cold. All I could hear was owls, the flow of water, and small animals scuttling through the undergrowth. The Chase at night is a wonderful, full-on sensory experience.
November 14th - Further on, I stopped to take a photo and ponder. I’m a grown bloke, and nothing much scares me. Heavy traffic? No problem. Speed? Not at all. Heights? Maybe a little. Darkness? Not at all, love cycling in the dark, especially in rural places. Green Lane, between Shelfield and Walsall Wood at night? Hell yeah. I’ve no idea why, it’s the only place I ever feel nervous out at night, and I’ve cycled in some grim places. Something about the darkness, the woods and the traffic combine to really make me feel queasy down here after dark.
I think it’s to do with finding a car accident down here a few years back. The imagery of that stays with me.
I must be turning into a right wuss in my old age.
November 14th - Commuting in the darkness hours. For the first few weeks after the autumn clock change, drivers go a bit loopy. I don’t know if stats back this up, but it feels like everything gets a bit unhinged until normality returns at around the beginning of December. In the last few weeks on my way home I’ve been pulled out on, undertaken, cut up and lefthooked. This is with huge bright lights and hi-viz.
This collective madness is heightened when I hear the spine-chilling siren and see the blue flashes. When emergency vehicles appear, I always make sure I’m well out of the way, as folk never seem quite sure what to do. Tonight, in the queue at Shelfield, I was safe as the paramedic shot past in the other direction. On their way to someone desperately in need, no doubt. Maybe a traffic accident. My blood ran cold.
I hate this time of year.
October 4th - I was accompanied by a forgotten companion on my return from work this evening - nightfall. It was 6:45pm, and nearly dark when I arrived home. A little bit of a shock to the system. This made photography difficult, as I hadn’t got a tripod or gorillapod on me. Sweeping down a dark and deserted Maybrook Road, the dusk made for an interesting shot with the camera sat on a street cabinet. This part of town - on the Walsall Wood/Brownhills border - always seems deserted. Even in the daytime.
July 29th - Speeding back towards home down the canal towpath in darkness, I spotted a familar shape in the headlight. Screeching to a halt, I gently picked up this little fellow - a common toad - and placed him in the safety of the canalside grass. He was a small chap, probably about half to two thirds fully grown, and he had a delightfully speckled belly. I lifted him gently between thumb and fingers, it’s unwise to clasp these amphibians in the flat hand, as they spray acrid urine as a defence mechanism. They also squeal if you touch them on their lower back - it’s a sound that’s remarkably piercing, and is generated as a signal to other male toads that they’re attempting to mate with the wrong sex in mating frenzies.
Toads. Surprising things. Not a whole bunch of road sense, either…
March 2nd - Escaping a heavy afternoon of bicycle fettling, I skipped out on a new transmission at dusk. Enjoying the freedom, I headed up over Wyrley Common for a bit, out beyond the old level crossing at the top of Engine Lane. Heading back towards the factories at dusk, I jumped half out of my skin at the surprise of being greeted from the shadows of the scrub by a ne’er do well in a grubby anorak with the hood pulled up, emanating a strong smell of dope. The transmission got quite a test, there…
Catching my breath back near the Hussey Estate, I noted how desolate the site of the old garages at the rear of the Pelsall Road had become. When I was a kid there was decent street lighting here. Only the welcoming lights of the Activity Centre next door stopped it being utterly black. An unsettling ride, for sure….
August 23rd - The week took an unexpected turn as I found myself working late. Returning in the dark quite late at night, I decided to try some night photography. This normally comes with autumn, but I guess a little practice doesn’t hurt, and I found the activity quite relaxing after a stressful, long day at work.