It is a blue-sky morning, fat with the promise of early spring and I am standing at the bottom of a tight, single-track road just across the river from where I live. The road rises steeply to the north, winding through pastures and woodland, until eventually it reaches the open hill country above. I feel full of expectation, eager for clues of renewed life. At first sight the place looks unchanged since Christmas: the ground hard and bony, grass cropped short and the trees bare, but I can smell new growth: a rising succulence that is putting new flesh on winter bones. There is fresh unfolding foliage on honeysuckle, cleavers, herb Robert and cow parsley. Yellow stars of celandines light up the hedge bank with a brassy optimism, the plain white flowers of barren strawberry around them are like maids attending a dowager. Above me a goldcrest is stitching its high frequency song whilst a crow yells in a coarse f-off sort of way from nearby woodland. Abruptly a pheasant coughs like somebody tearing metal. A lizard, my first of the year, is more movement than image, slipping between dead grass and emerging nettles.
Further up a scruffy little pasture catches my eye: drab grey-green with scattered rushes and bracken, it is quite unlike the overfed verdance of the valley bottom grassland. This small field is steep (which no doubt saved it) and full of hummocks and jutting bedrock – and best of all a sprinkling of grassy anthills, a sure sign it has been spared the plough. Such places sometimes contain botanical gold, so I will be back in a month or two.
Turning round and looking south the escarpment edge of the Cambrian Mountains, although five miles from here, is sharp enough to cut your finger on today. In the foreground the river, a glittering blue slash across the landscape, looks benign and easy, but only days ago it bulged ominously with coffee coloured water moving with a remorseless force. En route from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury a train trundling along the valley gives a mournful hoot: a come-hither sound that has me longing to travel. It has been a hard year.
In the hedgerow a patch of dog’s mercury is fresh up from the soil, the tiny cream and green flowers just beginning to open. I am always pleased to see this modest plant; it is said to be an indicator of long gone woodland and as so many of our plants originated on the wildwood edge a hedge is a good enough proxy. A group of long-tailed tits are making their way along the lane from bush to bush in busy conversation; they seem oblivious of me – like people overheard on a bus.
Further up the lane the ground opens out into steep hard-bitten grassland strewn with last year’s brittle and flattened bracken. It is hard to imagine the forest of sappy fists it will be thrusting up in just a few weeks. The slope rises to a group of elderly oaks through which a raven sidles discreetly off stage. I can’t see a nest, but it is that time of year for ravens. A scattering of gorse is (as always) flowering but otherwise this slope looks closed, still in the grip of winter. Some of the oaks have shed limbs – a glorious chaos of lichen and rot. I offer up a silent prayer that they wont be tidied up, but a stack of logs at the roadside looks ominous. One or two trees lie prone, punched flat by distant gales, their root plates rotated to vertical. It is a miracle that they stand for so long in these shallow shaley soils, their sclerotic roots clinging on for dear life.
At this point the trickle beside the road runs into a kind of slate cistern, the sort of thing a posh garden centre would rob you blind for – but here, made long before artisans drank lattes, it is half overgrown and entirely forgotten. A bit further up, where the road crosses a stream, a dry-stone wall made from thousands of slate shards is twisted out of shape by tree roots, but it still supports the bank. It is hard to imagine the patience and fortitude needed to make such a thing for seemingly such a slight purpose. It reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy’s work, which shines a light on the everyday artistry that was once everywhere and nowhere in the countryside.
Either side of the lane is now open hill land. The tarmac has disintegrated into a loose rutted track with patches of exposed bedrock. I’m pleased to reach the top, the break in slope before the track slides down into the next valley. Spread out in front of me is a huge bowl with woodland and forestry plastered around the sides of the surrounding hills. It still feels hard and unforgiving up here, a few hundred feet make a lot of difference at this season. The hedgerow plants have gone, the birds are quiet and the wind suddenly has a bite. Not yet the glories of skylarks in their towers of song or small butterflies dancing across the warm turf.
Tucked under the slope150 feet below me is Bron yr Aur, a remote one-time farmstead now impressively ‘off grid’ with a wind turbine, hydro and a solar array. It was here, sometime in the late 1960s, that Led Zeppelin started writing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – one of the greatest rock songs of all time; apparently Bron yr Aur is still a place of pilgrimage for fans. It is a seductive thought that this road inspired their title, but really I have no idea if their stairway to heaven is the same as mine.