The song of the larches – a winter’s walk

An eerie winter's dog walk in the Brecon Beacons by Fergus Collins

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It snowed last night. Four centimetres – not the four feet promised by some hysterical tabloid predictions – but still enough to thrill and chill. Quickly the iced stillness of first light is driven into the valley by a menacing westerly that grows stronger over breakfast – as do I.

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By the time I get dog, lead and treats together, the snow is fading but even so, the world of my woods has changed. The regular dog walk along the forestry track through the plantation is a completely new adventure for us both.

By mid morning, the show has gone from the forestry track.

I spot a fresh boot print frozen in mud on this track that no one else walks and I have a Man Friday moment. Who and when? And, unreasonably, how dare they? Then I kick myself with a besludged welly and remember that a town of 15,000 lies in the vale and adventurous souls from there still make the journey to these unnamed and unheralded backwoods. Never young folk though.

Wind whips through the fir tops and larches, the roar indistinguishable from breakers on shingle. Buzzards mew instead of gulls. That constant energy, a surfers’ paradise above the dark, death of conifer understorey.

Alongside the path are boneyards – the jumbled femurs of last year’s Himalayan balsam. Hard to believe that in summer these triffids clogged all the byways around here.

The ‘bones’ of Himalayan balsam

But like some unkillable lich, it will rise again. Hidden in the thawing soil are hundreds of thousands of its seeds just waiting. Here and there you can always find spring – little cushions of golden saxifrage foliage; smatterings of the first celandine leaves.

Deeper in the woods the breakers recede but the tree trunks and limbs squeal and creak in the fathoms below the surface. These are neglected plantations and the once carefully planted ranks of trees tumble and crash to their sad doom, never to be harvested. Softer movements emit rumours, voices on the wind and it’s easy to see why people believe trees talk. I turn frequently and involuntarily to catch the words.

Half a mile further on one murmur resolves itself into the soughing of a chainsaw – perhaps someone is harvesting windfalls after all. But we won’t meet that person – hundreds, if not thousands, of trees lie between us.

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The dog stays close, perhaps sensing my disquiet at the troubled woods. We turn for home and look forward to warming ourselves with fire from the wood of these trees.

Idris warms up after a winter’s outing in the woods.