4.45am isn’t a time I’m used to. I’m more of a late starting girl, given half a chance: the kind who loves to laze in bed until mid-morning, reading and snoozing and listening to music (and, if I’m honest, spending slightly too long staring at my phone). But today I am up before the birds, shaking away sleep as I pull on tights, a polo-neck, dress, boots, shearling jacket. By 5.04am I’m in the car with my dad, clutching a flask of tea. We drive out of the village towards the mist. It’s thick, turning trees and hedges into flat silhouettes. Our car slips through the grey. Shortly after, the sky’s edges curl pink.
By 5.30am we’re standing at the top of the hill: a vast hill, looking down over valley upon valley of towns and fields. As the minutes go by, the heather stretching in every direction is illuminated – as is everything else, lines and details soaked clear with daylight. We witness the shift from shadows to green, mauve, blue, tangerine. The tangerine belongs to the clouds. They score the view ahead: great big scratches of light and colour. My dad fusses with his cameras (plural - our reason for being here). I sit on an anorak among the heather, watching. Soon I’m trying to note down everything I can see and hear, scribbling bullet points, only some of which make sense:
- · Traffic growl only sign of life
- · crows – harsh notes
- · hills holding their breath
- · sheep bleating
- · stillness up here - motion below
But none of it can properly capture the grandeur of it; the elation of watching a landscape wake up, lit by that huge, neon circle swimming up from the horizon; the sense of standing at the edge of a world that is only half-yours, that still, somehow, belongs more to the birds and the insects in the grass and the last gasp of night.
Then there’s the knowledge that this process happens all the time (though, of course, not always as marvelously as this) – a regular spectacle most of us don’t witness. Virginia Woolf writes beautifully in ‘On Being Ill’ about spending time staring at the sky, noting wryly, “one should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house”. But she also knows that the sights up above have “nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit”. They happen because they must. Our joy at these scenes is incidental.
This dawn rising is the culmination of a long weekend spent throwing myself back into the green, reveling in all this gorgeous expanse. I’ve said goodbye to Oxford, and, sad as it is, there’s something galvanizing in the temporary change of scene. There are books to read, slopes to climb, water to seek out, long walks to complete, muscles to tire out, projects to pursue. I’m craving activity and motion. But, at the crown of the hill, there’s just this: a dawn so impossibly beautiful, and so impossibly everyday.
When we leave, the sunshine is bright, but there’s an autumnal bite in the air. In a few hours it’ll relinquish its grip back to summer, and the garden will be baking hot. I’ll sit on my laptop with all the doors and windows open. I’ll grab some time in the warmth, flowers around me, with Alice Oswald’s poetry collection ‘Falling Awake’ – delighted to find that the second half is titled ‘Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of Dawn’. It will give words to the morning I could never have shaped myself, Oswald writing, “here come cascades of earliness in/ which everything is asked is it light/ is it light is it light”, and I’ll be carried through page after page: “there is amazement here turning/ wishfully pink above the trees”. She’ll talk of “the lurch the/ well-known slap of joy when/ bird-verse takes a regular line”, of how “a great proximity arches overheard”, of the ways in which “the sky’s a cloth the eye a passer-/by with mirrors”.
But here, with the promise of breakfast ahead, I’m still a passerby. The air is crisp outside the car. The mist is lingering on the fields, and we’ll be back home before anyone else is up.
In between all that rapturous watching, I managed to convince dad to take a few photos of me – having stashed away a vintage ballgown in the car. It was probably 6.45am by this point. It was only when I pulled on the dress that I realized how wonderfully the purple threads in the fabric caught and reflected the purple of the heather. First featured here, it originally belonged to the mother of a neighbour of my distant cousin (tenuous, I know). It doesn’t quite fit any more, ergo the strong ‘hands on hip’ poses: I am literally holding it together.