In the half-light of these short winter mornings, as the night grudgingly releases her grip to the dawn, there is a palpable sense of otherworldliness. Maybe it is because my eyes struggle to pick out shapes in the gloom, prompting the familiar landscape around me to appear increasingly unfamiliar. Trees now present as silhouettes take on new forms, some of which carry an underlying hint of menace; is that someone stood by the edge of the path watching me or part of the gnarled trunk of a riverside alder?
The ducks on the river, still huddled within the shadows, seem unsettled. They have more reason than me to be afraid of the darkness, since their river hides the slashing jaws of pike and otter. Moorhens that have been feeding on the path move off at my approach, heads down, tail up and flicking white badges of alarm. I am aware of other noises along the river bank, sounds that hint at foraging rats and blackbirds turning over the leaf litter. The rats themselves are silent but the blackbirds chook and chink with alarm.
I have timed my walk so that I can squeeze in a decent circuit before I have to head into the office. Setting off in the dark, I know that it will be fully light by the time that I return home and that there will be enough light for the more difficult section of the river, where the muddy bank and raised roots can trip the unwary.
Just downstream from an ancient crossing place I chance across two little grebes, the first of the winter on the river. They are diving for food, quite close in to the bank and within a patch of water that has caught just enough of the morning’s light to silhouette the grebes. These buoyant little birds are great fun and immediately they dispel any remaining sense of otherworldliness. Aware of my presence both birds dive, emerging a few seconds later further out from the bank. They dive again and then I lose sight of them in the shadow of the far bank. Ripples that echo out from subsequent dives tell me that the grebes are still here, even if I cannot see them. It is time to move on.