Deep in the snow-covered wood, the sounds are these: the trickle of a half-frozen stream, a thudding noise as snow dislodged from treetops hits the ground, a distant unknown bird call and the steady scrunch of snow under skis.
This is cross-country skiing at its finest, and right on the doorstep, right here in south-east England. The snow started at seven on Saturday night, with fine flakes that twirled and swirled and began settling in the sub-zero temperatures without any ado. By midnight more than two inches lay sparkling on the ground and the snow was falling with even greater urgency. By the morning it was six inches deep and most of the country appeared to be at a standstill.
The launch of a cross-country skiing expedition takes only three simple steps: (1) into the loft to retrieve the skis (2) into the back of the bedroom cupboard to find the boots (3) and into the running gear that’s lain unloved since the Deadly Virus hit in mid-December.
And then it’s off, down the high street. I’m not sure why, but people’s faces light up at the sight of a cross-country skier like they do for a baby on a Tube train. I step gingerly across the bald patches where the early risers have already dug a path to freedom. Then across the virgin territory of the recreation ground, struggling to cut a path into the deep snow. The snowplough has beaten me to my planned route round the local country estate: the driver and I exchange cheery waves and I head for the woods instead.
A Landrover has compressed a handy trail down to the Hansel and Gretel house deep in the woods: perfect! For more than half a mile, gravity does the work. All I have to do is watch the view glide past: the snow-covered trees, the holly bushes brought so low in places you have to duck to get by, the animal tracks.
Down at last to the frozen hammerpond. Ducks are walking on the water, or sculling around in the small corner that remains unfrozen, quacking indignantly at the unfairness of it all and the lack of bread-bearing children.
On to the meadow, where more virgin snow remains to be cut through. In cross-country skiing, as in running, you seek the perfect rhythm, where breathing and the movement of arms and legs flow together and everything else becomes distant.
When it happens it’s pure joy.
I finally stop to take in the sounds where a stream runs into the hammerpond down a series of pools and waterfalls. High above, in the top of an oak tree, long-tailed tits flit from branch to branch, sending down mini-avalanches to the ground. A blackbird has taken refuge in the ivy high up in another tree. This is the kingfisher’s normal terrain, but there’s no blue flash to be seen amid the winter’s snow.
More mini-avalanches start plunging from the treetops and the scrunching sound under the skis has changed. Temperatures are rising and the beginnings of a thaw are setting in: time for the long uphill ski home. A wren flies across the path, a tiny speck in a sea of white. I glide back up the Landrover trail, and along the high street, struggling through the murky brown drifts kicked up by the snowplough.
Motorists are making their way gingerly along, dodging the abandoned vehicles. The urge to dig has taken hold now, and many people are excavating their cars and clearing icy paths with plastic shovels. There’s an air of fun and festival about it all.
Snow brings out the best in a village. One couple abandoned their car in the middle of the road early this morning to get out and push another stranded motorist to freedom. Other adults were snowball-fighting gleefully in the middle of the road at midnight, or pulling their children towards the woods on sleds straight after breakfast.
As predicted, the snow has brought transport mayhem: people stuck for more than seven hours on the M25, planes cancelled, trains and underground services badly affected.
I sympathise with all those caught up in the chaos, but I’m feeling grateful as I glide right back up to the front door after a two-hour workout, my mind full of images of snow-covered woods. I’ve only fallen off three times, and broken nothing. The annual skiing holiday has taken place, and right outside the door.