The lights from the cottagewindows recede, all too rapidly, as we walk along an unlit country lane and take a footpath through a field into open countryside. Thick cloud cover prevents the moonlight from illuminating the way ahead. Yet, as my eyes begin to get used to the darkness, the landscape around me reveals itself in a new light – albeit a shady one.
The contours of Mount Caburn, an iron-age hill fort, are like shadows against the sky. On the horizon, a tree bent by the wind is silhouetted, and the rocky outcrop at the top of the field turns out to be a flock of sleeping sheep. A fox cries, a pheasant crows and the air is full of a heady earthy scent.
“For most of human history man lived in close contact with the land,” says Nigel Berman, my guide, whose company, School of the Wild, organises guided night walks on the South Downs. “Only in the past few hundred years have we shut ourselves off from our natural surroundings. Walking at night is a powerful way of reconnecting . When your vision is reduced, your other senses are sharpened.”
Darkness is a thing we have come to fear and shy away from. It has become a metaphor for evil and depression, a place held at bay by our electric-lit world. But in the parts where darkness holds sway for much of the winter, inhabitants embrace it rather than yearning for longer days. In the Arctic Circle during the polar night, when the sun never rises and the Earth is swathed in darkness for several months, the Norwegians simply wrap up, strap on a head torch and head for the hills.
As nights in the UK close in and a Covid-induced indoor isolation looms, it is a perfect opportunity to take note and go into the countryside, or walk across a deserted beach, to see starlit skies and moonlit rocks, spot owls, see bats swooping and breathe in the night air.
Nigel and I walk from Glynde, a village near Glyndebourne opera house, across the South Downs towards the town of Lewes. It’s a walk I know well by day but at night everything is different, and a familiar stroll becomes a mini adventure. The lighter strip of sky above it highlights the ridge of the downs that we head towards to start. At the top, we edge along a wire fence looking for the gate that will take us along a path through the Mount Caburn nature reserve to Oxteddle Bottom.
When Nigel told me not to bring a torch, I was alarmed. I can’t remember the last time I used my night vision and I’m not even aware of how it works. Nigel explains that in the dark our pupils not only expand to allow light in they also switch to use different light sensors. In bright light, cone-shaped sensors respond to different colours of light and allow us to see fine detail, but in the dark the eyes switch to rod-shaped sensors, far more sensitive to light but unable to sense colours.
We descend past clumps of trees into the darker, hill-surrounded valley, aiming for the eerie shimmer of a dew pond where we pause to sit. I’m aware of the breeze caressing my face, the rustle of leaves and, as I watch the clouds swirling and slowly changing colour against the sky like a natural sound and light show, it feels mesmeric.
Normally at this time of night I’d be having a glass of wine in front of the television, but being out in the countryside is a purer form of relaxation. I forget about work and family tensions and begin to blend into the surroundings. There is no one other than Nigel to see or hear me and, with little visual distraction, my mind calms.
Walking at night is not without risk, but with knowledge and preparation it opens up a new side to walking. For example, it’s important to know your route by day so that you know what features to pick out by night; to have good navigational skills; take the right kit (hat, gloves, insulated layers and a daypack with a flask of hot drink); and pick favourable weather.
A deep unfamiliar sound rouses me from my reverie and Nigel tells me it is the “cronk” call of the raven. We continue walking and, having got used to the dark, the chalk path that leads up the escarpment of Saxon Down now appears to almost shine in front of us. We climb carefully, feeling, rather than groping for, our way on the uneven ground.
As we reach the top, Lewes appears below as a twinkly mass of lights, a sight I’d generally think of as inviting. But in just a few hours I have gone over to the dark side and find myself reluctant to walk back down.
Walking at night is like discovering a new world on your doorstep, one that allows you to roam beyond the duration of winter’s short days and explore in the time of Covid. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Night and Moonlight: “Night is certainly more novel and less profane than day.”
• Guided mindful night walks are available from schoolofthewild.com, price information is available through the website
More ways to explore by night
National parks are some of the best places to see the star-studded autumn and winter skies, and there are a number of dark sky festivals that include organised stargazing walks.
The Bat Conservation Trust has groups across the UK and most run local bat walks.
Ramblers groups offer group night walks.
Many charities now run organised night walks as a way of raising money. The original MoonWalk, organised by breast cancer charity Walk the Walk, now takes place all around the world.