It's almost dusk and the birds are making a sweet racket in the trees at the edge of the field.
We’re about to start our first night walk, a new addition to the School of the Wild programme. It’s the last time we can do it before Autumn, as from now the lengthening Spring and Summer days mean it gets dark too late to finish the walk at a reasonable time.
We’re doing the walk in silence to try and help people drop into a quiet inner space, from where it's possible to have a stronger sensory connection with the land: the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind on skin, the touch of the ground under foot.
The darkness has long been a frightening place, getting to know it in this way opens up the possibility of befriending the night, and of falling in love with nature again.
I remember sitting in a wood in the pitch black in January last year at Romancing the Dark, a different session in our programme. As night fell we’d walked into the wood along a very narrow path without lights. It was very dark and I’d felt pretty scared. I was grateful when we finally sat down, each with our back to a tree, tuning in to the silence of the night. My spirits lifting when we all lit a candle, the dots of light scattered around the wood, bringing me and the forest back to life.
In the city there are not many places you can go to be away from the lights and the busy-ness - and walking in the countryside at night is just not something we do anymore, especially without torches. The myths and dark tales of the bad things that happen have sunk into our psyche, and we like to stay in the light.
But at night you can discover a different side to the land, a calmer, quieter side. Someone wrote, ‘The night smells different’.
I tried it again later in the year, walking over the Downs with a different group of people. This time overcoming my fear and the relentless rustling of someone's unnecessary waterproof trousers, leading me finally into a feeling of elation, and then finding peace and joy in the silence of the dark. It was a magic night.
So when Caroline Whiteman agreed to lead a night walk this year, I didn’t hesitate to hire her. “The walk will be predominantly silent to allow the burble of daylight hours to subside and mysteries of the night, and the land, to draw us closer,” she wrote.
So as the sun sets slowly in the Sussex night sky, thirteen of us set off in silence, to walk in the dark and without torches over the South Downs.
We're walking from Glynde to Lewes, to know the dark and go without sight as Wendell Berry might have put it.
We’ve already done our introductions and listened to the birds' surprisingly loud dusk chorus.
As we head off in the fading light, Caroline deliberately slows the pace as she leads us up towards Mount Caburn and then over the hill into a dark valley, where the stillness and the mysteries of the night and the land beckon.
Behind us the magnificent view over the Weald is turning to grey in the half light.
Despite the slow pace, the walk uphill is taking its toll on the less fit, and the group spreads out. I’m at the back, enjoying the gap that’s opening up: I’m almost on my own, but feel connected to the others. It’s comforting and spacious.
In daylight, and at a normal pace, this walk would take about an hour. We’re doing it in three hours to give us a chance to quieten down the chatter of our minds, and to tune in to the land, the dark, and to our senses.
As we reach the brow of the ridge, I watch as the last bit of orange glow that was tonight’s sunset gets swallowed up by the night sky, creating small silhouettes on the horizon, and contrasting strongly with the blackness of the land.
My night vision has already kicked in, and I can easily make out my fellow walkers in the gloom, and a herd of silent cows, barely moving in the field next to us.
The sheep dotted about the land call to each other now and again, and apart from the wind and the very distant traffic, everything is settling down for the night, including my mind.
As we head down the other side, the land gradually reveals itself out of the greyness. The dark clumps that my anxious brain has been telling me are scary beasts are actually gorse bushes and hawthorn, and the fear of bumping into something large and dangerous gradually recedes.
It’s so very peaceful up here. My breathing calms, my mind clears.
I feel the path beneath my feet. I can tell when I’ve left it as the ground feels rougher under foot.
I’m enjoying this a lot.
As we reach the valley floor, we stop by one of only a few gates, and I hand out the sit mats. Caroline has a candle. She gave us instructions for this bit earlier. In silence we each go off on our own to be with ourselves and the night. I walk up a slope and sit down, listening to the quiet sounds of the land at night, and gazing up at the stars.
The traffic noise of the A27 rumbles in the distance. It’s low but insistent, disturbing the peace, and it annoys me. A plane passes over head, the sound of its engines rolling around the hill, which doesn’t.
Apparently we’ve disturbed a couple of wild campers, a few of the others have seen torch lights floating about, but none of us bump into them.
I sit still, looking into the darkness and smelling the night, while others lay down to gaze up at the stars, or stay standing, just visible as dark silhouettes on a grey horizon.
After half an hour, Caroline’s wolf howl calls us back. We gather and start the walk again, following her and the path up towards Lewes, our destination.
It’s proper dark now, but I can see a surprising amount of detail - the blonde hair of the person in front, a large cow pond to the right that glows even in this darkness, the kissing gate at the edge of the field - and have no concerns about falling or getting lost.
The path narrows and glows faintly white. Someone slips in front of me, but immediately gets up laughing, she’s fine and carries on.
There have been a few cow pats, black splodges that stand out on the ground, all part of the experience we decided at the start, and unavoidable.
As we approach the end of the walk, a warm glow appears in the distance, and as we get closer, I can see our helper Jake has done his job well - a glorious welcoming fire burns in the firebowl, and wild nettle and mint tea is ready for us.
We sit and quietly talk about the experience, not wanting to break the spell.
“I wish we could have carried on.”
I could have walked on for ages. But coming out of the dark to the fire like this, is like coming home.
And I’ll settle for that.
We'll be doing more night walks in 2017. See the programme for more details.
Author & Curator
Nigel Berman is the founder of School of the Wild.