There had been days when there had been a drive from a Dublin filled with spring colour to an Ulster still in mid-winter; one March day it had seemed like a drive back in time, as though a return to January were possible by a travelling north a hundred miles.
Unaccustomed to midland springs, the journey in the sunshine of a Saint David’s Day afternoon, pointed both back and forwards. Trees along the route displayed a skeletal wintriness, silhouetted against a bright sky, they might have been lining a solstice horizon; but along the verges the approach of the equinox was manifest in brilliant yellow daffodils and faint hints of greenness in the hedgerows.
A flat-capped, boiler-suited farmer stood at a gateway, releasing a flock of ewes into a field thick with new grass. The accompanying collie watching motionless, not anticipating the calls and whistles that would shape its gathering and movement of the sheep; there would be little work on such an afternoon. Across the road, sturdy lambs, mature enough now to wander from their mothers, their autumn arrival allowing growth sufficient for them to be sold for the Easter table.
Thirty years ago, travelling this same road, but northward, progress had been impeded by the lumbering wagons of a circus, travelling from one small provincial town to another. The economics of such activity were a mystery, how much would be taken at the ticket booth? Would it even have covered the cost of fuelling the unwieldy vehicles that had occupied most of the width of the road of the time?
The mountains to the west still bore autumnal colours. ‘Those aren’t mountains at all’, an English visitor had last year commented, ‘they are just a ridge of hills’. ‘They are older than the Alps’, had come a retort from the back of the car. Unverifiable at the time, it had passed unchallenged. Perhaps it was true, but it bore the mark of a deeper agenda; a sense of pride in the country, a desire not to be patronised, a sense of a long legacy.
Turning onto a side road, a wrought iron water pump stood at the roadside. Painted recently, its bright blue of picture postcard quality; the grass at its foot had been mowed, and a bunch of flowers had been fastened to it by string tied around the casing. Had some ritual once attached to it, in the way that wells had once been dressed with May flowers?
The road wound around the perimeter walls of a once vast estate; forty thousand acres had once been owned by the family, the only memory of them now, marble inscriptions no-one read.
A T junction brought another turning and a further junction, another; the landscape changed, trees enclosed the route. On high ground, a planting of silver birch had still to show signs of the vernal awakening.
It was a fine day to be driving such a road; a fine day to be enjoying a midland spring.