Crisp night air and the clouds breaking to reveal the moon. A warm coat and stout shoes, and it would be a fine night for walking on the moor. No torch would be necessary and no person would be met.
Such walks were the stuff of the final year at school, more than forty years ago, now. Leaving at night time meant avoiding the obvious route. It would have brought one out onto the front drive and would have meant passing the office and numerous windows, through any of which one might have been spotted. The internal route meant heading directly towards danger, walking the corridor towards the staff quarters, before cutting left to the junior house and out a door into a yard where even on moonlit nights there would be shadows and darkness. Joining the lane beyond the main buildings meant only passing a couple of teachers’ bungalows before the road was shrouded by dense rhododendrons.
Winding through the trees, passing stone hut circles that marked the site of a bronze age village and a deep pond that once supplied fish to the big house; an anonymous five barred gate marked the end of the grounds. Once over the gate, the road led onto open moorland. Not once in all the times the journey was made did a vehicle pass; had there been a car, there would have been no place to hide. The walk would end always at a grave where a bridlepath crossed the road – the last resting place of Mary Jay, a 19th century suicide. Sitting on the grass bank, we would watch the night sky, the stars and the moon.
Our excursions had none of the crime-filled darkness of those of Florian Kilderry, the central character of William Trevor’s Love and Summer. As a teenager, Kilderry confides to his Italian cousin that night walks had been part of his school life:
‘Meraviglioso!’ she cried when he confided that on darkening winter evenings he had stolen out of his one-time boarding-school to follow people on the streets, making of each shadowy presence what he wished it to be. Hunched within themselves, his quarries hurried from their crimes, the pickpocket with his wallets and his purses, the bank clerk with embezzlement’s gain kept safe beneath his clothes, the simple thief, the silent burglar. Sinister at dark hall doors, they took out latchkeys behind, curtains drawn, a light went on. The blackmailer wrote his letters, the shoplifter cooked his purloined supper. Saviour of desperate girls, a nurse wiped clean her instruments. A dealer packaged dreams, a killer washed his hands. ‘Magnifico!’ Isabella cried.
Kilderry’s experience would have been a delight. In deep isolation, there was not a soul we might have followed. The vast moorland around presented nothing more dangerous than tales of ghosts and the wintertime threat of dying of exposure. The walks were generally without a point, sometimes there would be cans of Woodpecker cider, mostly it was a case of just going out to walk in silence. Every conversation there might have been had been rehearsed many times before.
Perhaps the motivation for walking an obscure Dartmoor road was similar to that of Kilderry, to break the rules, to defy convention, to assert independence. Perhaps there was some deep existential seeking after an authenticity, more likely had we been asked, we would have had no idea why. It had its own meaning, purpose even, beyond a sixteen year old imagination. Crisp air and broken clouds still have an evocative power.