winter solstice, greenwich park

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rain. the kind that feels like it will never let up, except it does and then starts again in another bucketing shower that sounds like someone put their thumb over the end of the garden hose and pointed it at at the roof. it’s been raining, mostly, since i arrived back from the desert a week ago – a fitting gush of englishness to counter-end a short new mexico stint, where every day was lizard-dry skin and ice-blue skies.

the shortest day of the longest year of the decade, and waking alone in a welcome sadness – polishing off bits of work, then nothing to do. christmas looms.

the rain is in fits and starts. sometimes it really gushes for awhile; a pool forms at my door and – oh those nights spent in the mudhouse last week remind me how possible a leak could be, but one does not spring forth and i marvel still at a roof which holds sway against this kind of downpour.

anyway, the rain is in fits and starts. in one of the starts, which i guess is when it’s not raining, i toss on a pair of gola trainers (remarkable shoes in water – i’ll always own a pair), an olive-green scarf and a corduroy coat and make for greenwich, not really aware of what is taking me there.

a pass through waterstones on greenwich church street yields a haul of books on nordic myth, darkness and the history of mysticism entirely appropriate for the winter solstice, which is lately my favourite day of the year.

it’s only just past one but the air is darkening like a dying candle – big grey clouds tell the weak, faraway sun where to go, and the wet, shiny street is full of people carrying overloaded shopping bags and unhinged umbrellas, rushing to get into the pub before another downpour.

i’m going uphill, into greenwich park, where a sandwich board reminds tourists the park closes at 6pm, though whole crowds are already descending the path from the observatory now under the dimming sky, as the sun inches toward 2pm. it will properly set at 3:53 today.

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i pause to let the lingering feverish sweat of a recent cold level off next to the meridian line at the top of the hill, under the statue of general james wolfe. an odd icon here, i always thought. the 1930s gift of the canadians to commemorate wolfe’s victory against the french at quebec stands a sentinel overlooking the park, the stately royal naval college and all a moment from the home of time, navigation, astronomy, the grave of edmund halley. weird.

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rain picks up. the view is immense – visitors here reap, after a little steep climb, an expanse of river thames and skyscraper, but i turn my back on all that and walk deeper into the park, bracing my umbrella up against another sideways rain starting to fall fast out of pink and orange cloudburst signalling the lingering rays of this abbreviated day.

it doesn’t last long. the rain. i cut across a small patch of grass, past a man walking a whippet in a puffy coat (the dog not the man) and onto a walkway away from tourists and baby buggies with their plastic partitions pulled down against the rain, which has already stopped again.

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clouds move fast. the sun cuts in a slice of yellow across a path leading to the park’s west exit, in the direction of the last light. it’s lined with ancient, gnarled, horny oak trees, whose black bulbous trunks rise to block the salmon sky into a mosaic of branches that resemble witches fingers.

i walk slow. let my umbrella drag a little on the ground. take pictures of piles of wet leaves and loiter while a couple passes loudly discussing what wine to buy at marks & spencer for a christmas party tomorrow. then the park gate is before me, and afterwards a small laneway where puddles reflect the pink sky.

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i duck down wellington grove and continue west, chasing the thin last sunlight through an unmarked footpath that leads steeply toward the georgian mansions on hyde vale, decorated for the season in pine wreaths and already lit for the evening by the warm amber glow of victorian porch lights.

this is how winter night falls on a solstice afternoon.

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