An iron-hard frost had bitten
turning the fields coruscating white
the hawthorn and elder lavish with rime
and the air obsidian-barbed
even now, near noon
unbending to a low, bloodless December sun.
We pedalled, wheezing, almost spent
up the last of the Scotch Hills
our boyish thighs protesting, lungs burning
wind-blown Siberian darts piercing our ears
until finally gaining the brow
and the half relief of the flat stretch
to Brakenhurst Wood.
Approaching the wood’s eaves
we redoubled our effort
easing through the gears
for the dizzy, headlong, howling descent
of Jackson’s Bank.
We imagined ourselves horse warriors
our martial challenge echoing
through blurred, winter-bare Needwood.
Startled, rasping, a jay scolded
as we plunged on, heedless of danger
sure of immortality
free-wheeling at last to a skidding, icy halt
at the snow-swollen Swarbourn.
There, rheumy-eyed, runny-nosed
we tethered our mounts to the bridge
sucked liquorice root
and, contemplating the waters
on their chattering journey
to congress with the thirsty Trent
conjured tales of the Dane, longship-borne
up ancient Mercia’s vein to Battlestead
where, some say, Æthelstan’s fyrd
dispatched him, scattered, whipped
north to the Humber.