On Saturday morning at around 3 o’clock, addedentry, K. and I set off in what still seemed to be the middle of the night, in order to reach the Port Meadow tump in good time for the sunrise. As we tramped down Botley Road in the orangey gloom, it started to rain: fat, occasional drops. I swore at the darker points of the road that I could see dark blue in the sky to the east north-east, but the consensus was that it must be light pollution from the town.
We passed by Ferry Hinksey Road and dropped down towards the railway bridge. Late-night drinkers began to appear, heading generally in the opposite direction to us, pursuing lost buses and the ghosts of house parties. We had briefly considered heading up first Binsey Lane (petrifyingly dark) and then Roger Dudman Way (pointlessly and unpredictably locked at the Port Meadow end by the university), but eventually turned left into the train station’s concourse, passing through the cutesy estate at the end and onto the canal towpath.
In the absence of any street lights it was obvious that the day was approaching; indeed, had been for some time. I acted smug and vindicated as we navigated the towpath by twilight alone, but understandably nobody paid me much attention. We whispered our way past the canal boats and up towards Port Meadow. On our left loomed what was once Lucy’s Factory, now a housing estate. We climbed, and then descended, into the meadow and northwards along a pavement.
The meadow had flooded—high for June—and water was lapping against the corner into the nature reserve. Out towards the river we could see white swans and geese. “Messengers,” K. said: “in Anglo-Saxon legends, white animals are messengers.” As we went through the gate and carried on, we were passed by two people, then three, then another: we could hear distant, semi-rhythmic drumming and the sound of a crowd. Only when we reached a fork in the path did we realise that there was a large group of—newagers, crusties, hippies, students, take your pick—people, only really as crazy as we were, if that was crazy; playing the bongoes, of course, and sitting on logs and grass around a makeshift fire. We awkwardly said hello, and carried on to the north-west corner of the reserve.
On the way, we tried twice—both times in vain—to sneak through the western hedge and reach the tump quicker. The first time I smelled rabbits; the second, it might have been badgers: long gone, of course. We reached the stile back into the meadow; worried now, we saw that it was flooded here too, although there were rocks below the surface of the actual water, and the ground wasn’t too boggy beyond. We moved out into the meadow a little but couldn’t see the tump. I was worried by this point that it might actually be under water: it was a raised hillock, but it could have been in a depression I hadn’t noticed before.
When I dropped to my knees and scanned the horizon to the south, I saw it, and pointed. We set off with a spring in our step and suddenly we were there, jumping up and then sitting down. It was just after 4.30, and the rain pattered onto our anoraks and umbrellas, as if we were on a school trip. But it was pretty, and fresh, and under the clouds clear as a bell. We could hear the singers at the camp pass from Pink Floyd through The Doors to The Levellers. Nothing exciting happened to the east, but suddenly we realised that it was day, and the second half of the year.
I’d felt, before making the trip, like there had been a build-up of something. The sinister wellness that you feel before getting horribly ill, or possibly the overexcitedness that leads quite prosaically to an all-nighter such as we had all just managed. Now I was just exhausted, like I had earthed all the charge and had hardly anything left in me, just enough to make it home. We were none of us in the mood for either the poems or the runes that we had variously brought with us. The elements and the roundabout journey had stupefied us, and it would have been awkward and forced.
But just before we left the tump, to make our way back, the tump disappearing once again into the folds of the meadow as if it had never been, before we picked and squelched over the flooded fields, tottering wearily past the party and making it into town… before all that, stood high on the burial mound, K. fished a single rune out of her bag.
We all squinted at it. “I can’t remember that one,” she said, sadly. “I’m too tired. It’s the pasta-bow rune, anyway. Hm.” Only later, after drinking sleep like hot soup for hours, did we find out what the rune had actually meant.