Stephen Robertson

Slanting Lines

Walking in winter

“Every mile is two in winter.”

            —George Herbert

Berkshire, 1962-3

This year it snows on Boxing Day.

The country road not cleared for days

—and then of course it snows again.

One afternoon for one brief hour

the air is warm enough to melt

the topmost layer.  The frost returns

to make a crust.  The next two months

are clear and fine and bitter cold.

Every step,

your foot upon the crust, you think

‘This time, it will hold my weight.’

But every step it drops you down

into soft snow, up to the tops

of your gumboots.  The mile or two

to the village shop to seek supplies

becomes a daily ritual.

Suffolk, circa 1958

After the floods of fifty-three

they raised the ramparts: giant concrete blocks

on piles all along the shingle beach.

The mile south to the Martello tower,

we walk along the banked-up track

behind the wall, level with the top,

running the gauntlet of the winter storm.

The tide is high, and every wave tries hard

to breach the wall.  And when it hits just right

the spray rises a mile into the air

(or so it seems to me), to crash back down—

you must be nimble.  


Later we discover

that that was just a sideshow: all the while

the crafty sea is also digging down

beneath the piles.  Then one stormy night

it pulls the final prop.  A hundred yards

of man’s best effort at defence

drops thirty feet into a hole.

Cambridge, circa 1966

One cold winter’s afternoon

we walk to the edge of town and on

the mile across the river meadows

to Grantchester.  As we walk back

against the wind it starts to snow.

A snowdrift forms against the wire brush

of David’s thick black hair,

staying in place until at home

the small gas fire has warmed the room

against the cold outside.

(But that was forty years ago

—these days his hair is white all through.)


‘Every mile is two’? no, hardly thus.

Some miles are ten, while others swiftly pass.