This time I left my bike behind and went out on foot. Letting the green front door of the narrow terrace-end on Cardigan Street press shut, I rounded the corner across the road from the high limestone wall at the back of the Radcliffe Infirmary and set a brisk pace in the chilly night air.

Heading north through Jericho’s heart, I passed the Jude the Obscure and the Phoenix cinema, the former still humming with chatter, the latter already empty. On the other side of the street, the scarlet-fronted Jericho Cafe reigned over its neighbours of takeaway houses, florists, delicatessens, chic brasseries and charity shops. I took a sideways glance down the side streets at the terraces of red-and-white-bricked Victorian workers’ houses.

I crossed the canal and came from the bridge over the railway down into Port Meadow. Here at the fence the steady streetlight amber abruptly met the blackness of the open space before me. In daytime it is a wide empty flat expanse of grass, very low-lying, that makes a blank between the railway and the Isis. I learned later that the meadow often floods spectacularly and bleakly when the river is high in winter. On this winter night at the fence, it was a predatory void, a black screen, a night sky to step into.

The steel gate was attached to the gatepost by a rope weighted in the middle so that it clanged shut behind me. I was wrapped up in jacket and scarf and hat. I crunched down the path across towards the river. In front of me was all darkness but the path was remembered. I couldn’t see a thing. I was aware of how few constellations I knew as the borrowed streetlight faded into the distance.

I was enveloped by the night. There was the rhythm of my shoes on gravel, the irregular scatter of stars. Out of the blackness emerged something solid. A few feet in front of me was a white horse. It had appeared to swim up before my eyes like a whale in the ocean depths, although it was me who was moving and it stood still. I stood still too. I marvelled at the sight of it, its unexpected presence. I had never seen a horse on the meadow when I had been there in daylight.

The horse was completely docile. It stood stock still in the cold March air. I couldn’t be sure whether it was asleep. I bent down and pulled up some clumps of grass. It was white with frost, so I held it tightly for a minute to warm it. After a few tries at offering the grass, it was clear the horse wasn’t in an eating mood. I threw the grass away, took off my gloves and stroked his nose, his pink velvety nostrils, the side of his face, his mane, shank and ears. It was me, the blackness and the horse.

After that I carried on down to the bridge. It is a broad flat wooden platform over the shallow surging river, a place where boats and barges tie up. I stood there for a while. ‘Praise you God, I adore you, I’m just amazed at the surprises of the world and your amazing grace.’ I sang out loud to the slumbering riverboats some of the words to that hymn.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I was once lost but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

I looked up at the stars and thought about sight, how we focus, how we magnify distant objects in our perception without thinking about it; about astronomy and Hubble and light years and time. I was full of joy and wonder.

I made my way back along the path, then walked over the short grass to return to the place where I had met the horse, hoping to bump into him again. Before, walking out towards the river, I had been facing away from town into the inky blackness. Now coming back, I was facing towards civilisation. The streetlights from the road glared out across the darkened meadow, so that as I made my way over the rough ground I sometimes raised my arm to shield my eyes.

The ground rolled in a series of crests and troughs. I topped a slight ridge and stopped, jaw open. Dozens and dozens of horses stood about the meadow. Some were still, others moving slightly; some solitary, others in twos and threes. Many were in close proximity to me, within 50m, invisible to me earlier but now made plain by the direction I was facing. Had I at any point on the walk outwards turned around, I would have seen their silhouettes mounted on the misty canvas of the meadow as plain as black on white.

I made my way gingerly closer and walked among them. I had the slight apprehension I always have of walking between large animals, despite being familiar with them. It was the marvel of the white horse many times over. Some were friendly and would let me approach them to pat them and try and rub some warmth into their legs. Others shuffled sleepily away into the shadows at my approach. I didn’t try offering any of them grass again. Some had green jackets on their backs, though they were in a minority.

I remember the thrill of standing there surrounded by silent horses in every direction; of simply being with noble and fine and beautiful creatures in the intimacy of their night-time. I felt chosen to experience this moment with them. I felt very far away from all other people, the nearest of whom were asleep in their houses on the other side of the railway tracks. I felt thankful. I savoured the feeling. I drank it in. I let myself out of the meadow, the steel gate clanging on the gatepost as I went, and trudged up streets drowsy in eternal nocturnal amber, through Jericho and back towards home.

Postscript –

In the summer months as the weather got better I would often cycle to Port Meadow in daytime. I would take the gravel path across the grass, vibrate over the wooden bridge, then shoot along the narrow path, up and over the next bridge, red and iron-riveted and arching over a second strand of the Isis. You could head up-river from here, where the University rowers would sometimes come to practice, coaches yelling instructions via megaphone from a motorboat. Here is a bumpy, green-turfed bank that widens out into a park-like area popular with walkers.

I came to climb out along a large tree that had fallen into the river, several of its great limbs soaring out over the water and bleached white by the elements. I would sit at the ends of these branches, suspended 10ft above the serene surface, legs dangling, and pray and read one of the books I had brought along.

After I had left the city I learned this stretch of the river was where the Revs Charles Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed in a boat with three young girls, Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell, and where Dodgson began at their request to make up a magical story that was later expanded into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

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