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In The Green Hill, Sophie Pierce writes about the sudden death of her son Felix with an aching and gentle honesty. This is a book that will be a great comfort to those who need it.” Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent and Melmoth.
In 2017, Sophie Pierce’s life changed forever when her 20-year-old son Felix died suddenly and unexpectedly. Thrown into a new world of loss, she had to find a way to keep on living. In a series of letters to her son – composed during walks and swims taken close to his grave on The Green Hill in Devon – Sophie learns how to live in the landscape of sudden loss, navigating the weather and tides of grief. In the surroundings of Dartmoor and the South Devon coast she finds ways to continue the bond with Felix, both in her mind and with physical activity; actively mourning, rather than grieving.
This is the latest of the weekly extracts we are running from the book...
Do you remember my sunrise custom on the anniversary of Grandma’s death? Getting up at dawn and heading up to the old World War II firing range near Rippon Tor to watch the sun come up over the sea? Well this year of course the ritual was for you as well.
I felt terrible as the alarm went, I’d slept really badly, but I hauled myself out of bed, made a flask and set off. It was light but the sun wasn’t yet up, it was that strange rather lifeless light, when night is not yet over but the day has not yet begun. As I got out of the car, I saw the moon, still clear and high in the sky, and I was hit by a wall of trills from the birds, a unified sound of singing. It was so thick and loud it was impossible to make out the individual songs. As I walked along towards the firing range, I looked down towards Newton Abbot and the sea. Mist clung to the folds of the Teign valley and it was all shades of grey and pink.
I climbed up the massive old butt and sat at the top, looking over to where the sky was starting to take on a rosy glow. I saw a crinkle of gold on the horizon and I could see the sun was starting to break through some low-slung clouds. Lines of gold seeped along the edge of the clouds and the sky was molten pink and it was a process of seconds as a huge smudge of sun burst forth and flooded the sky around it with light.
And all the time this was happening a pair of stone chats were keeping me company in a nearby gorse bush, hopping around with a constant stream of chatter. I sat there for about forty minutes and they gradually forgot I was there. I watched as the little birds became increasingly bathed in sunlight, their orange plumage glowing.
As I sat watching the sun I thought about its omnipotence and its inevitability, rising and setting every day with nothing to stop it. I thought about you and Mum. I’d like to think you and she are somehow present in the sun, that I’m making contact with you by watching the sun in this intimate, solitary way.
A cuckoo was singing its heart out as I walked back to the car, an incessant and repetitive noise.
Alex and I are walking to Ryders Hill, the highest part of southern Dartmoor. He tells me it’s the last long walk he did with Felix. Lucian was there too and both boys complained. I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps. We set out on a beautiful sunny day with scudding clouds. We ascend slowly and steadily through the quite featureless landscape. This part of the Moor is devoid of tors and as we climb the wind gets stronger. We skirt around the little valley of the River Mardle, where the landscape feels a bit like the Savannah, it is dotted with small lollipop-like hawthorns which remind me of baobab trees. We pass a cairn and I add a stone for Felix. It gets boggy, and continues to be boggy the higher we get; it’s that contrary Dartmoor thing of bogs being on the tops and sides of hills where in theory they shouldn’t be. We pass swathes of white fluff, bog cotton dotted with tiny intense blue flowers, like drops of indigo paint fallen off a passing artist’s brush. We later discover they are called heath milkwort. The views get better and better and by the time we reach the top we can see 360 degrees all around, over to Red Lake with its conical hill, to Buckfast Abbey with its grey and yellow tower, and down to the sea of the South Hams coast. It feels good to be out retracing Felix’s steps on a walk I haven’t done before, perhaps I am making a new tradition? I’m looking for new places to create the new Felix in the absence of the old one, places where we think about him and remember him unencumbered by specific memories.
On the way back I swim in the Dart in a vast pool by Holne Weir. It is drenched in the sunlight and the water is dark, like black tea, after all the recent rain. It feels warm and comforting though the current is strong.
Sophie Pierce is a writer and broadcaster who lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, where she loves to swim in rivers, lakes and the sea. For many years she worked for the BBC as a radio and TV reporter. She is the co-author, with Matt Newbury, of Beyond the Beach: the secret wild swims of Torbay; Wild Swimming Walks Dartmoor and South Devon; and Wild Swimming Walks Cornwall (to be published in 2021). She wrote the introduction to the Wainwright Prize longlisted Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper.
I AM BACK AT THE GREEN HILL far away.
The wind on the exposed hillside scythes my body. It always seems to be howling a gale up here and, as usual, I’m thinking “what now?” I’ve been standing like this for a while, staring across the fields to the great white building in the distance that dominates the skyline. Beyond it, under a heavy grey sky, lies the sea. In the other direction, away to my left, is the lumpy outline of Dartmoor. I need to be here. But I also have to get away.
I head down to the estuary below and walk along the bank where wild garlic is emerging; there are no flowers yet, just broad shiny leaves and a faint oniony echo. Scarlet elf cups nestle in the moss. As I walk through the trees, the river glimpses, its smooth surface glinting in the sun. Some geese pass above, their coarse cries reverberating. I reach North Quay, an old stone jetty festooned with seaweed. As I begin to change, a light breeze blows downstream, making me shiver. As usual I leave my clothes in an untidy heap on top of my rucksack, impatient to get in. I walk across the ragged grass which covers the top of the quay, a feeling of dampness in my toes, and climb down the old metal ladder off the jetty. Its rungs are cold and hard on my feet. I sink backwards off it into the brine of the River Dart. The water is turbid but silky. The tide is going out and I swim upstream past the twisting oaks whose long boughs dip into the water like the arms of wizened old ghosts reaching for sustenance. Delicate fronds of bladder wrack float by me in the water. I look up to the green hill high above, where I’ve just been. And in that moment, I feel myself fall away.
- 8th April 2021 The old stones
I hope you are well and enjoying springtime.
Living on Dartmoor, I am fortunate to be in an area with one of the largest concentrations of Bronze Age remains in Western Europe. I've always been fascinated by the mysterious stone circles, stone rows and standing stones these people left behind. The picture above is of the stone row at Drizzlecombe, which has the highest terminal…12th March 2021 Into spring
Spring is nearly here, but in true British form, the weather is throwing a few curveballs as we enter the last lap of winter. Yesterday there were hail showers here in Devon and there have been some very hard frosts in the last week. Earlier today, by happy accident, I ended up on Wind Tor on Dartmoor - a place I haven't been before, despite it being only a few miles from home. …26th February 2021 A small, unusual world
Today has been so springlike, a day full of endless blue sky and bright, bright sun. I went with a friend to Teignmouth where the beach was full of people and there was a sense of hope in the air. We had a swim, and then decided to stop off on the way home to visit a little lost world.
This particular lost world is on the northern bank of the Teign estuary, between Teignmouth…5th February 2021 Revisiting the past
This week I walked out to a waterfall on the Glaze Brook on Dartmoor. It is the most enchanted place, where a cascade crashes down into an oval pool, surrounded by oak and beech trees. William Crossing, in his famous Guide to Dartmoor, writes: "This is the Wishing Pool, and it is said that those who leap across it, and while doing so loudly express a wish, will obtain what they…28th January 2021 Memory
Yesterday, quite by accident, I came across a scrap of video I'd forgotten about, of a family walk in horrendous conditions on Dartmoor. It shows Felix, who was then 13, his younger brother Lucian who was 10, and my husband Alex, as blurred blobs, braving the rain and wind to walk up Butterdon Hill near Ivybridge. They look like people from a silent film, anonymous and indistinct…14th January 2021 New extract to read
I hope you're all safe and well and coping ok with the latest lockdown. We're all in need of stuff to read, so I thought it might be nice to start publishing some extracts from the book. We've put an excerpt from chapter 1 on the website (click on PROJECT SYNOPSIS and scroll down, it's just underneath the cover image), I hope you enjoy it.
"Enjoy" might seem an inappropriate…4th January 2021 Swimming into another year
Thank you so much for supporting The Green Hill. Every pledge means a great deal as this project is so close to my heart.
A couple of days ago I walked along the South Devon coast from Wembury to Heybrook Bay and on to a little cove I call Felix's Lagoon. As we arrived in Wembury the little valley down to the sea was white with frost. The sea was like a millpond and the sun…
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