Thawed plans

It was only a small, round mere set in the converging of fields, but it was the best available. When ice was several inches thick on troughs and drinking places in the yard and nearby fields, it was time to inspect the mere. I slithered down the lane that skirted the hill with a pair of old skates, dating from sometime in the 1920s, I imagine, dangling round my neck. They had belonged to a friend of my mother's and somehow found their way into our family, where they have remained.

The track twisted between steep hills and soon the house and farm buildings were out of sight. The relative remoteness of the pond added to its interest. There was no possible hope of rescue if the ice did crack, though I suspect the mere was actually quite shallow.

My steps quickened past the disused quarry where in warmer weather we practised rock climbing. On the other slope, trees jostled right down to the track, providing ideal cover for a possible ambush. Up surged images from the novels of Walter Scott and John Buchan, and fleeting recollections of the Peak District, where eloping heroines and their lovers came to an untimely end at the hand of robbers in just such a pass as this.

Round the bend I hurried and came to the mere. There it lay, that virgin ice, in places transparent, in places white with packed frost. Carefully I tested it, noting the tone of the creaks. Four steps and I was out in the middle, listening , watching. If no cracks appeared, it was considered safe and on went the skates.

An onlooker may have seen a sole, solemn child skating back and forth round that small patch of ice, a speck in the fold of hills. But that child was ecstatic, revelling in the inklings of flow and freedom hinted at by the meeting of skate with ice.

''All shod of steel,/We hiss'd along the polish'd ice, in games.'' Yes, that came later, though not in Wordsworth's romantic setting. While we were visiting a cousin in Yorkshire, flooded fields near the town provided space and opportunity for wild games of what we airily called ice hockey. Here I caught the pace of ice, which helped me to respond so immediately to that stanza from ''The Prelude.''

But the tone of the poem remains caught in those other hills and the solitary excursions. I enjoyed the company of friends, but times alone have more significant clarity now. It is only by yourself that you can ''cut across the image of a star'' or hear the soft murmuring of frozen hills.

How we seized moments then, grasped and used them until they brimmed over, not permitting the paraphernalia of routine to smother their promise. This ability slips away somehow.

Last winter when ice and snow lay unexpectedly over these mild Surrey hills and valleys, a friend described how she and her daughter had been skating on a nearby lake. Straight from school they went and skated into twilight on ice that was smooth and tight like glass. Something stirred and it was there, frost-sharp memories and feelings. It must have been ten years since the lake was last frozen enough for skating.

I scrabbled amongst suitcases and boxes in the cupboard under the stairs and backed out, cobwebbed but successful, grasping the skates. I consulted my diary and decided the whole family could go at the weekend.

By Friday the thaw had started, the crispness turned to slush, and icicles were dripping relentlessly. I put the skates in a bag and hung them up just inside the cupboard door, where they bump reproachfully every time I open it. I could have gone on my own that day with a little rearranging, a touch of flexibility. I mourn that lost moment and daren't think when the next freeze might come.

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