Loon trousers had prodigious flares but very little room around the crotch. Neither characteristic made them ideal for a wildlifing expedition. The floor-sweeping velvet skirt of my companion was no better, but that night we rose above all impediments. The time was two hour past midnight, the place Ashton Court, just the far side of Clifton Suspension Bridge, the trousers pale lilac, the skirt black, the year 1973.
True, Ashton Court wasn’t open for business at that time of night, but that was kind of the point. Despite the handicaps of our clothing we shinned over the wall and walked hand-in-hand through the moon-shadows cast by the patrician trees of the park. We had the wild world to ourselves now.
I was born in this city, and educated there too, in many disciplines, one or two of them actually on the curriculum of University of Bristol. I lived in Clifton, on the first floor of 27 West Mall, a noble building in which I searched for truths noble and ignoble, both real and illusory.
On that blessed night we walked away from the gracious buildings of Bristol 8 into the still more gracious park, searching for wilder and perhaps truer things than could be found in the elegant squares and crescents. It was June, that month when everything seems possible.
We walked for some time and then stopped. We had too. Something lay ahead. Something serious. We were aware that there were living things before us. I couldn’t exactly see them: but I could sense that there were creatures all about us now, large and breathing. We held still, hands clasped. Frightened, yes, but in a calm sort of way. Everything had taken on an air of inevitability. And slowly the shadows grew slightly less, or we grew better able to interpret the clues.
Deer. Perhaps 50 of them, though I wasn’t counting. Gathered together, all in a bunch and by ancient habit, to avoid night-time predation, even though there was none left to do the preying. I could see the pale patches under the tails shining out, and peering, I could make out the shapes of antlers, the curves of the backs, and hear the movements of small hooves in thick grass.
It was a revelation of wonder: as if a door had been opened, allowing us to walk away from the civilised world and back to something deeper and wilder and more marvellous. I wondered why I had spent so long away from wild places, and wished then and there that I could spend the rest of my life in wilder ways than I had done before.
I learned that night that the wild world is closer than you think. You just have to walk towards it a little bit. You may have to climb a wall, often in unsuitable clothing, and always, you have to give yourself over to whatever you happen to find. But it’s there if you want it, for everyone willing to climb the wall.
Good lesson. Important lesson. I had good tutors that night and have never forgotten them.
And I’ve been thinking of that night all over again because I’m going back to Bristol next week and it’s a place that always makes me go a bit funny. I’m doing a speaking gig at Bristol Grammar School next week: November 11, to be precise, at 7.00. I’ll be going on and on about wild subjects, all related to my book Ten Million Aliens. It’s 6.30 for 7, tickets are £7, and you can book through www.bristolgrammarschool.co.uk/events.aspx