On New Year’s Eve, my home town, Bath, went up to Tier Three Covid restrictions, closing all pubs, clubs and restaurants and banning all indoor meetings and outdoor assemblies of more than six people. In the previous seven days, we had 3,876 COVID deaths in the UK, 964 of them being in the last twenty-four hours. My wife and I were cut off from family and friends and angry at a government that isn’t coping and doesn’t seem to care.
It could have been a miserable end to a miserable year. One of the New Year’s Eves where you go to bed early just to have the year over with. If I’d been on my own, that’s probably what I’d have done.
Fortunately for me, my wife has more spirit than that. She took a lousy day and made something memorable from it.
Bath is a town built on hills. The hill to the east of the one we live on is called Little Solsbury Hill, (a peculiar name as at 191m it’s one of the tallest hills around and there is no Big Solsbury Hill – I know – I looked for it.) The remains of an Iron Age hill fort at the top of hill tells us how long people have lived there and yes, it’s the Solsbury Hill Peter Gabriel (remember him) wrote the song about. The Eades family have farmed the hill for six generations. They’ve run a greengrocer’s just behind The Royal Crescent for as long as I can remember. This year, Tony and Lyn Eades died and the shop moved to the next generation. They decided to honour their parents’ memory and raise money for our local NHS hospital by holding a fireworks display on the top of Solsbury Hill on New Year’s Eve. This was something COVID didn’t put a stop to. The fireworks would be visible from the surrounding hills, including ours, so my wife decided we should go.
We almost didn’t. I mean, it was cold, it was late, it had been a bad day, in a bad year, why go?
Because not going is giving up. Because going meant doing something, showing that we were not just hiding and waiting for the year to be over.
We dressed for the cold weather and stepped out into the street at 23.30 so that we could walk up to a spot that has a perfect view of Solsbury hill.
As soon as we stepped outside, I was glad that we had done it. It was cold by English standards, hovering around zero, but it was a crisp clean cold that sets the blood running without biting into sensitive skin. It was the thirteenth full moon of the year, the one they call a Cold Moon – a pale disc dominating a clear sky littered with easy to recognise constellations and limning the streets with light, making the deep frost sparkle so that even the parked cars looked like ornaments displayed to celebrate the closing of the year.
We reached the small row of Georgian cottages almost at the brow of the hill and stood with our backs to them waiting for the fireworks. People had come out of their houses, keeping their distance but shouting greetings to one another, all of us facing Solsbury Hill as if we were waiting for the sun to rise.
A mist had filled the valleys, so the hill looked like an island rising from a sea of vapour. Before midnight, small salvos of fireworks pushed up from various places, impatient for the year to end.
At midnight the hill opposite us erupted into irrepressible lines of light. Next to us, in a little garden, someone released their own valiant display, filling the air with smell of cordite and something remarkable happened, I felt hopeful and happy for the first time in way too long.
We stood side by side and watched the tribute the Eades family had arranged for their parents and which the rest of us were using to dispel or at least defy 2020’s grip. Around me people were wishing each other ‘Happy New Year’, often adding ‘It has to be better than 2020’. I repressed the urge to say, ‘I doubt that’ and struggled to stay in the moment.
When I looked at my wife, I could see how happy she was to be standing in the cold clear night beneath the full moon. She has a gift for stepping into these moments and staying there. I took her hand and stepped in with her.
We walked carefully down the steep, frost-slick street, under the spell of the stars in the sky and the frost on the cars, with a mantle of moonlight covering everything in a fairy glamour.
We returned home, more energised than when we left it, and I was reminded again of how lucky I am to be married to a woman who knows how to make moments.