Nuala McCann: The comfort of warm fires and old friends

The first trip out, post-Covid, was to see our horses.

We don’t own them but who owns any other being? This love is a slow, gentle one.

Up past the old red brick buildings, round by the stables. There is comfort in the stillness of the air and the misty green of the fields; the light rain of autumn coming in.

Maybe in the long ago, in the days of the old asylum, it was the peace of the place – leafy trees, soft fields and the horses – that brought troubled people peace. For me, it is forever a coming home.

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Past the barn, catch the familiar hot whinny inside; breathe in deep on the whiff of the horse manure in the yard – no, I can’t smell it yet. Just be patient, they say smell comes back.

At a half-door in a cobblestone yard, a bay horse tosses her Farrah Fawcett mane. Warm breath rises in smoke rings in the early autumn air.

Stable girls in their jodphurs and wellingtons are mucking out, their shouts and laughs mingling with the clatter of horse hooves on the tarmac.

We have lived this scene season by season – a Breughel painting that rewards a step closer to the canvas. We have stolen shy glances at our horses in the top field and moved nearer little by little. You don’t make such friends quickly.

And now, on this solitary walk, they are waiting for me – two ghostly figures at the corner of the field in the mists of a September day.

“There you are, we missed you,” they seem to say. “How come you’re just one?”

A snort, a velvet nuzzle, gentle, still eyes… we share a comforting silence.


A snort, a velvet nuzzle, gentle, still eyes… we share a comforting silence


This first venture back out into the world was tricky. In a few short weeks, my stamina is down. It’s difficult to believe I was walking over 20km a day, delighting at sunflowers, rubbing a stick along railings on Spanish roads, just a few weeks ago.

“I haven’t gone away you know,” whispers the virus.

The ripe blackberries on the hedges by the lower burn are too much of an ask. The short distance travelled is enough for one day and my walk takes the circle past the old dry stone wall and the bird bush where the robins and the bullfinches raised their young; heady chick acrobatics on sunny mornings.

That time has well gone… some have packed their suitcases and fled; others are hunkering in for the winter ahead.

My route goes up past the field, the old bath with rain water, the black and white farm cat picking delicate paws through the wet grass. I take it slowly, then return to Zenda, collapse on the bed.

The men of the house are looking forward to normal service. And I have no time to be lying down.

It’s autumn and the warm whiff of wood smoke is in the air. There are leaves to burn and apples to cook; warm lamb and lentil and wine stew to leave warming all day on the stove. We are hunkering in for winter too; the heating is on and the light of the evening is fading fast.

The nights are drawing in, my father used to say. Another summer has faded in the blink of an eye.

There is little for it but to light a fire, stare into the flames, dream.