Searching for silence. An impossible task?

Whizz. Bark. Buzz. Whizz. Bark. Buzz. Despite many reports saying cities and urban areas became quieter during lockdown, it seems that my little street decided to buck the trend. Pretty much as a constant since last March, my neighbours have been on missions to improve the houses, tidy up their gardens, or just let their pets run feral (ok, they are allowed to do all these things, but still!). The near-constant presence of manmade sounds – DIY and garden sounds always seem to be of the high pitched or constant screeching variety – has driven me to become a tiny bit ranty, shouty, and most definitely driven up my alcohol consumption.

So, a little while ago, I went on a mission to find silence, and found myself in the middle of the night on top of Wiltshire’s highest point, surrounded by military helicopters. My thinking was to head out at night (fewer people) to somewhere remote (fewer people, less traffic), and to start with that was the case. During the day Milk Hill is a ramblers, dog walkers, mountain bikers haven, with people gambolling across the series of hills just outside Pewsey. The car park is often overflowing, and although it is still a pleasant day out, it is not a quiet space. But at nighttime…

Well, for a start it was a little bit spooky. And it was dark, very dark. The nearest street lights having little effect on the horizon-consuming black sky. Chest torches on, we headed out to summit the hill. Because it was so dark, I found my sensing switching, no longer was sight the most important, instead, my hearing went into overdrive. My tinnitus was ignored, as my ears sought out the slightest whisper or rustle in the surrounding trees and hedges. I was hoping to see a nocturnal animal or two, a snuffling badger or the shriek of a hunting owl, but everything seemed to be sleeping.

The moon grew and grew as we approached the peak (honestly, I keep saying summits and peaks, but in Wiltshire, our hills are barely molehills on the landscape, this ain’t the Peak District or Brecons!). We stood there, feet still in the damp grass, listening. Nothing, not even a distant car engine. Ah, this is what I needed. My ears settled, no longer struggling to hear what wasn’t there, it felt like they physically relaxed.

Then a pretty light appeared in the sky a few miles away. At first, we thought fireworks, but there was no accompanying squeal, whizz, boom. And then more pretty lights, orangy-yellow, just hanging in the sky. Whomp, whomp, whomp. Blades cutting through the cold air, speeding towards us. First one popped up over the horizon, then a second followed and third appeared from down in the valley. The sound of the helicopters zooming over and around encompassed us, their lights wiping out the stars.

There are many military barracks in and around Wiltshire, and it turns out we’d wandered into the middle of a training exercise. Grateful for the assistance of gravity, we quick marched downhill to the car, where we supped on hot chocolate and Tunnock’s caramel wafers and watched the flares floating above us.

Well, it wasn’t quite the silent night we’d hoped for. But it was an exciting and unusual experience. There were moments of silence and the endorphin-boosting walk up the hill was a balsam for my noise-jangled brain. The ability to surround yourself with silence is so important for our mental and physical health, and we should all have that option somewhere near us. So I’m still on the hunt for a quiet place, preferably not one in the flight path of a military base.

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