Castle Howard, in the distance behind a froth of cow parsley.

Country diary: a dream of grand gardens deserted

It’s 3.45am and this could be a lockdown-induced dream. A dream in which I’m walking, alone, and at night, in the deserted gardens of a great house. There’s a low-lying white mist but no moon, and the only light is a golden glow from the high windows of a hexagonal lantern tower and an eerie green noctilucence. I’m trying to decide what colour that is in the eastern sky – malachite? ultramarine? – when I realise there is music up there too. Threads of it, like spun silver, so fine and from so high up that it seems they might be part of the fabric of the sky, unravelling.

It’s not a dream. I’m really here. The nightwatchman let me in. The mist isn’t water vapour but thigh-deep cow parsley, and the music is the sound of skylarks, singing in the dark while the bats dance.

Taking a walk at night is one way to avoid the traffic of ramblers that a promised sunny weekend will bring to our local footpaths. Having permission to do so in the locked-down grounds of Castle Howard is a ridiculous privilege.

The gardens are tended but unvisited. The spring planting schemes, planned and prepared long before anyone had heard of Covid-19, are fading, unseen, and the grassy paths are so little trod that my every step leaves a print.

The larks and the bats have the air to themselves for a few minutes, before new notes begin to rise from the land to meet them. Blackbird and robin, song thrush and wren; wood pigeon, chiffchaff, yellowhammer. At 16 minutes past four, a solitary cuckoo joins in like a distant tin whistle. He seems to be calling from long ago as well as far away. Still-here. I’m still-here.

Beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, right? It’s all just photons and vibrations, converted by my brain into sensations that I name with words like green; skylark; blackbird; bluebell; brown hare; cuckoo; sunrise. But the beholder is just me and the responsibility of adequately noticing so much beauty brings a stream of silent tears. Yes, I’m still here, too.

Amy-Jane Beer lives on the Castle Howard estate and is a member of its conservation steering group. Updates on access are at