A single tan cow stood in the heather beyond the New Forest track. Although a younger one lay relaxed nearby the stander was watching me so intently that she caught my attention. Tirn, my elderly collie, moves slowly these days and can't easily be detoured into another route. So I didn't want to be anywhere near a nervous or protective cow.
Then suddenly I saw a tiny white calf, very recently born, standing right in front of her, his back barely reaching the lower line of her stomach. He was so small that his head just showed like a pale violet-shaped flower over the heather, and his colouring blended almost perfectly against his mother's.
I turned back with Tirn and took another route over the plain. We weren't particularly close, but I didn't want to take any chances. The cows here, like the ones on the common, are well used to walkers and dogs, but mothers are very protective of their young.
I recently saw a large yellow Labrador, a young dog, I think, approaching the foremost of three cows. His intention appeared to be entirely playful as he sprang up and down in front of her, but she lowered her head and charged at him with incredible speed. Her companions lost no time in joining in, the last lumbering up faster than I've ever seen a cow move. The Labrador was chased off, tail between his legs. I doubt he'll want to play with cows again.
The smooth sheets of water were suddenly pocked with dimples. Surprised, I looked round to see why and was stunned to see the enormous black cloud that had crept over the sky behind us.
Tirn and I had set off across the New Forest plain in brilliant sunshine. Although it was very wet underfoot there had been no sign that more rain was imminent. And this wasn't rain. It was tiny hard hailstones that bounced down on us until we were both soon drenched.
The blip in the fine weather was fortunately brief, and we were rewarded by the sight of a rainbow arching over the valley ahead of us. Its foot was directly below us, so that the heathered slope opposite was viewed through the bright bands of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.
So much rain has fallen that the raised bump of a Bronze Age barrow on the New Forest plain has become an island. Water rings it like a moat, bridged in one place by a neatly grown tree branch.
The sun was bright over the New Forest plain, but the cold wind blew from the north, cutting with ease through my coat. There's little shelter here, apart from clumps of gorse and occasional stands of twisted trees. Two white donkeys stood out like beacons as they sheltered behind the only two gorse bushes in the immediate vicinity. Each stood motionless in the lee of their own bush, heads towards one another. Even as I approached they didn't stir, just let me pass the gap between the bushes, the fierce wind trying to pound me back.
In the distance the woods on the rim of the plain loomed like an olive drab beast, hunched and waiting. Holly berries hung like drops of bright blood as I neared the trees. But I passed them, entering the golden world beyond that the beast guarded. Beeches and oaks shone with autumnal bronzes and coppers on the slopes that ran downhill. Even the brooks that run like arteries through the forest had glittering sparks of light dancing off their tawny peat-coloured waters.
We arrived late at the New Forest cottage, but Tirn, my elderly collie, was keen to check out the garden. He picked his way carefully through the carpet of yellow leaves that had already fallen from the sycamore. Beyond the tree, forest ponies were grazing the paddock. One paused to stare at us, a bunch of grass and leaves sticking out of his mouth.
The narrow path by the brook is awkward for Tirn now, but he was determined to follow it up to the waterfall, with me edging along carefully on his outer side. Inspection completed, we were able at last to go in to light the fire and settle down for tea.
It was a glittering crystal world outside the New Forest cottage when I woke this morning.
The grass was white with rime, the shrubs and trees edged in frost. Nothing moved. The only sound was the roar from the nearby waterfall.
But the wonder of this early morning world was ethereal, for the sun was already bright in a high pale blue sky. A half moon showed like a faint ghost, draped with wisps of cloud, looking down impassively as the frost melted away.
The wild cry rang out again and again, the only sound to be heard over the salt marshes south of the New Forest. And there was the curlew, flying in low over one of the narrow channels, landing on one of the grassy plateaux that tower only a foot or so higher than the surrounding mud flats.
This world is covered by the sea when the tide is in, and left exposed when the sea retreats. Today the tide was out, leaving wide smooth stretches of brown mud. sThese were faintly coated with water that lightly shimmered with reflected images of the sky.
The marshes looked like an old-fashioned map, with the landmass shown in shades of green and brown, and outlined by defining watercourses. But on the plateau in front of me there was faint movement as the curlew picked his way through the low bleached grasses, moving slowly, his curved beak probing the ground here and there.
A heron perched on a low promontory of a salt marsh plateau, right on the edge of the sea. He stood there hunched down, watching as the pool of water beneath the miniature cliff gradually rose higher as the incoming tide crept in.
To his right a little egret ran busily about a small sandy beach, no bigger than a blanket, that was still above water. His eager energy took him wading through the encroaching water, beak darting down both into the moist sand and into the sea.
A flight of dunlins arrowed in over the waves, landing on the heaps of brown seaweed that covered the rocks. The little birds scurried about as soon as they touched down, a seething group that made the seaweed around them shiver with movement as they concentrated on probing and lifting strands to find food.
And through all this, the heron sat still, hunched and waiting.
The high sea wall divides the salt marshes on its south from the water-filled gravel pits on its north. Birds move easily across the wall, feeding where they choose.
Geese wheeled southward today, their echoing calls marking their path to the seaward edge of the marsh. A flight of lapwings grazed on a grassy island in one of the gravel pits, briefly rising in startled synchronised flight until they settled down again in a tight group. For an instant in the air, they looked like a crowd of elegant but flurried nuns dressed in gleaming black and white.
Prowling long-legged among the reeds along a narrow strip of inland water was a tall grey heron. He was searching on land for food, probably frogs and beetles, his head darting down into the rushes from time to time.
On the seaward side of the wall a little egret patrolled a stretch of smooth water that was rising with the incoming tide. He often bent his head, his black-tipped beak almost touching the water's surface, creating a perfect white reflection until he stabbed through it for a small fish or crab.
Fallow does jumped stiff-legged onto the New Forest ride from one of the copses. They bounced across it like awkward automatons, their tails flipping to show flashes of white fur. They were soon out of sight, having made no sound at all. The noise in the background was from the warning clarion calls of tits in the trees, sharp and piercing as they were repeated again and again.
A little further on another group of does paused to watch my slow approach over the muddy ground. Their tails flicked idly now and again as they stared at me curiously, before bending their heads to forage among the leaf litter. Here the bird sound came from a robin, his clear untroubled notes ringing out across the ride before he flitted closer to perch on a nearby tree and watch me pass.
There was a dark shape under the New Forest oak trees, half-hidden by the tree beside it, as if a deer lurked there, not quite out of sight. But it was only the timeworn remains of a fallen tree stump.
Further on a row of slender greyish branches rose up behind a long trunk that lay across the greensward near a stream. For an instant it seemed that three large stags lay behind it, betrayed only by their protruding antlers.
Out on the open slope a bronzed shape flickered, as if a golden retriever ran lithely down through the tall grasses. But it was too light, too sinuous, like a phantom, seen briefly, then gone, leaving just a tall strand of bracken, momentarily shivered into life by the breeze.
The stand of larches was golden in the dull light, and quite still in the windless morning.
The litter of dropped needles on the ground deadened all sound as I picked my way through the trunks. Old stumps edged the narrow path and had clearly been used as squirrel dining tables, and left littered with food debris. The prickly husks of sweet chestnuts from the nearby trees had been torn open, and the nuts inside taken out and squashed to reveal the soft centres. An occasional hazelnut shell lay in two empty halves, showing that some squirrels at least were having a varied diet.
Tirn and I were in the New Forest cottage garden this evening. It was dark except for the stars in glittering patterns in the sky above. I was looking at these. Orion's belt hung ahead, pointing down towards the brook. Casseopeia zigzagged behind, over the cottage roof. Tirn was sniffing the air, wondering whether the fox had gone by yet.
A sudden movement right beside us made us both turn sharply. A forest pony was busily rubbing his head against one of the fence posts. His blonde mane gleamed in the starlight, his dark eyes watched us curiously as he dealt with that irritating itch.
The faint sound of hooves in the New Forest lane heralded the passing of ponies. Their passage was leisurely – they paused in front of the cottage to browse in the leaf litter, lingered near the little bridge to pull down a spray of holly, stood to stare curiously at me and Tirn, my elderly collie, if they spotted us in the garden.
When we first came to stay here there used to be cows too, walking down the lane to go out into the forest in the morning, and back up the lane again in the evening for milking. Their routine was fixed, unaltered by the changing of the clocks, so by autumn they were passing by in the dark. It was barely affected by weather either.
One year the lane was closed as the ford a little way down from the cottage was impassable for cars, with water lapping over the top of the footbridge. I watched that evening to see what the cows would do, and saw them striding through the water without hesitation, swinging purposefully up the lane past me towards their shed. The biggest cow had only a wet tail, but the youngest, a yearling calf, had a wet tummy.
A squirrel uses the telephone cable across the lane as his own private bridge, passing from the paddock opposite to the garden below the brook.
He frequently pauses under the holly as if he's peering into the conservatory where I sit or down over the waterfall.
It's as if he's watching, as I am, to see if the trout are migrating up river yet. In previous years I've seen them leaping again and again, pitting themselves against the flow of water that pours over two distinct shelves. And downstream in a deep pool lurked a huge pike, sheltered by a half-submerged tree trunk. Unwary passing trout would be snapped up on their way upstream, but still some survived to attempt the ascent of the waterfall.
This year, though, I've seen neither trout nor pike here. But the brook is regularly patrolled by a little egret and a grey heron. And recently a kingfisher flashed past too. So either the birds are waiting too for the trout to arrive, or they're seeing fish where I can't.
And now I've run out of time to wait for the trout, as today we leave the cottage. Tirn has been bright and eager during our days here, his eyes golden with anticipation of more outings, even if the stiffness of his legs and back slow him down once we do go out. It's with reluctance that he allows himself to be helped into the car. But then it's with reluctance that I climb in too. Every visit here together is a bonus, and I can't expect many more.
The lights shone out from the sitting room window, lighting my front garden. And as I wandered around under the trees with Tirn, my elderly collie, the leaf litter under the hedge moved. There was a long sinuous wriggle, marked by the heaving up of the leaves, as if a mole were at work. But the tiny snout that eventually emerged was followed by a small prickly body; a very young hedgehog, busily eating his way through any snails and slugs that he could find.
In the corner of the garden wall is a sheltered den made out of chipped Victorian path tiles, covered in ivy and full of dried leaves. I hope that it may be a safe place for him to hibernate, but he's so small that I must start putting out food for him.
Three slender grey tree trunks stood on the roundabout, little yellow leaves still draping their branches in garlands. Between them, barely visible in the long grass, sat a wood pigeon, basking safely in the sunlight that fell full on him.
Further on, fresh green shoots hazed a field and just off centre stood a motionless grey heron, like an oddly shaped post. Perhaps he was enjoying the sunshine too. More likely he was looking for frogs and beetles on the damp earth.
In the late evening a hedgehog was scouring the ground under the viburnam in my back garden. We watched for a while, Tirn, my elderly collie, waiting expectantly by my side. Eventually the hedgehog moved on, pausing to sip from the pond, before trotting neatly on his little legs under the neighbouring fence.
Tirn has always been interested in visitors to his garden. His first encounter with a hedgehog ended with him getting too close to the curled up creature and retreating, rubbing at his pricked nose. After that he was more circumspect, coming to fetch me so that we could both watch until the wary hedgehog unrolled and went on its way.
It's strangely still on the common now that the cattle have gone. It wasn't as if they moved conspicuously, but they were a focal point, following their regular routes over the open grass.
Now there are still the dog walkers following favourite routes and tractors rolling past. Occasionally a light drifting of leaves falls slowly to the ground, joining the bright yellow apron created by their fellows around the nearly bare sycamore.
Only the sound of distant power saws broke the silence. I was following a favourite route through the woods of the New Forest, once again realising how much I have depended on Tirn, my elderly collie, to find the way through a maze of paths and crossings. Now this route is too much for him and I walked it with only his spirit for company and guidance.
Foresters have been busy in this area for some time. They work in rotation through the woods, clearing out selected trees, opening up light for stronger growth in those that are left. Cut trunks left for weathering line different tracks now, the stacks I remember from a few years ago have been cleared. Wide green paths that can always be waterlogged and hoof pocked at this time of year were now scarred with deep water-filled ruts. But those that had been obstacle courses in previous areas had healed, showing little sign of the work that had been done here – except for the well-spaced trees and pools of sunlight.
There was a terrific storm last night. Wind and rain lashed the house, crashes outside betokened the falling of trees, and the lights went out for more than an hour. Yet this morning it was uncannily quiet when I walked over the ridge path and down the slope of the downs with Tirn.
Above us it was as if an invisible hand was slowly drawing back a cottonwool cloud coverlet, revealing a clear blue sky where a solitary grey cloud hung motionless. Below us in the valley a serpentine line of mist hung over the river, but all was still, as if recovering from the excess energy expended in the night.
The silence was suddenly broken by a loud cacophony of pheasant alarm calls from the copse at the top of the meadow. On and on they went, shrill and strident, perhaps warning of the presence of a fox, keen to eat after a night spent in shelter.
Twigs and small branches encrusted with silvery lichen littered the path under the oaks. I was walking a route over a little common that Tirn and I used to visit regularly, and was pleased to find that I automatically took the correct way through the maze of little paths. We've been here so often that even a few years' absence hasn't erased my memory of where we walked.
But there were changes. Parts of the common had gradually become overgrown with birches and hazels, the first precursors of woodland. Over recent years patches of it have been carefully restored to heathland habitat. Now I saw that a large swathe of pine trees had been cut down, leaving a slope of shining stumps. Further on a large silver birch copse had been taken out, but trunks and twig brash had been left in careful heaps to provide habitat for woodland creatures. The brash, though, is particularly left to encourage bramble growth for more cover and for food sources. And of course at some stage there'll be blackberries for jam too. So we'll all benefit in many ways.
During a spell of heavy rainfall Bella, the female blackbird in my back garden, sat for some time on the edge of the plant trough on the side of the shed. She paid no attention to the second offering of mealworms on the ground nearby, and shivered slightly whenever a drop of water fell onto her back from the berberis overhead.
I wasn't sure if she was sheltering, because she could certainly have got much further under cover if she'd wanted to. She could have been waiting to ambush Bertie, the male blackbird, if he came to feed. In the end she flew up to his favourite vantage point, the shed's roof ridge, and then went away without sampling the mealworms at all.
Bella certainly predominates in feeding sessions now, driving Bertie away unless I intervene. I only have to appear in the back doorway for Bertie to rush up to take mealworms from the doorstep, secure in the knowledge that Bella won't yet come that close. If she does try to drive him away from there I have only to raise my arm and she normally stops at a distance, while Bertie gobbles as fast as he can.
Sitting by the fireside at teatime I saw a familiar shape in the front garden. A blackbird came to perch briefly in the viburnam branches, dark shapes against a greying evening sky. I don't know if this is the reappearance of Billie, the male who's been here for at least three years. He's been absent since early September. This bird may be a migrant, or a putative successor to Billie. I'll have to wait to see how familiar he seems with my habits.
The river runs on the far side of the water meadows, which are laced with channels cutting from one bend to another. Some of these are natural, running wide over stony beds. Some have been cut to control the use of the fields. But all were full, brimming with water.
The river itself ran high today, and so did its major tributary in the centre of the fields. Between them the low-lying land, scrubby woodland now, was flooded. Spindly alders and hazels stood more than ankle deep in water that spread as far as the eye could see. And not a creature moved, neither bird nor beast.
There was a scuffling in the leaves near my back garden terrace, and there was the smaller of the two hedgehogs I've recently seen around in the evenings. I've been feeding him whenever I see him, so I rushed in to spoon dog food into a foil tray.
Within seconds the hedgehog was moving towards the spot where I'd put the tray, his head up, sniffing as he followed the scent of food. He clambered into the tray, where he fitted beautifully as he delicately ate his way through the offering. He mumbled and chattered to himself, quite unconcerned about me, so I was able to admire his appearance.
He had quite a long snout and bright observant eyes, which occasionally swung round to watch me. In my torchlight his prickles were tipped with silver, and it was clear that his spiny outer coat concealed a softer inner lining. The hem of this swayed smoothly over his legs as he hoisted himself out of the empty tray and trotted off to slide neatly underneath the fence.
All was bronze, tawny and green in the New Forest glade until a patch of white caught my eye in a hawthorn growing near a stand of firs. A ray of sunlight picked out individual grey hairs on the squirrel who sat upright on one of the hawthorn branches, steadying himself with a paw on a higher branch. The light gleamed off his white tummy as he industriously pulled down other stems within his reach to delicately bite off the deep red haws.
Thick white cloud covered the sky as we drove down to Devon. It was like being enclosed in a snow globe, where the flakes hadn't yet been shaken into action.
The landscape was stilled, with muted winter colours in the fields and hedgerows. Most conspicuous was the deep burgundy of new growth on the banks of blackthorns lining the road. Further on, in the open grassland around Stonehenge, the mounds of old tumuli running beside the road were clearly outlined against the ridge in the distance, which was artistically hazed by a faint mist. Even one of the crows that we passed stood motionless, a half piece of corncob gripped in its beak, surveying the field beside it.
To the west the sun shone through the blanketing cloud creating a golden sea, tempting the travellers on towards the nebulous grey cloud islands that floated there, forming and reforming ever-changing continents. Skeletal winter trees marched along a ridge, their dark branches stretching up towards the increasingly grey arch of sky.
The moor was a darker grey against the afternoon clouds, like an extra thick layer at the foot of the coverlet. Once up in its heights the sky seemed lower, almost close enough to touch. And Tirn, my elderly collie, was waiting, bright-eyed and alert in the car, for us to arrive at the moor gate and walk down to the Dartmoor cottage.
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