I waded through a waterfall, its depth halfway up my wellington boots. The canal water was pouring over its bank in many places, rushing across the towpath and down the far slope to the river below.
A series of lagoons had appeared on the lower land where the river itself had overwhelmed its banks and spread out far and wide. In a few places the lagoons had joined, forming vast lakes.
On the far edge of one of these new lakes a pair of greylag geese grazed, their brown backs reflecting the colour of the bleached reed beds beyond.
The dry reeds towered silently above me as I threaded the path through them. Ahead, a pair of crack willows reached upwards, the red new growth at their branch tips fingering the clear blueness of the sky. A kestrel passed high overhead, like a small aeroplane on a predestined course.
The huge oak tree was laden with birds. The dim shape of pigeons crowded the lower branches. A magpie was brightly black and white on an outer branch tip. The top was crowned with the black silhouettes of crows.
The bellies and wings of seagulls flashed pure white against the bright blue of the sky above the oak. And deep in the swirl of seabirds was a buzzard, its movements ponderous against the speed and agility of the gulls.
Green grass rippled under the water that was running deep and fast past the cottages. The crystal clear water of the bourne only appears in the winter after heavy rain, so this year it's arrived early in the season.
It threads in glistening curves through the village at the edge of the downs. Sheep graze in a field nearby, apparently oblivious to the change in the landscape. In the woodland above live badgers, deer and foxes, and I wonder how they view the newly filled bourne. Do they have race memories, knowing that the water appears year after year in the winter? Do they come to drink here, sampling its icy freshness? Or do they avoid it as a strange new hazard, blocking traditional routes to feeding grounds?
The horses feeding in the pasture looked large and cumbersome next to their unexpected companion. A young roe deer was grazing close to them, obviously keen on company in the wide field. For an instant she seemed aware of my gaze, as I stood beyond the hedge, and she raised her head to look towards me. But the horses fed on placidly, and she felt safe enough to drop her head and do the same.
The brick and flint village church crouched low on the slope above the river. Its square tower anchored it right in the centre of the village, and bulky yews studded the ground around it. Underneath one of the trees two grey headstones rested at a slight angle, leaning back against the corded trunk. Nearby, just out of the shade of the tree, snowdrops were already opening, gleaming white parasols against the pale green of the turf.
Sitting by the fireside, idly listening to the logs crackling I hear another sound. It's a regular symbol of winter. Geese calling in the dark night as they pass over the house, flying west from their feeding grounds to their roosting areas around the gravel pit lakes in the east.
A white eggshell lay on the lawn this morning, close to the golden fir where the wood pigeons normally nest. It was a pigeon egg, and was cracked roughly open to reveal a small dried foetus curled in one segment.
I can only imagine that the egg was damaged early in its life, perhaps in last year's third laying. The recent wind and rain probably brought it down from the rough platform nest the birds use, and there it was. I normally find one egg from each brood comes to grief in this way, with the white shell lying on the ground one morning as mute evidence of its end.
Papery flags of maize leaves flapped in a desultory fashion from a patch of dried stalks. Perched on one stem was a solitary crow, twisted almost upside down as he poked his beak busily into the sheltered crevices between leaves and the stem.
Faint excited chirping came from the thicket as I supervised the replacement of a nearby hazel hurdle panel. Soon two robins came to inspect the work, perching in the neighbouring hibiscus to watch more closely.
For the rest of the afternoon they followed me at a discreet distance as I worked around the garden. I was pushing dried leaves into heaps in convenient corners, for cover for the little hedgehog who still visits my back garden. This was particularly appealing to the robins, who were keen to check over the ground behind me. So from time to time I saw flashes of red as they flew into cover when I moved unexpectedly.
The New Forest pony was busily grazing in a small glade, almost totally encircled by bramble bushes. Opposite, in a field on the far side of the lane, a larger pony, back covered in a dark coat, stretched up to the top of the hedge. His breath came out in steamy clouds as he nibbled a long shoot, while his eyes watched his compatriot out in the open. The smaller pony didn't look up at all while I was there watching them.
A bright strawberry pink patch betrayed the bullfinch, the only creature moving in the overgrown hedge on this icy morning. He was perched on a bramble spray, leaning down to peck underneath it at the dried fruit, now frozen into the avian equivalent of a lolly.
The nearby field was frosted with white, the grass stiff and crisp underfoot. It was sometime later that birds became active there, when the thaw set in. First there was a pair of blackbirds, ranging widely across the rough tussocks. Then the lighter breast and bobbing movement of a fieldfare, first one, then another, and then a third, keeping closer together than the blackbirds.
The blackbird situation in my gardens is in a state of flux. Bella, the female, still dominates back garden, which seems to have become her realm. Bertie, her mate of last year, is now a glossy black, with brightening yellow eye rims and beak. He alternates between the back and front gardens, thereby getting two lots of mealworms on demand, but he is increasingly being tolerated by Bella in the back. He and another male, perhaps one of his sons, feed within sight of each other at a distance, but are growing increasingly confrontational.
It was a white world this morning, the fields ridged with ice, the trees and bushes frozen under rime. The topmost tips of one tree's branches were edged with the black shapes of rooks. Further along lane the telegraph wire between two posts was laden with more than thirty of them, huddled close together, waiting for some warmth to soften the ground below.
An enterprising rook was down on the cold ground in a nearby field, picking his way through the earth clods, inspecting the hardened soil. But I didn't once see him bend to probe with his beak.
Here at the slope of the downs a thin layer of snow lingers and the hedgerows are encrusted with white. The skeletal shapes of thistle and hogweed stand stiffly outlined with rime, but still attracted a small flock of linnets. Their presence was preceded by the sound of their twittering, and this itself was soon overwhelmed by the sound of a flock of fieldfares, coming in to check out the hips and haws that remained in the bushes.
The New Forest cottage sat among pristine white gardens when we arrived. The only activity in the snow was the frenzied feeding of the birds on, around and beneath the bird table. Blue and great tits congregated on the feeders, and chaffinches were busy on the ground, their chestnut breasts vivid against the whiteness. The single male blackbird in the crowd was the only one to show signs of defending his food source, half-heartedly clearing the space around him from time to time. His efforts were ignored by the two wood pigeons, who pecked at the fallen seeds like giants among the smaller birds.
Holly sprigs littered the ground, where New Forest ponies had left them to soften. One pony stood nearby, snow on his brow, holly leaves jutting out from his mouth as he chewed slowly, watching us thoughtfully.
Ponies were clustered in the copse on the way to the village. Here they had some shelter from the snow that coated the trees and bushes, and spread out over the thick leaf mulch underfoot to create a true winter scene.
Further on there was a feeding spot, where hay had been scattered under the trees. One of the ponies feeding there turned to stare at us, his chewing action frozen for a second, straw sticking out rakishly from his lips.
Several times ponies approached us hopefully. One was particularly persistent, following us some distance down the lane, her speed increasing as we walked faster. But often ponies just stood still in shelter, gentle eyes staring at us stoically as we passed.
Even from the New Forest cottage window the animal tracks in the garden are clearly visible in the snow. At least two deer tracks came up from the brook below, scrambling over the flowerbeds on the bank and crossing the lawn. Another two came down the line of the upper hedge on to the lawn and crossed back at an angle to the brook.
The fox came under the hedge from the lane and up the bank steps, passing along the front of the house and over the lawn. At the edge of the garden he slipped under the gate into the paddock, heading towards the open forest.
Bird prints pattern the snow around the feeder, mainly as a light tracing on the surface. The pigeon feet sunk in most deeply, reflecting the weight of the birds.
It's the fox prints that Tirn follows, backwards and forwards across the lawn, enthusiastically ploughing through the snow in his snug Barbour jacket.
A loud screeching rang through the still night, just under the bay window of my bedroom. I leaped out of bed to look outside, but couldn't see unusual in the uncanny snow light. Indeed, nothing at all seemed to be moving.
But this morning I found the shape of large wings imprinted in the snow. It looked as though an owl had swept down on unsuspecting prey just on the edge of the shrubbery.
The fox has been coming through the New Forest garden as early as two o'clock in the afternoon. His preferred route takes him along the edge of the brook, out of sight of the house. He's usually only visible when he's going along the far fence to the paddock gate, and then under cover of the paddock hedge towards the forest.
When the weather is very bad I usually put out a small amount of food for him in the evening, and this has always gone by morning.
I put a small amount of chicken out for the fox, under an azalea at the top of the flowerbeds above the brook. Shortly afterwards I sat beside the bay window overlooking the spot and was puzzled to see a large spotted feathered ball crouched in the leaf mould.
As I watched the thrush bent forward to spear a chunk of chicken, retreating rapidly into deeper cover with it. There he tore it to shreds and gulped them down before coming back for more. He ate all the pieces I'd put out and then fell on the cheese and bread I went out specially to throw nearby.
Now the snow has gone there is a lot of activity on the sodden lawns and banks of the forest. Beyond shimmering melt-water lakes are the pale shapes of thrushes and fieldfares, their spotted breasts glimmering as the birds rush backwards and forwards, probing repeatedly at the ground.
The ponies have left the shelter of the copse and have their heads down, grazing hard to make up for lost time.
I also take the chance to get out, and find many of the holly trees that I pass have been vigorously pruned by hungry ponies. The foresters prune some of the trees at this time too, so short stems of prickly leaves lie around the trunks like patterned aprons. One pony I saw was still sticking to a holly diet, munching foreshortened branches down to their base.
There was a familiar bird shape perched low down on the brick porch of the New Forest house I was visiting. It looked just like a robin in fancy dress with a dark brown head, speckled brown back and tawny tummy. It was actually a stonechat, plumped up into roundness by the cold.
A large dog fox, auburn red, appeared suddenly in the garden beyond the brook. I was sitting at the bay window of my bedroom having breakfast when he slid down the well-used chute under the hedge beside the lane. He trotted confidently across the lawn, changing his mind on the far side to back track a little and then set off purposefully around the front of the house.
A large camellia grows close against the wing of the New Forest cottage, just outside the kitchen window, where its glossy leaves touch the glass. Late in the afternoon a pale feathered face peeps out from under a leaf, just as if the blue tit is peering into the kitchen. Further back, the yellow breast of a great tit glows, making the bird very noticeable in the dim green gloom under the leaves.
Odd cheeps and chirps can be heard during the early evening, so the birds seem to spend the night here. Perhaps the tree's shelter helps them to survive the bitter cold.
Two young fallow does moved out from the holly thicket I was approaching, standing to watch me. As I drew closer they bounced away into another thicket, where they turned in cover to see what I was going to do. Their legs blended with the holly trunks, their bodies melted into the shade, so that if I hadn't known where to look I'd never have spotted them.
As I waited they emerged on the far side of the thicket, browsing behind a fallen beech. Another deer emerged from more distance cover, then another and another. By the time I moved away there was nearly a dozen feeding there.
It's the first time I've walked along the sea wall above the marshes at high tide. The sun was hot on my face and the silence was only broken by the sound of the water lapping against the wall.
Dark clouds of geese floated on the water, dipping their heads to feed among the grass that grows on the mud flats. Its tips were just visible above the water, shallow here in spite of the fullness of the tide. The channels that are carved between the flats show differently, as looping lines of cloudy water.
The water level was unusually high in the gravel pit lakes on the other side of the wall. The ridges of grass that lay like sandbars above the water were crowded with birds. They had clustered in avian ghettos, lapwings lining one, geese another, all evenly spaced, their heads facing westward into the wind.
Flocks of birds crossed the high blue sky in dark undulating arrows. In the distance a mass of starlings arose, hundreds strong, its shape shifting and changing like iron filings moved by a magnet in a child's toy.
At ten o'clock this morning, two foxes sat in bright sunshine right out in the open paddock, among the humpy maze created by moles. They seemed to be waiting for something, perhaps rabbits.
One soon got up and loped to the forest gate, slipping under it with ease. The other followed at a more leisurely pace, exploring the hedgerow first.
It was nearly a couple of hours later that I was in the forest myself, resting against an oak tree in an open glade. It's one of my favourite places, completely silent, in a large copse close to the wide lawns that edge the brook.
Faintly in the distance I heard an unusual sound, like the repeated belling of a hoarse horn. Puzzled, I waited, half-expecting people playing some kind of prank down by the water. The sound got louder and closer until suddenly I saw a fox trotting towards the glade where I stood.
It came right out into the open without a qualm, moving purposefully across the grass. For a second it paused, sniffing the air, then it continued its course across the glade into the trees on the far side, making its strange call as it went.
It passed within a couple of feet of the tree where I stood, quite unconcerned about my presence.
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