Badgers and foxes and rabbits all make noticeable holes as entrances to their homes in the Hampshire woodland. Something smaller has made a bijou residence in a rotting tree stump, attractively covered in moss. Further along something else has imitated them with a slightly larger construction.
The Victorians must have loved it as a folly, and perhaps even a vantage point for views over the lake below and the parkland all around.
It’s a high mound, crowned with beeches whose leaves have turned the ground below a rich russet gold. Sheep graze white against the grass, ignoring the wide mown path that winds round the stages of the mound.
This was once a mediaeval motte and bailey castle, standing in hotly contended land, home to a knight whose renown was to spread widely through his own country and throughout the western world.
Now the mound that survives still stands guardian over the path that winds below it. This passes between the remains of its moat and the lake that was formed in a later century, a landscape feature beloved by the followers of Capability Brown.
On the ridge of the woods that top the downs coppiced hazel grows in rows on either side of the path, its branches meeting overhead to create a woodland tunnel. Elsewhere on the downland slope green flags hang limply in the stillness, the last remaining leaves on hazel trees in this Hampshire wood.
By the field edge those leaves are a vivid splash of colour, still thickly clustered on the hazels. The beeches that tower above the smaller trees are completely denuded, their golden leaves lying in rich layers on the ground. Perhaps it’s the shelter of these taller standard trees that helps the hazels to retain their leaves longer.
I glanced into the beech copse as we drove past, attracted by the golden carpet of leaves that lay over the ground. Instantly I was puzzled by the litter of small grey rocks that protruded through them, as if they had been strewn there overnight. The rocks lay thickly all over the copse, and it took me a couple of seconds to realise that they were actually pigeons, hundreds of them, feeding among the leaves.
Large gatherings of birds have been conspicuously making the most of autumn’s bounty this year. I have recently passed wide spreads of down land fields, green with new crop growth. And often there is a large cluster of white specks on them, like miniature prehistoric monuments, where seagulls have gathered to feast.
One field had gained a smaller flock of larger birds, a mixture of geese, pink-legged and Canada. They had come to float on newly created pools in the dips of the field, and to graze around the damp edges of the water.
A familiar landscape has suddenly become a winter scene. The fields are a pale milk chocolate brown, with not a trace of green to be seen. The lines of trees dividing them have lost the last of their leaves and stand, brown like the soil, holding their bare branches against the pale sky.
The narrow lane was hemmed in by hedges that still flew a few lemon yellow hazel leaves like flags defying the approaching armies of winter. But further on it seemed as though the flags had heralded a scene of glory for the hedges were suddenly a clear translucent white. The bright light from the winter sun shone through the curly strands of clematis vitalba seedheads. It looked as though a flock of huge celestial sheep had passed this way, leaving tufts of their wool to mark their passing.
The low rays of bright sunshine cast strong shadows over the open downland. It was surprising how many of these had the sharp regular lines of hidden human work, such as buildings, fields where the hedgerows have gone, lychets where once ploughs worked backwards and forwards over the ground.
Here and there were isolated clusters of trees, mainly beeches, that always caught my eye with their stark simplicity against acres of green new crops and grass in the wide rolling landscape. Their trunks shone silver in the light, their bare branches stretched in filigree patterns against the sky, their roots lay warm under a layer of russet leaves.
I was looking towards the pigs near Stonehenge as we drove westward, when a cloud of small birds rose up in a perfectly synchronised movement. They were dark against the sky as they swung out and up, each bird seeming to follow a memorised line of movement so that the whole image for just a fraction of a second was of perfectly spaced little performers doing a daring act that should win tremendous applause. But these little performers were up and away out of sight, and no encore would ever bring them back.
The pigs were in the next field, oblivious to the display. The birds more closely connected to them were crows, three or four birds perching in a row along the backs of several of the animals.
The heather and bracken has died back a little on Dartmoor, revealing more of the landscape secrets they conceal with their full growth. Here was a long miner’s trench, beyond a row of irregular bowls that had contained iron ore, dug out by the men who once made a living here. But today the landscape was bare of other people. The only stock I’d seen were a few ponies, standing like carefully spaced statues on the south-western side of the hill.
A bitterly cold north-easterly wind blew in my face, trailing dark grey skirts of rain over Houndtor and dragging them slowly southwards towards us. It’s at times like this that I realise anew how bare the open moor is of shelter against the weather.
The Dartmoor sky was a fleecy cloud cap pulled down low. It perched above the starkly bare branches of the trees that lined a field. Within the field a flock of sheep were grouping themselves as if they’d been trained to spell out a message.
The drystone walls gleamed silver in the dull light, visible markers of the way to follow. As the route went downwards hart’s tongue ferns sprouted in the cracks, vivid against the lichens. The encircling cloud had sunk lower, shrouding the trees and the walls to enclose a small secret world that I’d entered by chance.
The trees of Yarner Wood are always a distinctive feature from the slopes of Dartmoor’s Black Hill. At this time of the year they have changed their appearance completely from the dark streak that runs down a valley, merging into the greater greenness of Lustleigh Cleave.
Now they are silvery grey, misty in the bright winter sun, like something out of Tolkien’s Lothlorien. A silver oak stands proud in the centre, its branches tipped with red. Further up the slope a stand of chestnuts protects the oak from the north winds, their own feet in a pool of water-subdued russet created by their fallen leaves. A few silver birches cling to the western fringe of the woodland, their heads in a cloud of purple. The lower trees fade away westward in a blur of soft grey and mauve, tinged with silver.
The white belts of the Galloway cows were vivid in the dullness of the day as they moved with leisurely purpose across the slope of Honeybag Tor.
The Dartmoor landscape here has become very dark, the deep sodden russet of bracken crumpling into folds around us and over the flanks of the looming Hameldown ahead.
It looked as though a Surrealist sea had swept over Dartmoor. Beyond Saddle Tor lay a soft pinkish grey foaming mass, edged with a rearing fringe of flamingo pink, and dark grey islands floated mistily past. The image lasted only for a few minutes and then it was gone, replaced by a darkening night sky.
At the cottage a barn owl called once, the only sound in the night apart from the continuous music from the stream. Until the rain began, battering against the window, pounding onto the granite flagstones below, as the rush of the stream grew louder in the background.
The downpour ceased just before dawn broke, allowing the local cockerel to herald the new day. The sun rose behind a veil of soft crumpled grey, streaking this with pale pink as it climbed higher over the slope of Blackslade Down.
The first night at the cottage was broken with the sound of flapping wings, but I couldn’t see what was making it.
Two days later a Painted Lady butterfly lay on the carpet, her colours faded to translucent shades of the originals. She had clearly come into the quiet cottage to pass away the winter months until spring, and been disturbed perhaps by the increased heat.
When I went to move her, thinking her dead, she fluttered into movement. At last she rested on my finger as I walked around the cottage, wondering where was best to put her down. But no matter where I tried, a little later I’d find her fluttering across the carpet in the bedroom. So, anxious that she was using precious energy, I put down a bowl of sugared water and left her to it. Only at the very end of our stay did she finally flutter safely out of sight under the bed, lulled perhaps by the lowering temperature as the radiators were turned off.
There’ve been far fewer ponies around as we’ve walked across stretches of the moor. They’re often harder to spot too, the ones with darker coats seeming to blend into the dark masses of heather.
So it was with extra pleasure that I found Tracey Elliot-Reep’s new book, The Dartmoor Pony, filled with photographs of the ponies of the moor. These were often taken in places I recognised, sometimes of animals I thought I knew too, especially the strawberry roans of the Heritage Chinkwell herd.
Apart from the beauty of the pictures, it’s useful to have an outline of the organisations devoted to promoting the welfare of the moor’s ponies and to maintaining and strengthening the Dartmoor pony bloodlines. This is so important now, when their survival is under threat, and so must by extension is the current appearance of the moorland that they graze.
Driving away across the upper slopes of Dartmoor as the cloud cover gradually cleared away I could see the sea in the distance at Teignmouth. It’s been very clear during most of these few days here, sometimes quite a noticeable blue. Today it was a greyish shape, only different from the headlands because I knew it was there.
There are new rose buds around the bedroom window. White hebe is flowering next to the mahonia, and the winter jasmine is bursting with seasonal blossom. The garden beds are covered with fallen leaves, and only the robin comes to visit me when I venture out.
The sky is lowered by thick pale grey cloud, rent here and there to show a lining of deep blue. The heron that flies low, parallel to my route for some distance, is the colour of the sky above.
Small flocks of birds pass over the cloud, moving with great bursts of speed. But the bird that flashes up in front of me providing a perfect glimpse of its pale grey rump is a startled fieldfare, quite on its own.
It’s almost dusk by the time I reach the far South West, and only still clear enough to see because of the luminuous brightness around the sea-girt land. A buzzard perches motionless on top of a telegraph pole, supervising the entrance to the lane that winds between tall Cornish hedges, our secret route down to The Lizard peninsula. The way leads down, past two more sentinel buzzards, and our approach is greeted by a starling murmuration, the birds dipping and rising in great numbers, appearing momentarily from the east and disappearing almost instantly into the west.
Hayle beach was a long empty stretch of sand. The turquoise waves curled lazily towards us, rearing up slowly and crashing down in slow motion as the tide turned and the sea began to come back in.
The front waves slid up the beach, laced with foam in a delicate cloak, fringed with foam like an ermine trim. Mist shrouded the headlands, almost hiding the Godrevy lighthouse. Occasionally the wind blew spray into ethereal columns like miniature, stationary Cornish cyclones.
The only lines of footsteps were the ones we made across the firm sand. They usually led to where Bryn, my young Border collie, lay waiting for action, watching his recumbent Frisbee intently. And watching him just as intently on one occasion was a gull, standing cautiously behind him, just getting its feet wet in the incoming tide.
Solitary magpies seem to dominate the view when I drive along the narrow Cornish lanes. One flies low over the small fields. Another wriggles to insert itself into the top of a thorny bush. It doesn’t seem to be a hospitable environment for them, exposed, windswept, with little cover. Yet they seem to be thriving as much as the buzzards that rest on the telegraph poles in lieu of tall trees.
Gulls were conspicuously absent from the beach yesterday. I recalled seeing large flocks of them inland, usually feeding in fields.
But today a crowd of them colonised the roof of a bungalow as we approached the dunes. I couldn’t tell why that particular roof was so popular, but the neighbouring ones only harboured one or two of the birds.
And as the tide turned on the beach a row of gulls came down to wait on the sand, standing just on the edge of the incoming waves.
There was a flicker of movement against the dunes. The marram grass that covered them was waving delicately, tipped with gold in the sunlight. And in a dip close to where I sat over coffee a single bird was flitting between the bleached stems of some plant that had flourished here in the summer. As I looked more closely, he perched on a stem, giving me a clear view of his black head and russet red breast. He was a stonechat, the first I’ve seen here.
The waves came up the beach, shallow but determined, their foaming edges gradually creeping higher. Single bubbles were left as the water retreated momentarily, and the wind blew these even higher as if they were in a race.
There were shells and rocks embedded in the sand, and strands of seaweed laying limply over its surface, waiting for the incoming tide to cover them again.
The tide had left the rocks exposed at the foot of Kuggar beach. A single strand of green seaweed wriggled across the beach like a snake, blown by the wind. This fluttered the tips of the dark red seaweed that grew thickly on some of the rocks. The movement was repeated under the rippled surface of the wind-ruffled pools, where more seaweed streamed out as if the tide were still moving it. Only the heaps of thick-stemmed brown seaweed lay motionless, piled high beside one of the rivulets.
A single red blob rewarded my search of the Kuggar rock pools. A sea anemone. And then I found another.
There were other scenes that delighted me too. The thick brown stem of seaweed that seemed like a hand of a drowned sailor groping out of the sand. The limpet nursery with tiny shells stuck to a rock face. The small rock doorway with its own knocker, as if Wind in the Willows had moved to the seaside.
I walked out of the door into the back garden and the stars seemed to burst out of the black sky, they were so vigorous in the brightness. As I stared up at them, feeling that I only had to grow a little taller until I could touch them, I could see the faint cloudy traces of the Milky Way streaking across the sky behind the glitter.
I bought local daffodils just as the farmer was delivering them to the village shop. We’ve passed fields where they grow in rows like any other crop, and I can remember once seeing a whole wide field of them beyond the ilex avenue that leads to the cottage.
There are many cottage stalls beside the winding narrow lanes. Most have home-grown vegetables for sale, sprouts, cauliflowers, cabbages and potatoes. But some have anemones, their tight buds only showing a hint of the purple and magenta to come. And one stall always has the small clear pink lilies that I love to have in the sitting room.
Pink azalea is in bloom in Trebah garden across the Helford river. Amazed at its early appearance I’m alert for other flowers that I wouldn’t have expected. And there are white camellias and hydrangeas.
They are especially lovely to spot in a garden that displays all the protection afforded to its plants for the winter.
The gunnera clumps beside the lake are carefully wrapped in their own leaves, and new shoots are already bursting through. The hydrangea beds that fringe the lower levels run in crisp brown serpentine bands, the flowers left on each plant to protect the new buds.
Through the dark tracery of tree branches the curved sickle of the New Moon shone serenely when we first arrived. Now its older version, haloed with reddish bronze, glows fitfully through gusting clouds.
There’s only the shivering of leaf from the passing wind, but not a rustle of bush from the passage of fox or badger. There’s no crunch of earth in the lane under either a human foot or a car tyre, nor any rumble of distant traffic as we wait in the garden to see in the new year.
And there in the southern distance are the first bursts of fireworks, pink and gold over Mullion. And to our left a silver expanse of brief stars spreads over the tops of the trees.
But we are so far out in the country that there’s no sound of the clock striking in the yard of the nearest house. And the increasing wind means that the bells ringing the change of years are quite inaudible here.
It’s only as we go indoors that a sound breaks the silence, as a tawny owl calls into the silence.
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