It rained and rained as we drove to the centre of the New Forest. Sheets of water lay over the grassy plains, and deep in the copses I could occasionally see bedraggled ponies sheltering as best they could. The little forest pub at Fritham was a welcome sight, and the blazing fire in the wide hearth soon had us warmed up.
The sea was heaving at Lymington and the only gulls I could see were bobbing on the water, often in great numbers. None of them seemed to be in the air braving the wind and rain.
There was a heavy silence over the common at Hartley Wintney. The wind and rain had stopped for a while and the old oaks stood without moving a branch or twig, as if resting after the storms. Plenty of their branches and twigs littered the ground that I walked over, so the trees had taken a battering.
Crows on Hungerford Common seem to be among the few creatures benefitting from the wet weather. They descend from the sky in a vast black flock, suddenly becoming almost invisible as they land on the rough grass to search for insects.
Bryn, my border collie puppy, thinks they are there to play with and dances over towards them, eager to see them swirl crossly up into the air. He too seems to be interested in what lives in the grass, suddenly diving into a clump and digging furiously. Perhaps we’ll soon have a trail of crows behind us, rather like seagulls following a tractor.
A serpentine path leads us through the scrubby woodland beside Newtown Common. Even in the gloom cast by an overcast sky the gleaming trunks of silver birches mark all the twists and turns.
Here and there lies a fallen tree, a gaping cavern like an open black maw under their upended roots. Bright green moss stands out vividly, closely draping trees that fell longer ago, or the stumps of those gone forever.
It’s a route I once knew well, and little has changed, even the birches don’t seem to have grown in the last few years. But for Bryn, my collie puppy, it’s a wonderland of discoveries, trails leading here and there, across sunken ditches, over rounded mounds, under sheets of ivy, through patches of mud and pools of water.
Ranks of tiny lichen line a silver birch on Newtown Common, a reminder that autumn is only just past. Nearby, a draping skein of sinewy strands shows the first green honeysuckle leaves, a sign that spring is coming. And little birds, chiefly blue tits, I think, are active in the thickets of holly.
From time to time I hear the tinkling notes of a party of tits, although the birds stay out of sight. More noticeable is the harsh cawing of rooks, obviously in a squabble just beyond the nearby trees, their raucous voices ringing effortlessly down onto the wide grass ride that we’re walking along.
Gleaming brown circles, the wet ends of silver birch logs, shine out from a distance. Heaps of their twiggy branches lie in heaps, providing cover for insects and small creatures. And today there are little heaps of sawdust on either side of the grassy ride on Newtown Common, signs of the recently fallen trees that have been cut into fresh logs on either side of the path.
A few snowdrops in my back garden have opened enough to show a plump line of whiteness as the flowers begin to emerge. In the front garden, rose buds are also opening on the main façade of the house.
The field was sharply divided. Bright green turnip leaves on one side, bare brown earth on the other. The sheep were dotted about on the bare earth, their wool faintly tinged with brown, as if the rain had splashed down on the ground and bounced back up to colour the fleeces.
Here and there catkins hung from hazels beside the roads. As I set off on my journey the catkins were only faintly coloured with yellow, less bright than the creamy chest and tail feathers of the buzzard that perched on a low post among them. The nearer I got to warmer and drier Essex the more conspicuous the showers of yellow catkins became, until they were visible from a distance.
The boats sat high and dry along the muddy channels of the marshes at Tollesbury, one of Margery Allingham’s most evocative novel settings. It was quiet here under the wide Essex sky, not even a gull’s cry broke the silence.
I didn’t see much movement either, and normally I would always see some of the little wading birds that usually skitter over slippery tidal mud like this. The only activity was around a couple of small boats, which a few people were preparing for the spring.
The tide was out at Maldon marshes too, exposing the muddy marsh channels, but here the scene was quite different to Tollesbury. It is not a quiet hidden place, but a wide open one, edged by the river Chelmer.
A flock of avocets stood motionless on a shingle promontory, elegant in their black and white plumage, with their slender dipping beaks. They weren’t in the least perturbed by the sudden eruption into the sky of a flock of a hundred or more Brent geese. These had been disturbed as they grazed, and after swirling overhead for a while they settled down on the river. Through it all the avocets stood stoically at their posts.
Just beyond the shell of a deserted eighteenth century mansion stood a knoll, in what had perhaps once been parkland where a flock of sheep were now grazing. A cluster of bare oaks crowned the top of the knoll and four sheep sat among them, virtually one at each point of the compass, like carefully placed statues.
A seagull stood ankle deep in the overflow from the trout lake, staring intently into the water, no doubt waiting for a sizeable fish to stray into the shallows where normally there is a grassy slope. Further on, a pair of swans drifted idly around the huge feet of a pylon, monarchs of the new pond that has spread across the field.
Billie, the male blackbird in my front garden, is once more conspicuously in sight when I open the door. He hovers on the path, hurrying onto the lawn as I approach, clearly waiting for the remembered fall of mealworms that has previously accompanied my steps.
Bella and Bertie, the back garden blackbirds, are appearing together again, both busily occupied close to the terrace.
Blackbirds elsewhere seem to be working as couples again. This week I’ve several times seen pairs flying low over lane verges and up into hedges.
An unseen deer barked close by the ride in the Hampshire woodland, startling me. And it was as if it disturbed an unseen artist too, jogging the painterly hand so that splashes of bright cerise colour flew up into the air beyond the bramble thicket. They were bullfinches, three of them, flying up into the bare branches of the nearby beeches.
The trees’ slender grey trunks stretched up into the blue sky, the highest branches tipped with the brightness of new buds. Dipping and bobbing across the top of the brambles came a pair of blue tits, their colours freshly spruced up. And soaring in slow circles far above the whole scene was a buzzard, whose tail feathers flashed brightly white as the bird turned on the air currents.
The pair of fallow does picked their way carefully through the trees, leaping across the open ride beyond. Bryn, my border collie puppy, didn’t notice them then. But a little later the first one stepped out onto the ride we were walking along, and froze for a second to sniff the air. Bryn froze too, staring, but came whizzing back when I called, so intent on what I wanted that he didn’t see the two deer tread sedately over the muddy ruts and puddles to disappear from sight into the farthest coppice. He did, though, spend a long time sniffing their scent when we reached the crossing point, no doubt committing it to memory if he hasn’t come across it before.
It was a tiny figure, just clearing the ground in such long leaps that it seemed to fly. Pink translucent ears streamed out, the tiny legs and tail were at full stretch, and the small white body gleamed like silver. It shot into cover among the cut beech trunks that are stacked like ramparts along the track in Hurstbourne Tarrant woods.
It was like a magical creature, visible only for an instant, but it was undoubtedly a mouse, startled by our approach into a mad dash for safety.
The male blackbird sat on the verge, turning its head right and left as cars passed, only darting across on foot when the lane was quite clear for a few minutes.
The bushes and grass along the ride were sodden, and so was the hare that suddenly appeared out of cover from the nearby trees. For an instant it stopped, raising itself up on its hind feet, ears swivelling, its damp fur dark on its back and belly. Then it crossed the ride at a slow miserable lope and went into the far copse out of sight.
It was an overcast day, dulling the watery landscape. But a stray gleam of light shone through the clouds, turning the motionless grey heron into a silver apparition against the glowing ruby-red dogwood stems edging the stream.
It may have been the same heron, drifting low and unusually gracefully in a leisurely flight over the bleached reed beds to follow the line of the flooded brook out of sight in the water meadows.
The curved corrugated iron shelter must have seemed a dry sheltered haven for the large piglets sleeping soundly in the straw in a New Forest woodland field. Their very large mother was made of sterner stuff and continued to browse among the oak plantation nearby, her monochrome saddleback colouring almost a perfect camouflage.
We were resting in a glade under a small oak tree, Bryn, my border collie puppy and me, when we heard deep baying in the vicinity. Looking through the trees I saw a familiar silhouette among all the slender trunks, a deer frozen to the spot, listening to the barking too.
A few minutes later a large elderly Labrador came into view on the open New Forest lawn beyond the trees and the deer moved, suddenly and smoothly. There were three of them, in fact, slipping silently through the rim of trees and deeper into cover, unaware that Bryn and I stood there watching them.
A fallen tree straddled the narrow path through the trees. It had been there for many years, so walkers and animals had made a track through the bushes at either end of it. I was heading for one of these when I realised the horizontal trunk looked unfamiliar.
My heart skipped a beat when I realised there were antlers rising like branches on its far side, only a short distance from where I had halted, fortunately with Bryn, my border collie puppy, on his lead. Bryn knew the stag was there too, he was pointing straight towards it, his attention fixed on the tree and what lay beyond.
And now I could see the stag’s face too, his eyes watching us closely. For a few minutes we stood there, as still as the stag, until at last he moved, turning away and moving without haste into the trees, a slender doe moving like a shadow beside him. He was a young adult stag, with a moderate display of palmate antlers, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted him to get any closer.
A little later, as Bryn and I picked our careful way down a water-sodden bracken-covered slope, we saw the pair of deer again. Out in the open now, they looked quite pale against the green grass, their rumps flashing white as they stepped slowly alongside the brook and into cover in a scrubby brake beside a small bridge.
From a distance they looked like the stumpy remains of a pier, dark in the water of the lagoon inland from Farlington marshes. As I got closer I saw that it was a flock of Brent geese, sitting hunched and motionless on the surface. I had seen some of their comrades earlier in full sweeping flight, dark against the bright sky.
Shelducks made a brighter splash of colour, their black and white wings vivid as they came in to land. Then here and there one upended, its rump flashing white against the pewter-coloured water.
Further back, in tight groups against a low island, hovered a few tufted ducks, maintaining the black and white theme, and some more idiosyncratic red-breasted pochard, conspicuous because of the glowing tan of the juveniles.
The eerie bubbling cry of the curlew rang out again and again as we followed the path beside the Beaulieu river, on the eastern edge of the New Forest. The tide was ebbing, boats rode at anchor, bobbing on the water, a faint clanging of chains the only other sound.
Tiny rippling streams ran clearly over golden gravel down to join the river. Approaching one I was startled by the flash of glittering turquoise as a startled kingfisher darted upstream to disappear into the dim shadows under the trees.
The tide was almost fully out on Farlington marshes, south of the New Forest. An upright line of jagged ruined wooden spars ran across a sandy shingle bank. In and out of them wove a curlew, curved beak probing into the sand again and again.
Nearer to the raised footpath the sprawled seaweed seemed to writhe. Closer inspection revealed a group of almost invisible dunlins, motoring busily over the pebbles.
Further out, in shallow water, the red legs and beaks of a pair of oystercatchers gleamed against their black and white plumage. From behind came the burbling call of another curlew, then the shrill piping of more oystercatchers flying in.
The mud bank opposite Buckler’s Hard was colonised by hundreds of seagulls, who sat there for some time, waiting for the tide to bring the water back in to the Beaulieu river. Just once as I watched they swirled up into the air in their hundreds. It wasn’t a co-ordinated flight, although many birds flew straight ahead across the river’s channel. Others wove left and right through the masses of their comrades, some drifted back to settle down again on the mud flat until it was once more brightly white in the monochrome landscape of flats, marsh and river.
In the late afternoon the New Forest brook shone silver in the dull light. The floodwater spread through the scrubby trees beside the brook’s course looked duller, its pewter-coloured surface more threatening.
Along the lane to the cottage the wet ponies huddled in miserable groups under the trees, enduring the downpour. As soon as there was a gap in the rain they moved out to graze, but kept close to cover, knowing the break wasn’t going to last long.
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