The mist that shrouded the moor in the early morning lifted to bright sunshine. But the cloud was back in the evening as the sun sank slowly westwards. Its light shone through the white blanket, making it glimmer like folds of pale diaphanous silk.
It was against this backdrop that we walked in the gathering gloom through the heather and gorse of the Black Hill. Westward, the double thumbs of Haytor rose dark against the sky. They seemed to loom larger than ever over the deserted quarries and tramlines that man had left on the slopes below them, and they were a useful beacon to evening wanderers as we headed back to the car.
Cows had passed through the ancient orchard, and had to be persuaded not to linger too long over the windfalls that lay in the long grass.
These were being gathered today for juicing. The apples were large and small, lying beneath the gnarled and lichened trees that have stood here for a couple of centuries.
These trees are part of a farm in a wide valley in Dartmoor, the highest orchard surviving here, protected by the high flanks of hills and a hedgerow that will soon be restored to its full strength.
Heavy rain over the last couple of nights has sent the stream beside the cottage singing down its narrow channel.
Up on the moor the water lies in peat-brown pools beneath rock outcrops. The conjunction often creates a scene like a garden designer’s dream.
And showers during the day have created vividly coloured rainbows. They arch across a suddenly blue sky, their bases rooted in the rocky landscape in this place where they appear so often.
We’d climbed steeply up the slope of Lustleigh gorge, passing through a rocky outcrop at the summit. Galloway cows grazed here, their white stomach bands oddly blending in among the rocks so I was startled to spot the first ones at close quarters. Others peered down at us from ledges and crevices between the rocks, like a bandit band wondering whether to join their comrades in an ambush.
As we climbed down another precipitous bank I glanced back through the thin white trunks of silver birches. The huge rocks were almost hidden by the woodland screen, but their outlines were just identifiable, looking like a natural castle just fit for Robin Hood and his band.
As the sun sank below Hameldown a nearer ridge stood out darkly against the evening sky. Along it was a line of tiny black figures, like paper cut-outs. Some of the cows had moved up here to graze, while others, naturally black, were distinctive in the bracken on the lower slopes, like the spaces left by the cut outs above.
The light drizzle turned to heavy rain during the day. In the few dry intervals the hedge by the cottage gate reverberated with the loud chatter of the sparrows who sheltered there. They weren’t fooled into coming out to get wet.
The V-shaped flight of birds was first dark against the blue sky, then light as the birds turned in the sunlight. They were small birds, neither the gulls nor the geese that I expect to fly in a similar formation. I’d not seen them like this before, but I thought these birds were fieldfares, although again the slight sounds they made were unfamiliar.
Certainly later on it was fieldfares who thronged the hawthorn bushes on the slopes above Widecombe, their distinctive chuckling chatter ringing out over the fields.
The rain has been heavy this week, in spite of some perfect sunny days, so water flows everywhere, on the moor and in the village. It creeps under the back door of the cottage, and hurries in a growing torrent down the stream bed beside the cottage, tumbling and rushing over the slight falls, filling the cottage with the sound of running water.
Outside in the lane an elderly man on his slow walk into the village paused time after time to prod into the ditch beside the lane with his walking stick. As he removed the piles of sodden leaves clogging the flow he murmured that he was probably the only person left to know where all the local drainage ditches are.
Further up on the moor a man outside an isolated cottage worked on a larger scale, heaving mounds of leaves and debris out of the neighbouring ditch with a large fork. The water that collected on a low-lying lane nearby didn’t come from the river that passed under it in turbulent flow. It poured out of the ditches that were clogged with plant growth as well as the autumn leaf fall.
I walked over the lip of the moor to look down into the wide valley, where sheep and cows graze like white and black children’s toys in the small green fields. From here the landscape seems to be stapled into place by the tall tower of Widecombe church, the cathedral of the moor.
Even down in the valley, the tower is glimpsed time after time, through the bare branches of an oak, framed by the outlines of other trees, standing tall like a carefully placed folly to be seen through the swelling slopes of the moor.
Looking upwards, as if the tower points the way, the road twists steeply skywards, winding through a different landscape. Sheep still glint white in the sodden bronze bracken that covers the upper levels of the slope on either side, like a band painted with a generous hand.
There were both cows and ponies in the lane as we drove away from the Dartmoor cottage. The black cows were like dark shadows under the overhanging beeches as they grazed on either side of the lane, occasionally reaching up for a juicy leaf. The ponies were huddled in a gateway, as if wondering what to do next and how to avoid the worst of the increasingly wet weather.
It may have been a break in that bad weather which brought the fox out in the middle of the morning. He’d just emerged out of an overgrown pasture when the car popped out of the narrow tunnel between the hedges. He looked a bit damp as he skittered hastily across the bridge and slipped through the scraggly bushes into the rush-filled field beyond the East Webburn river, whose waters have swollen noticeably in the past week and now come racing down the stony bed.
Natural patterns are more prominent at this time of the year. On Newtown Common there’s the outline of pine tree roots, the shape of paths delineating the heathland, a pair of silver birches tall against a screen of evergreens, another silver birch standing sentinel over a curve in the path, trimmed tree trunks lying in rows.
A trio of swans swam between the moored boats on either side of the Kennet and Avon canal, magnificently indifferent to the mizzling rain that speckled their plumage with crystal drops. Food was on their minds as they scanned the boat decks and slowly drifted in towards the bank where I stood.
Many of their fellows were grazing on the island, or striding awkwardly back towards the water. Yet others were coming upstream in considerable numbers.
Maintenance work continues on Newtown Common. Trees have been cut down, leaving gleaming wet orange stumps, and the remains of an old hedge have been laid to encourage it to regenerate.
A winding path beyond the hedge leads through the once coppiced stools of hazel. Slender stems shoot out from the stumpy bases and still fly a few green leaves above the bronze carpet on the ground.
Here the leaves lie so thickly that my footsteps are quite silent. The prickly chestnut husks that had fallen only a few weeks ago from the standard trees that grow above the coppiced ones have mainly disappeared under the covering of leaves. A scrapped patch around a rotting stump showed the only sign of animal feeding, where perhaps a badger had been looking for insects and grubs.
Water gleamed on the surface of the plain near Bramshaw Telegraph in the New Forest, lying more on the surface here than it does on Dartmoor. And the green grooves that I’ve passed during the summer have suddenly become seasonally silver as clear water runs again in the narrow courses. And the air is full of the sound of the water moving, a crystalline murmuring that comes into its own when there’s no wind to rustle the leaves on the trees and make the branches whine when they bend.
A pair of donkeys were having a change from grass in a New Forest plain. They were stretching up to nibble on the holly that fringed the green space. Nearby a youngster nibbled at holly shoots, as she couldn’t reach the higher branches. She soon tired of this and came to her mother’s side, settling down for a nap.
Just along a track beyond them was the site of recent woodland work. There were stacks of logs, trimmed fence posts and slender poles, most with the silvery gleam of holly, cut from one of the nearby thickets.
The Hampshire beech wood was golden in the morning light, with the bronzed leaf canopy above and the rusty bracken below. The tree trunks stood out dark and wet against the brightness. So did the white scuts of the deer that appeared out of the bracken, scurrying away through the trees. There were three of them, barely bigger than a big dog, muntjacs colonising the area where normally I see roe and fallow deer.
It was a narrow lane so I pulled my car hard over to squeeze by the one that was approaching. We had almost met when a red kite swooped suddenly from a tree on the verge, diving down between us. He banked sharply, just avoiding the oncoming car and rose steeply upwards, almost grazing my car’s windscreen and giving me a close up view of his russet tail.
I presume he was a youngster, and he was certainly a very lucky one, so I hope he learns from his narrow escape.
Mist swathed the common, thinly veiling the milk chocolate colour of the distant ploughed fields.
The lanes are flanked by rows of trees, sycamores, limes, cherries. As their autumn leaves drop their structure is exposed in shapes that identify them as surely as their leaves and bark. It’s when these bare tree silhouettes dominate the landscape that I feel autumn is truly changing to winter.
The village below the downs was badly flooded last winter. This was partly due to tree roots blocking a drain, but the winterbourne that runs alongside the village street can suddenly fill with clear running water from the rising water table below the chalk downland. This bundles along at speed over the green weeds that suddenly burst into streaming movement under its forces.
The bourne’s curving bed, for so long lush with greenery, has been dug out for another two feet. So more of the water, both from the rising water table and the surface runoff, can pour away rapidly without spilling over to block the roads and creep into the cottages.
Everything was wet in the New Forest, including me and Bryn, my young Border collie, as we walked in the dullness created by a low cloud canopy. The first pony we saw was almost invisible, a pale strawberry roan almost the colour of the holly tree trunks behind it. Later on, passing a holly thicket I became aware of Bryn’s interest in its depths.
There were two ghostly forms, looking as if their pale bodies and wide antlers had been formed from the silvery trunks around them. The fallow stags were standing quite motionless to watch us, and my eyes traced the shape of first one, then the other before they slipped quietly away.
Unlike the ponies and the deer, the donkeys who sheltered in the nearby copse were more noticeable, perhaps because of the overwhelming whiteness in their patchwork colouring.
The New Forest holly thicket was gleaming wetly green. The trees had been thick with berries a week ago, but the red studs were less noticeable now.
It was the constant movement of silvery birds, twisting and swooping from one tree to another, that explained what was happening. The berries were being stripped by a large chattering flock of fieldfares, whose spotted white chests were vivid against the green backdrop.
The bourne ran below in the Hampshire valley. Fields and copses patterned the far slope, with the occasional glimpse of a red brick farmhouse. I stood in a field beyond the woodland where we usually walk, identifying the route I wanted to take.
Around us were signs of human leisure activity. A field of rustling brown maize leaves, screening drying cobs would provide cover for this autumn’s pheasant population. A line of wooden jumps waited for the horse that was stabled in the distant corner.
Some of the badgers that live in the woodland had been there too, not for leisure but to maximise their feeding opportunities. There were shallow scrapes where the turf had been peeled back as badgers searched for earthworms brought closer to the surface by the wet weather. And no doubt the maize cobs were tempting too.
As dew drops fell in a desultory fashion from overhead tree branches there was an occasional plop on the bushes that edged the woodland ride. The sound was loud in the still quietness, where the only movement was the drifting of individual leaves, floating silently downwards.
But then I was startled by a terrific rustling in the bracken and brambles edging the ride. Until recently blackbirds foraging in the fallen leaves beneath the bushes have made a disproportionate noise. But they’ve moved on to other feeding now, and this sound was clearly much louder than they’ve ever made. It didn’t come with the explosive wing whirring of an alarmed pheasant either.
It was a pair of fallow does that emerged into the plantation beyond the undergrowth and paused a short distance away to look back at us. Fortunately Bryn, my Border collie, had been sniffing at their scent on the far side of the track and came to stand, eagerly but quietly, by me so we were all able to watch each other for a minute or so before the deer strolled off behind the distant trees.
The low rumble in the distance grew louder as we crossed Newtown Common, and the shape that moved beyond the trees gradually became visible as a tractor. It was pulling a miniature harvester and leaving a wide swathe of cut grass and heather on either side of the paths. As there was no debris scattered around I presume it was chopping it up internally to be deposited somewhere as mulch.
Bryn’s face was bright with pleased satisfaction as he looked back at me from the edge of the field that was still bleached with stubble, and now echoed with the sound of wings. Beyond him the sky was filled with hundreds of wood pigeons who had presumably been feeding on seeds and possibly even worms in the damp ground.
Bryn’s sudden appearance on the footpath beside the field had caused the birds to rise and swirl in a feathered cloud, now grey, now white as the birds turned and gradually resettled as we passed by.
We’d only been climbing the steep path up the wooded slope before there was another mass disturbance. Another flock had been feeding between the trees and now rose up through the trunks and out of sight.
In the dull light the long sharp beak gleamed like steel against the black plumage of the cormorant. The bird was sailing down the canal, pausing again and again to stab into the water and emerge with a fish in its grasp. Sometimes a fish was so large that its head and tail were visible, like a brighter silver hilt to the weapon, before the cormorant flipped it round and swallowed it head first. To do this the bird’s gullet extended visible and the shape of the fish could be seen on its downward path.
In the cormorant’s wake followed another fisher, a much smaller one, only noticeable in flight because of its bright turquoise back. The kingfisher was perhaps attracted by the small fish that leaped out of the water each time the cormorant plunged its beak in.
The beech cathedral at Selborne has gone. It was the name we used to give a natural feature created by the way the beech trees lined a section of path along the hangar above the village. The trees upper branches arched inwards like a roof sheltering the wide aisle between the two rows of trunks below.
Now, on my first return visit for some years to a once-regular haunt, the landscape has changed. Branches have broken off, trees have fallen, and the shape of the tree line has been broken. Scrub has grown up in the gaps, encouraged by more light, and blurred the lines of the aisle even further.
But one of the benefits of the natural and man-created clearances is the slopes of green, vivid in the copper glow of the autumn beech leaves. The green will be year long, screened perhaps in the summer by other growth, but now the rows of hart’s tongue ferns that sprout on the slopes are a striking sight.
The dew-pond beside the lane changes with the seasons. In a wet winter it can brim with water, overflowing treacherously onto the lane, but providing new habitat for adventurous mallards. In the summer it dries out, its muddy bottom and sides cracking and pale. But now it’s covered with a thin growth of grass, wet only from recent rain.
And it was seething with huge numbers of pheasants, when I passed recently, invisible glanced left, drawn by the unusual shiver of movement. They were pecking around, almost shoulder-to-shoulder, many of them clad in festive male raiment, many more females in subtle beige. Beyond the pool a few birds perched on fence posts, or ranged desultorily through the longer grass of the field as if they were waiting an opportunity to fill a space in the mêlée.
A solitary seagull floated on the edge of the group of hopeful mallards fanning out from the couple sitting by the water’s edge to eat sandwiches. As I walked down the towpath a few of the ducks decided, mistakenly, that I was a better option and swam eagerly along behind me. It was like being trailed by a host of admirers – every time I glanced back there they were, just the same distance away, quacking with excitement when I looked at them.
On the island a trio of hens didn’t seem to like the wet grass. Instead they’d perched in a row on the back of a bench. They and the ducks ignored each other with sublime indifference.
There are several desirable residences in the area of common that was cleared of scrub a couple of years ago. They’re man-made of totally natural materials too.
They are the log stacks and brush piles that were left when new trees were planted in discreet green guards. Grass and brambles have encroached on the stacks and piles, which have gradually rotted into cohesive heaps that look as if they’ve grown there of their own accord.
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