The headlights swept the farmyard as the car swung round the drive to stop before the cottage.
A fox froze, pointed face turned towards us for a second, ears pricked in alarm. Then he was gone, a swift russet flash of movement, disappearing into the darkness.
At almost the same moment a large dark shape moved through the air by the stables, light briefly edging the darkness of its wings. It was the tawny owl that sometimes shrieks in the stillness of the night.
I heard him as I stood outside later, looking up at the star-spangled sky. Here at this time of the year the Milky Way spreads itself across the sky’s vault, like a shawl sewn with crystals. I know where The Plough hangs, and where Cassiopeia zigzags through its companions. Orion’s Belt is visible, and the twinkling cluster of The Seven Sisters.
And there, suddenly, was a movement of light as a shooting star flashed across the sky, disappearing behind the black silhouette of the nearby oak trees. And there was another, flashing across the sky on my other side to fizzle out above the village.
The horse chestnut leaves have rusted, making patches of bright colour among the green of the roadside hedgerows. There are more corpses on the verge, foxes outnumbering badgers for once, presumably increases in car-created casualties as the nights draw in.
At home the apples have fallen into the longer grass in my garden. Some have been pecked, some have had chunks taken out of them, so I guess that the hedgehog has been feasting along with the birds.
The robin in the front garden has clearly taken to the Dartmoor birdbath that I put out over a year ago. When I glanced through the sitting room window in the afternoon he was standing in the water, splashing it over his wings.
The first was a rounded reddish hump, half hidden in the heather behind the gorse bush. It could have been a mound of earth, but I know that it isn’t that colour here on Fritham Plain in the New Forest.
The second was also reddish with white patches. She was awake, wide eyes staring at me, furry ears pricked as she lay on the other side of the gorse bush.
The two calves had been left here as their mothers grazed. All of the cows I could see were at a distance, and I was thankful that there was plenty of room for me to see them coming. One large cow peeled off and headed purposefully in my direction. She was followed immediately by another and I prepared to retreat rapidly.
Both approached me directly, but only cast me a curious look as they strode over the lane and on into the trees. So I left the calves and went on my way. When I returned a couple of hours later they had gone.
The holly trees are thick with bright red berries on Fritham Plain in the New Forest.
Nearby a horse chestnut has dropped its load of conkers. The green casings have burst open, the shiny nuts gleaming among them and a small boy was gleefully picking out the largest.
The cows are still out grazing, the ponies have a few slender-legged foals among them.
And the donkey herd is out too, with a few youngsters of their own. One of these lay peacefully surveying the scene, his large ears fringed with light from the sun behind him.
Fallen leaves have created new patterns on the paths over the common. Yellow and gold discs lay beneath the silver birches, overlaid here and there with large hand-shaped horse chestnut leaves, dark green with rusty tips like badly painted finger nails.
The sweet chestnuts have layered the ground more proficiently. Their serrated ovals, of a uniform pale gold, overlap each other in a thick covering, deadening the sound of my footsteps.
Bright gold-coloured pine needles are scattered with abandon over the bleached leaves of last winter, brightening the ground on the narrow track between the trees.
It’s easy to see, walking here, how designers of all ages have used nature’s seasons as inspiration for their work. Carpets and textiles imitate in different styles the patterns I see about me here.
The heavy rain that pocks the surface of the canal has brought out the water birds in large numbers. But only ducks are out on the canal, undeterred by the downpour. There are more of them ranging over the island, busily grazing on the grass in the wide meadow.
Feeding here is segregated. The ducks have the middle section, keeping close together, murky figures in the greyness of the rain. To their left a party of moorhens forages widely, deeply black against the green. And to the right of the ducks, a swan gleams brightly white, an ungainly figure standing upright, its long necked arched down to the ground. It has comrades too, but spaced well apart, mainly busy searching the grass for frogs, snails and worms brought out by the rain.
The gusting wind tossed the pigeon up and down, high above the trees, just as if it was a rag. The trees in the mixed woodland shelter belt dipped and swayed, the noise of their moving leaves the only sound in the wide downland.
The bleached grasses bowed towards me, a moving wave over the mound that was one of the many tumuli here. Beyond, over the open downland lay silent grey figures, the monuments of distant Stonehenge. And as I walked away down an ancient track, its flints rough underfoot, it felt as though a host of others walked with me unseen. Labourers, priests, worshippers, crowds of people who once flocked to these plains, making them team with human life.
A row of white doves sat in the sunshine on the ridge of a tiled roof, their gleaming plumage contrasting with the green moss that grew in clumps and patches on the red tiles. The whole scene was a contrast to the one behind me where a tragedy had taken place.
There was a Canada goose floating upside down in the canal. The poor bird had presumably hit the nearby power lines and plummeted downwards, either yesterday evening or early this morning. I don’t know how it died, whether the impact or shock were sufficient to kill it, or whether it drowned when it landed in the water.
The tiny bird flew low across the canal, in a direct line from one bank to the other. It was a wren, and these distinctive birds have been very visible lately wherever I am. There’s been one running along a branch of a New Forest oak. There’s been another sitting in a tree in a Dartmoor valley, its tail cocked to produce the traditional profile.
And even when I don’t see them there’s the sound of their loud voices, generally giving the alarm call audibly enough to cover vast areas.
On the plain around Stonehenge it’s impossible to walk anywhere without seeing traces of early man. But there are signs of later man too, especially man (and woman) the gardener. There’s the line of the old railway near Larkhill, running now between high hedge banks laden with hazel and beech nuts, and overripe blackberries. Further along, near one end of the King Barrows, there are billowing masses of purple flowered Michaelmas daisies and spires of golden rod.
The fishers were out in force at the river. A pair of cormorants perched on the tips of the bare branches of a tall tree, surveying the scene below.
Here there were sudden splashes, and circles rippling outwards. Moorhens and little grebes dived down, then re-emerged further along, often still with a strand of weed in their beaks.
The swan pair, monarchs of the river, were beached on a gravel bank stretching out into the river. They were busy preening, occasionally rearing up and spreading out their wings.
It was a simple silhouette, black against the blue sky. The outline of a rook, standing on top of a telegraph pole, his beak open around a firmly clenched acorn. As I watched he laid it down on the flat wooden top and began to hammer at it with his beak.
It stood out conspicuously, creamy white against the damp russet leaves that covered the ground in the New Forest copse. It was like a strange sculpture, placed artistically to catch the eye. But it was one of the Clitocybe fungi that had emerged from the soil to hold up their waxy funnels, catching some of the leaves that fell around it this autumn.
Reeds and other water plants have colonised this jute ridge in the canal. It is one of many put in last year around a filling of mud, to protect the banks from the wash of the passing canal boats. The banks reform behind the barrier, and the existing plants colonise the new territory, protecting the regeneration of the whole area.
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I stood on the grassy mounds of Ladle Hill fort and looked across the valley below, which was once the pass between two hill forts. A solitary red kite hovered high over the gap.
Mist wreathed the top of Beacon Hill, where Lord Carnarvon, one of the discoverers of Tutankhamen’s tomb, lies in his own tomb on the hill fort there. Sheep were white splotches on the green slopes below it.
Here where I stood the splotches were black, where a host of crows were feeding on the ground and rising in synchronised flight to swirl on the wind. It looked as though the strong gusts were sending the birds tossing and turning, but they were riding the currents, swept up and down as if they were on a roller coaster.
It was like driving through a dark wet tunnel, passing under the overhanging branches of the New Forest oaks late at night. A few sodden golden leaves lay along the lane edges. Suddenly a tiny leaf seemed to spring up, as if caught by an invisible breeze. But it was immediately obvious that it was a little frog, golden in the headlights, who leaped in great bounds across the lane, jumping high each time.
A little further on another frog sat on the grass verge as if contemplating the crossing. Beyond him a third frog was jumping in much lower, shorter bounds, in the opposite direction, from left to right across the lane this time.
The constant rain during the day must have brought them out, presumably from a nearby ditch or pond.
The New Forest donkeys of Fritham Plain had moved over to Bramshaw Telegraph. We first realised this when we slowed to join a queue of traffic edging past a couple of donkeys in the middle of the road. They were calmly licking at the surface, ignoring the cars around them and watched by a couple of companions who were desultorily grazing the grass on the verges.
As we finally set out on our nearby walk more of the donkeys emerged, including the familiar tapestry-patterned one who identifies the group, and a couple of large-eyed foals.
A thick carpet of beech nut husks lay along the old drove road that led up the flank of the downs and round the side of the hill fort. A sweet smell of rotting apples filled the air as I walked, coming from the small green fruit globes that were scattered over the beech husks. Apple trees are dotted alongside the path, relics of past users of this path, the shepherds who brought their flocks up in the summer and down in the winter, the riders, and more lately the recreational walkers.
The flock rose almost as one from the stubble field, moving in a low dipping flight towards the edge of the green ride up to the downland ridge. A persistent chirping heralded their approach, the sound fading as the linnets settled down to feed on the downy thistle heads that created a pale drift under the hedge. There must have been about a hundred of the birds, their numbers increasing annually from the one that was first spotted here some years ago.
Sunlight lit the bleached grasses stretching across Newtown Common. The path wound through their golden masses, below swathes of faded heather. Stands of silver birch shone brightly white, their leaves discs a gleaming yellow. A solitary great tit alighted on a grass stem, his black head vivid but his yellow chest almost bleached in the brightness as he clung there for a few seconds like a woodpecker on a tree trunk.
Leaves swirled lazily down from the beech trees and danced like animated pebbles along the track through the New Forest. Bracket fungi climbed the trunk of a decaying oak tree like a ladder, and hung suspended like viewing platforms from the top of an almost dead beech trunk. Bright red berries clustered thickly on holly bushes alongside the track. Bright red showed too beside it where two fly agarics pushed their way through the fallen leaves.
At the top of a rise it took me a moment to realise that I wasn’t seeing yet another bleached tree trunk, stretching its bare branches upwards. It was a fallow stag, standing for an instant perfectly still, staring at us, before it leaped away into cover.
There was constant movement beneath the chestnut trees that are prolific in one of the common’s plantation. There was an odd flash of colour, sometimes of a white tail, sometimes of a grey body. Occasionally it was just a blur of speeding animal.
Squirrels were thronging the area and as we walked on the reason for their presence in such numbers soon became obvious. The prickly husks of sweet chestnuts lay everywhere. Some were just open a slit, exposing the brown fruit within. Many were torn wide open, stripped bare of their contents. Here and there a plump brown nut lay on the sepia brown leaves, overlooked in the richness of the feast.
Leaves patterned the surface of the canal, drifting slowly down towards the lock. Most lay flat, but a few were curled upwards like tiny coracles and Bryn, my young Border collie, watched them closely to make sure they weren’t a new kind of water bird.
A stand of inkcap fungus gleamed white in the grass beside the towpath, looking just like a group of miniature bewigged judges in earnest conversation.
A blur of movement escaped Bryn’s notice as he gazed across the water at a scene like a mediaeval painting, where a white ram stood forever still in a thicket. Ahead of me a long lithe brown form flashed sinuously across the path and under the hedgerow. Far too big for a rat, I think it may have been an otter disturbed by our approach along this quiet stretch of water where spraint has been recently recorded.
Moss-covered banks ran straight in stretches between the oak and beech trees that grow in ancient splendour south of Lyndhurst in the heart of the New Forest. Sometimes they are remnants of plantation boundaries from earlier centuries, edged with shallow indentations that were once deep ditches, both intended to keep deer and ponies away from young saplings. Sometimes they are more ancient still, as they are here, the palings of a long vanished park, perhaps related to the nearby hunting lodge.
And further on, opening up among the trees, are wide green lawns where the oaks and beeches stand well apart as if they are still gracing parkland. But now the bracken colonises a lot of the space beneath them, already a rich bronze against the verdant backdrop. Ponies graze on the still nutritious grass, and shelter beneath the tree canopies they have trimmed as neatly as a trained gardener.
And as we picked our way along a new route I heard the sound of deep barking, as if the hounds in the long gone hunting packs were still ranging through the trees. As the sound grew closer I began to wonder just how big those dogs were. And then I recognised the sound and brought Bryn hastily back to my side to put him on his lead. The deep booming barks that reverberated around us were the defiant bellows of a rutting stag on a hidden lawn among the trees, daring all comers to challenge his rights here.
It’s difficult to judge the distance of this sound, which I’ve heard many times over the years, although this was the first time this autumn. But it sounded alarmingly close, and I was aware that contenders might be drawn in from any quarter to defy the lawn’s holder. So we moved along the overgrown ride carefully, both of us watchful, Bryn for anything that moved, me for any sign of a large antlered form among the trees or in the bracken along the plantation edge. I was relieved and sorry when the bellowing became fainter behind us, and then died away altogether.
The fly agaric among the moss and leaves of the New Forest ride had been sampled by some of the woodland inhabitants. Some had been sliced like a cake, others had been knocked over with holes drilled into the scarlet cap.
A couple of human figures moved silently among the trees, each clutching a basket as they searched for edible fungi. We’d passed several outcrops of penny buns, the only one apart from field and parasol mushrooms that I can safely recognise. Further back we’d passed a man crouching along a track, who may just have been studying a fungus as I first thought, but who was more probably collecting too. And nearby passed the pale form of a naked rambler, drifting serenely through the trees, with not even a basket to encumber his hands.
The red admiral lay flattened on the ground, battered by the strong winds that were rampaging through the New Forest. It didn’t flicker as I bent over it, wondering if it was dead or if I should try to move it off the path where it was likely to be trodden on.
Then a gust of wind caught it, tossing it onto a pile of leaves, and the faded wings twitched and closed. If I hadn’t seen the movement I wouldn’t have known the butterfly was there, camouflaged as it was by the dead leaves around it on the ground. A second or so later the butterfly spread its wings and flew off, deeper into the shelter of the trees.
The yellow and gold leaves were flying off the trees that lined the lane across Hungerford Common. But rather than lying in swathes across the grass the wind was blowing them into the declivities. So the shallow bowls of earlier diggings, perhaps associated with wartime activity here, are full of glowing colour. And a track worn through the turf has filled with the leaves, weaving a bright path through the green.
Light raindrops just moistened my face as I walked over Newtown Common. It was completely still and silent, the colours muted by the wet atmosphere. The ranks of long-bleached moor grass stood motionless until I brushed past them, when they touched me with their cool damp stems. Suddenly, startlingly, the silence was broken by the piercing yaffle of a green woodpecker.
The worn single tracks were made by the resident foxes and deer and used by walkers. They still wind across the cleared patches of Newtown Common, through the wiry strands of the regenerating heather and gorse. A group of volunteers was out here recently, pulling out bracken, silver birch seedlings and invasive species that could once again overwhelm these open spaces. Lacking grazing animals, the open heathland had reverted in places to scrub, and wide stretches of this have been returned instead with human help to its earlier heathland habitat.
But the process of development, heathland to scrub to woodland, continues if it isn’t controlled. Further afield, I’ve already found several bright green patches of one of the invasive plants, from South America I think, spreading out in tightly woven mats. When I first walked here it grew in thick ranks along one of the rides, where it has now been eradicated.
The pools in the old gravel quarries were hidden from sight by the surrounding trees. But the geese knew they were there. As I passed by, first one skein flew silently in, then another, and another, each lowering in height to disappear behind the trees.
The geese were just distinctive dark silhouettes against the sky, but I couldn’t tell what kind they were. Nor could I tell whether they were just arriving from a long migration flight or whether they were coming in from a more local night roost. But they clearly knew where they wanted to be.
Stonehenge stood quite alone on its site as we drove westwards. Not a person was there and the stones seemed strangely larger, more impressive, without a crowd surging around them.
A line of crows stood silently on one of the capping stones. It was as if they were waiting for a procession to pass beneath them and for the show to begin.
Further along some of their brethren were more active, weaving rapidly in and out, up and down, through the tumulus mounds that line the slope of the downland here.
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