A party of linnets dipped and rose through the air, their light twittering floating on the air as they flew away from a stand of seeding thistles.
A squirrel squatted frozen in the centre of the lane, only recognisable when he unwound his tail and sat up before he scampered off, a green acorn clenched firmly in his teeth.
A mare and her yearling foal gently nibbled each other’s backs, standing side by side, almost identical in colour.
The first leaves drifted slowly down, one by one, from the beeches overhanging the lane. In bad weather the cows on this part of the moor shelter under these trees – today they were out in the open, grazing beyond the gorse, oblivious to the light drizzle.
The scent of honey filled the air as I walked over Hameldown through the thick swathes of flowering gorse and heather. From time to time a narrow white head popped out of the cover, elongated eyes staring at us under curving horns as a sheep watched us pass. To one side of us two slender weathered larch poles stuck out of the tapestried ground like enormous needles left among the threads. In reality they are the only remnants of the poles erected here to deter enemy gliders from landing during World War II.
To the east, as the sun began to sink lower in the evening sky, were the granite outcrops and tors I have so often walked to and round and over. Bonehill looking like a rocky molehill compared to the towering height and bulk of more distant Haytor. The line of Chinkwell and Honeybag Tors leading to the sheer Greator cliff and the toothy mass of Houndtor. And further along still was the rocky ridge that I know so well, leading to the Bowerman’s Nose, standing sentinel above Manaton in the valley below.
To the west, the evening light glittered off the sea in a low curve between silhouetted headlands, creating a bowl of shining silver. The angle of sunlight slanting onto the slopes of the moor showed clear lines of earlier enclosures and fields and pathways below the cropped turf.
And there beside us, almost hidden by banks of thickly packed gorse and heather, their lovely colours drawing the eye, was a tinner’s leat. Another of the many signs left by people who were here centuries earlier, seeing the same tors and the same view of the sea as I do now.
Tangled roots lay in wait to snare my feet, boggy ground was ready to suck at my boots, spiky hawthorn twigs clutched at my hair as I wove my way through the dense scrub just above the Becka Brook on Dartmoor. I was picking a route from one well-known path to another, trying to link the two in a circular walk.
Bryn, my young Border collie, was in his element, but I was struggling, wondering what had made me decide to do this. And then the sound of falling water led us to the dams, and steep-sided lakes of still water that lay below them, fringed with trees. Beyond the moor rose steeply past Holwell Lawn towards the crown of Houndtor, outlined on the horizon. It was completely quiet and peaceful, apart from my laboured breathing, as I gazed on this well-hidden scene, one that would have thrilled an eighteenth-century Romantic gardener.
Gorse and heather grew thickly across the slopes of the Black Hill, east of Haytor. I was surrounded by purple and gold as I walked to one of the cairns, the pyramidal clusters of stones. In the late morning sunshine the silence was filled with the sound of bees.
The walk didn’t start too well when we arrived in the car park to be mobbed by ponies. A mare was resting on the turf beyond the car park, her foal standing beside her, pawing at the ground with one impatient hoof, anxious to be doing something. And as soon as we arrived she stood up, not to move away, but to drift into the car park towards us.
The three grey ponies in the lower car park were faster, crossing the lane to surround the car almost before the engine was turned off. Bryn, my Border collie, wasn’t happy to have long noses pressed against the windows and began to bark. The ponies were fascinated, pressing in closer to watch him, working him up into a frenzy.
A minute or so later two ponies decided we weren’t worth their effort and each drifted across to a separate car to inspect the driver’s door. One remained, resting her head on the bonnet of our car.
The speed of their reaction was an indicator of how much they’ve come to expect attention from people in cars, and, more probably, food. This can be dangerous for the ponies – who can be fed the wrong food, eat discarded wrappers, and simply become too habituated to cars to be safe. And it can be dangerous for people – ponies can bite, especially mares with young foals to protect.
The sound of water is never far away in the lower reaches of the moor. There was the wide shallow fast-moving Bovey, spread over golden gravel and around massive grey granite boulders. It sang as it went, tumbling over low falls, winding rapidly through narrow gullys.
Apart from the sound of water the valley was quiet as I stood on the narrow stone bridge across the river. On one side the trees rose steeply, almost hiding the grassy track into the village. On the other the ground climbed slowly beside the river, until it too suddenly went steeply upwards in the curve of a bracken-covered hill.
Nearby, a small stream ran in steps down the hill, and was completely hidden under the bracken. I wouldn’t have known it was there if it hadn’t been chuckling as it hurried towards the river. But the big bronze dragonfly darting over the greenery certainly knew it was.
There are a few coal-black calves near their coal-black mothers on the slopes of Haytor. The cluster of white belted Galloways that graze nearby are often more noticeable. Yesterday they were gathered together for inspection by their owners near the lower lane. Hooves and ears were being checked with great thoroughness and each cow seemed to wait her turn with undisturbed placidity.
Ponies are also being groomed and clipped in the farmyard nearby, in preparation for the forthcoming Widecombe Fair. All week men have been working in the fair field, which has mushroomed with a crop of white marquees and rings of coloured markers.
A flock of sheep came wandering down the road towards it, inspecting field entrances as they passed, as if trying to arrive in good time for the fair.
The granite Dartmoor wall glistened with mica chips. In one place they suddenly seemed to move, gleaming translucent in the sunshine.
As I looked closer I saw that they were flying ants, swarming thickly over the surface of the wall. They had erupted out of a couple of tiny volcano-shaped earthen mounds in the crevices between the rocks that formed the wall, and were lingering for a few seconds in a seething mass as they unfurled their gauzy wings.
I had to fend the earlier fliers off Bryn, my Border collie, and off my shirt and out of my hair. We retreated to a safer distance and within a couple of minutes they had all gone and the wall once again stood where it has for decades, with not an ant in sight.
From the grassy summit slopes of the Hampshire hill fort the land below stretched out for miles. A pair of red kites glided beneath us as we walked along the track that led diagonally downwards through stands of red-berried hawthorn. The birds drifted on the air currents, their backs gleaming brown in the sunshine. Then there was a flash of white from their undercarriages as they twisted and rose momentarily higher than us, inspecting us from above.
But it wasn’t their eerie scream that dominated the scene. The predominant sound was the cry of the seagulls that were flying in to settle on the field at the foot of the hill. Its surface was gradually turning from stubbly sepia to a rich brown as a tractor worked slowly and steadily around it, harrowing the soil.
The scents are always good on the slopes of the hill fort, but today Bryn, my Border collie, was very excited as he followed them. Yet he was well away from me, heading for the gate, when the deer burst out the bushes just in front of me.
There were a pair of them, big and golden, a young fallow stag and a hind. They bounded away in great leaps as we stood and stared at them. Bryn seemed stunned that he had gone past them without noticing. I was just relieved I wasn’t closer to them when they appeared. I’m usually very cautious about disturbing hidden deer, but this time I was off my guard, as Bryn had shown no interest in that particular stand of shrubs.
A green woodpecker called frequently across the common. Yaffle, is what my father called the bird, which seems to describe perfectly the wild laughing sound it makes.
It was still early and spider webs were exposed everywhere, glistening with moisture. They decorated a small fir tree as if Christmas was coming early, and they hung between heather and gorse like limp bunting left after an earlier celebration. Most of all they swung like nets between the grass stems. And of course that is just what they are, not nets laid out to dry, but nets waiting there for the catches of the day.
Ghostly white shapes loomed out of the misty morning as we walked over the common. They were the white fluffy seed heads of rosebay willow herb, soon to be drifting across the land around them in wispy skeins.
There were more solid white shapes, small and round, that had pushed through the soil and leaf mould under the trees. Puffballs of all sizes, ranging from marble-like to imitation golfball, all perfectly shaped like miniature Fylingdales radar globes.
The water level has gone down in the canal, revealing parts of the bank that are usually submerged. And there, in one spot, was a range of neat little holes drilled into the drying soil, no doubt the home range of a water rat.
Just above this exposed subterranean home were four hives, sitting snugly in the middle of a field, facing the canal. The bees from them must have been enjoying the pollen and nectar from the flowers that grew along the banks.
Today as I walked along the far bank the air was alive with buzzing. It certainly came from bees, glorying in the bounty of the abundant ivy flowers that were just opening as other flowers came to the end of their life cycle. But these were mainly wild bees, gathering in unusual numbers.
Seven large mink-coloured swans drifted on the river. They kept in a tight knit group as they preened their wings or just surveyed the scene.
They’re this year’s cygnets, and I’ve seen them since they were tiny, gradually getting larger and larger at each viewing.
I’ve seen more cygnet survivors on two rivers I regularly walk by than I ever have before. Conversely, the number of mallard ducks seems to be smaller – I saw fewer ducklings in the spring, and see fewer adults now. The ones I saw this week were almost totally camouflaged on their perching site, a rusting old pontoon. So too was the duck who seemed to be on guard nearby, standing on a branch of a low-hanging willow, only exposed by the white flash of his chest.
It looked as though a giant had spilled his glass of red wine over the chalk bank beside the road as he strode on his way to build nearby Stonehenge. The bank was streaked with deep crimson where the dogwood is taking its autumn colour.
As we drove further on towards Cornwall the green hedges were laced with white convolvulus trumpets, as if we were to be greeted with a fanfare. And shiny green globes studded the rusting branches of the horse chestnuts as if they had been hung with decorations to welcome us.
Down on The Lizard at last we walked high on an inland ridge between fields, looking over the Meneage. On one side of us feathery-tipped maize shivered in the breeze. On the other side huge leaves of spring greens crowded together, creating a great quilted block of colour over which sunlight and shadow created ever-changing patterns.
The green water was blown into ripples by the wind. The oaks that grew on the slope above and below the path to Tremayne Quay shivered as it passed. And its sudden and unexpected appearances created music in the quietness that surrounded this stretch of the Helford River. The rippling waves washed up against the banks with a soothing repetitive shushing and the leaves began to whisper around us.
Then suddenly the wind disappeared again. The retreating tidal waters of the Helford smoothed out. The jostling trees stilled. And silence fell once more, not even broken by the cry of a bird.
The gulls had decided the weather was too foggy for flying. They were settled in all sorts of places around the bays around Polbream Cove and Housel Bay, to the east of old Lizard Point. A pair sat on a lichened ledge above the cove, with a bird’s eye view across to the Polpeor café. A flock had settled whitely on the black rock stacks of Penolver. Below them the waves rolled, rearing up in surf-crowned curves by tiny islets.
Beyond, the sea and the sky were hidden by an opaque off-white blanket of cloud.
It was about an hour after we started walking that the boom of the foghorn sounded around us. It was repeated time after time, growing louder as we returned along the lane from the village towards Lizard lighthouse. And now flashes of light were visible from its heights, warning passing ships of the dangerous rocks below.
Swallows dipped and dived at great speed all around me. The waving grasses of the meadow near the Lizard cottage had been cut on Monday and turned into neat rows. This afternoon the dried grass was being gathered and rolled into black plastic-covered round bales that were scattered over the open space.
At first I thought the swallows were feasting on insects disturbed by the harvesting. But as we walked on through the fields of maize and spring greens, still there was a host of the birds darting around us. There must have been well over a hundred in the compass of two fields, presumably gorging as well as they could before they embarked on their long journey over the sea.
Mist clouded the air and muffled the sound of a boat out on the Helford River. Green water rippled silently into Frenchman’s Creek as the tide came in.
Thick green growth hid most of the creek from the path that ran through the trees along its bank. Bracken and brambles tumbled over the slope, ivy tendrils dangled from the thick strands that bound many of the trees and shrubs together. Stands of holly guarded the water, oak tree trunks were thickly mossed, their branches woven closely into a screen, almost hiding the scene below.
But here and there was a gap, a window, with a view over the quiet creek, and the bleached wood of fallen trees stranded in the water, like the skeletons of long-abandoned ships. Nothing else stirred, there was only the movement of the water. A curlew called once, close by, as it flew inland. Otherwise no other bird cried out and not even the wind rustled the leaves. There was only the faint sound of the water, creeping higher up the shore below the path.
Elephant grass waved its pale feathers in the sea breeze. It was a conspicuous landmark above Housel Bay as we walked east on the cliff path from old Lizard Point. As we neared them we found lilies, both pink and white, growing nearby in a strip through the rough grass and blackthorn bushes. And there, further on, were the last orange flowers of day lilies fringing a dip in the slope.
All of these were garden escapes, colonising the cliff side. They weren’t yet as prolific as the mesembryanthemum (ice plant) and carpobrutus (hottentot fig) that carpet the cliffs around old Lizard Point. These are so well established that when they are in flower they turn the rocks above Polpeor and Polbream Bays pink and yellow, and rusty orange in the autumn with the changing leaf colour.
The wide open space of Predannack Down lay all around us, bright in the sunshine that had burned through the morning mist. Highland cattle lurked in tiny patches of pasture, their long horns imitating bleached tree branches peaking over the gorse bushes. Purple heather bells still flowered over the tops of the plant’s wiry clumps, and occasionally draped themselves over a granite outcrop.
We took a secluded path below the old airfield, sheltered by brambles and sloes growing in great thickets and heating up nicely in the sunshine. Faded late butterflies lingered on the ripe blackberries, dozy in the warmth of this hidden path. There was a painted lady who’d lost most of her colour, and a large white whose ink dipped wing tips had become a faint grey. Neither of them was at all disturbed by our passing close by.
The car headlights cut out the line of the road like a tunnel between the tall Cornish hedges. Cloud screened the stars so it was in the headlights that I saw the badger, clearly visible, its white markings vivid as it trotted down the road, tail swinging behind its plump flanks.
Suddenly it turned to face the car, full in the headlights, its eyes glinting amber as it stared at us. Only when I dipped the lights did it decide to move away, trotting along the edge of the road and finally over the verge into the woodland. Or perhaps this was the route it meant to take all along.
Certainly the signs of badger activity are very marked here. There’s the deep slide down the bank into the long drive leading to the Lizard cottage. There’s the discarded remains of two maize cobs on a field margin, still soft from chewing. And above all there’s the interest Bryn, my Border collie, has in the scents he finds on the drive, the fields and the woodland, particularly in the early morning and evening.
Watching him as he traces one of the scents across a field it’s possible to follow every move, every twist and turn, of the creature that left it. And in the early evening it’s most likely that it’s a fox, perhaps the one that seems to have taken the tennis ball that Bryn dropped in the drive one morning.
Sandy paths twist and curve round and over the dunes, brushing through the arching marram grass.
Adders love the warm ledges and dips, which are sheltered from the sea wind and strangely silent after the sound of the waves on the coastal side of the dunes.
The adders eat the newts that share a pool here with toads. The newts and toads feast on the snails that abound on the grasses. And all of this living, basking, eating goes on around the more obvious inhabitants of the dunes – the rabbits who’ve dug their burrows in the sand and in the grassy dips.
It was a seagull highway, with two-way traffic. The birds flew directly across in front of the promontory on the edge of Cadgwith Cove where we sat in front of the old huer’s hut. Just once a gannet dropped down steeply, diving into the sea with a small explosion of water. There would have been many more of them if it had been feasting on the pilchards the huer used to watch for from this point.
Most of the gulls were flying westward over the turquoise waters of the cove into the pale yellow and pink light of the sinking sun. Generally they went singly, rising to follow the landward edge of the cliff face, white markers against the green and grey. They climbed upwards as the rocky stacks grew taller. Then they rounded the nose of the western promontory, suddenly black arrows against the evening sky as they moved ever further westwards toward Old Lizard Point.
The surf-fringed waves rippled gently up the Cornish beach in curving sweeps, like lace-edged ruffles. Just inside, as if embroidered on, were small black and white birds. But these were sanderlings, winter visitors, and far too energetic to be still. They constantly darted hither and thither, probing the damp sand for worms and molluscs.
The great circular satellite dishes dominated the background, with the whirling arms of wind turbines behind them. In front stretched the heather-covered expanse of Goonhilly Down, and from its fringes rose a flock of birds, flying away black in the sunshine. As they turned, exposing their speckled breasts, I saw these were thrushes, and, I suspected, perhaps more winter visitors. I wasn’t close enough to be sure, but I thought they were fieldfares, who had been feeding on hawthorn berries from the stands that fringe the down here.
The sandy beach was patterned with strands and clumps of seaweed as the sea went out. It was almost as if it had taken a great breath, ready to blow it out and rush in again as the tide turned.
As the waves came running back up the level beach at Hayle the gulls were waiting. They stood in the shallow water, beaks towards the incoming sea, occasionally dipping down to drag up a piece of floating seaweed.
And soon the sanderlings were there too, running through the shallow water like clockwork toys. Even when they rose in flight they did it with perfect synchronisation, three of the birds taking of in a formation worthy of an aerial display team, with distinctive black and white blazes on their wings.
One bird ran ahead of the peak of a foam-fringed wave as it lapped eagerly at his feet. It was as if he was afraid of getting them wet. Or perhaps it was a game. Do birds play games? Only when the water finally touched his feet did the bird stop and let the water swirl around his ankles.
It sounded as if the sea was booming in a hollow cave as I approached the small gravelly beach at the foot of a horseshoe of high cliffs. But I had heard the sound before and knew what was making it.
There was another horseshoe of rocks in the water facing the beach, and the sea was swirling around these as I looked down. The surging turquoise water washed over submerged rocks, and great clumps of seaweed floated just under the surface. But there were other shapes too, seals, coming in slowly with the tide, one occasionally popping its sleek head out to see what was happening on the beach.
And it was only when I watched a seal haul out onto the gravel that I saw that others were already there. They were indistinguishable at first from the wide band of seaweed they lay in. But as more and more came out to lie on their side or on their back their pale blotched creamy bellies and flanks were more conspicuous.
But nowhere near as conspicuous as the two cream-furred babies that kept still at either end of the small beach, tucked among the rocks they seemed to imitate. One had earlier been suckling from his mother and now seemed to be sound asleep at the foot of the cliff.
A single seagull patrolled the edge of the small sandy crescent. He gradually extended his range along the fringe of the rocks and pools that create a broad band across the shingle beach in the far bay of Kennack Sands.
The waves rolled in white curves beyond the rocks, and between them were pools of clear water, left behind when the tide ebbed. The colours of the granite and serpentine were so bright they seemed to have been painted, and the seaweed waved its strands with an energy that it lacked when stranded on the shore. And over the rocks a bronze dragonfly flitted backwards and forwards.
The sea was aquamarine and turquoise below the seat on the cliffs, a bench tucked into a corner in the shelter of blackthorn hedges. The view was over Cadgwith Cove below, with a blue-hulled fishing boat chugging purposefully towards the beach, hidden from sight here, where its fellows were moored.
Suddenly, the bird flying past was conspicuously not a seagull or crow. It was at eye height, every ermine feather of its barred white and grey breast lit by the sun. And it was so close I could see the movement of its wing tip feathers as it moved them in flight. A kestrel, its yellow-rimmed eyes fixed on its purpose as it flew out of sight beyond the end of the hedge.
The insects bumbled around in a cloud as we left Kennack Sands and made our way into the sand dunes. We were among them before I realised that they were wild bees, focussed on a small face of sand, which had been drilled with tiny holes. They were Colletes bees, each with their own nest among the cluster of entrances.
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