A strand of wild redcurrants hung like a blood-red beaded necklace in the Hampshire woodland.
There seem to be ants everywhere. In the Dartmoor woods I expect to find the nests have grown, and to find insects seething over them. But they were in the cottage garden too, turning a wide patch of ground black as they worked backwards and forwards over it in their thousands. They were only around, thankfully, for the day, so must have been newly emerged from eggs, but it was still long enough for Bryn, my young Border collie, to appear beside me with a swarm of ants coating one side of his body. Fortunately they were all removed with a quick brushing, but he did get bitten a couple of times on his tummy.
The bracken on Dartmoor has spread and grown upwards too, high enough to hide the stock that pass through it to grazing sites. The sheep are sometimes visible, disguised at first as granite-like boulders. But the ponies and cows can emerge quite unexpectedly from under the fronds, only sometimes heralded by a faint shivering through the greenery.
The hay fields on the Dartington estate have been shorn, the crop gathered into huge circular bales, scattered around like giant bleached domino pieces. The river Dart flowed by fast, the banks spattered with the pink and white of balsam. A kingfisher flashed past and a curlew called, the only sound to be heard other than the faint murmur of the water as it rippled alond, glinting gold in the sunlight, and the rustling of the trees in the slight breeze.
I wake to the usual sounds of the Dartmoor village. The cockerel crowing, faint but persistent, from up the valley. The baaing of the sheep as they trot down the lane into the village in the early morning, with a brief diversion into the cottage garden to bleat under my bedroom window. And as a local farmer passes at 6am, regular as an alarm clock, there grows and fades the sound of his collies barking repeatedly from the back of his Landrover as he drives up to and by the cottage.
Swallows still sweep over the Dartmoor fields, feeding on the insects that are attracted to the cows. In one field there are lovely black speckled cows enhancing the view from the Dartmoor lane across to Widecombe church. Flashes of movement show through the bushes below the herd, the blur of black and white speed that is a working collie, the white huddle of sheep that he’s speeding on their way out of the field they’ve invaded, and the creamy mass of the cows there, keeping out of the way of the action.
The Dartmoor river runs golden brown, almost hidden, secret, under its screening of leaves. A kingfisher is a flash of bright turquoise, as he flies down the Bovey, and is out of sight in a brief beautiful second.
The splashing of ball games with Bryn, my young Border collie, brings a curious audience out of the banks on the far side of the river. Four Dartmoor ponies, chocolate brown and gorgeous, emerge one after another from the depths of the bracken beneath the willows. They stand quite still for a moment or two, just watching us, before strolling upriver and turning back into the screening of greenery.
It’s the time of village fetes, and the Dartmoor villages have festooned their greens or playing fields with stalls and bunting. Up on the hills the whortleberries have appeared, tiny black globes peeking shyly from under the leaves of the low plants. I’ve always thought what a back-breaking job it must have been to pick them, but the moorlanders never missed a trick – I’ve just seen a picture of a whortleberry comb, whose wooden teeth were drawn through the bushes, pulling the berries into a box attached to the comb.
The valley runs from Hartland Abbey to the north coast through wooded slopes to the sea. Bell heather is bright here, at the entrance to one of the winding paths through the trees, where a speckled toadstool stands like an eccentric pillar.
The Dartmoor Pony Society held its international convention here this week. There were people from all over the world, full of the joys of their Dartmoor ponies, exchanging knowledgeable details of breed lines over tea and scones, keen to ensure the future of this much-loved animal. And there are still ex-miners who can remember the ponies that came from the moors to work in the mines, arriving as foals, living permanently underground, retiring to Welsh farmlands where their blinded eyes could no longer see the greenery, but they did once again feel the wind on their backs and smell the scent of the open air. To see the ponies out on the moor now, part of the wildness of the land, essential to the landscape we see and enjoy, it’s hard to remember that these ponies still have to earn their owners an income to make their continued existence possible.
A grasshopper sprang into view, before freezing among the plant stems, presumably hoping to be overlooked as I passed by.
The Dartmoor sheets of heather are only just beginning to show their full purple glory. A week ago there were just fringes of colour along the roadside and around the old mining pits. In many places the bracken has grown so tall and lushly that it screens out the lower plant. But the slopes of Haytor have suddenly turned a regal colour, interspersed here and there with splashes of golden gorse.
The little speckled bird comes regularly to sit in the Dartmoor garden, on the wall, in the hedge, watching me expectantly. One of his brethren seems to appear wherever I go. There was one in the branches of an alder when Bryn and I played ball in the river Bovey. There was another that came to perch on the picnic table in the grounds of Dartington Hall café. And there’s one in my own garden, who sits in the shade of the viburnam when I have tea in the rose arbour.
They’re a familiar shape, these little birds, small with a plump rounded breast. But that breast is speckled as if the birds are pretending to be thrushes. Yet the breast will soon be red, making it clear that the little birds are robins, with the confidence of their breed as they come in the expectation of crumbs or even better fare.
The beeches have just a tinge of coppery gold in their leaves as we leave the West Country, giving us an early harbinger of the coming autumn.
The recently cleared patches of open common in Hampshire are bright with purple heather too – both the paler shade of ling, the common heather, and the richer hues of bell heather. Here and there bright yellow gorse flowers light up stretches of the ground.
The greenery is lush around the Hampshire common, both the undergrowth and the tree canopies. The berries that stud a holly branch arching over the path are green too. The main splashes of brightness come from the orange-red clusters of rowan, and there are glimpses of yellow hypericum and pink willowherb, where a few remaining flowers peek out of the shrubbery.
The canalside is bright with late autumn flowers, chiefly stands of purple loosestrife. The last flowering of banks of hemp agrimony still colours a stretch on the far side of the canal.
Creeping in are the invaders, Himalayan balsam and orange balsam, cosying up together near one of the bridges.
Cows and horses were out in force on the open New Forest plain at Bramshaw Telegraph. Around them the vast sweeps of heather are turning purple, creating just a faint wash of the rich colour that will soon appear. There’s a faint hum of bees, which will soon grown to a much louder buzz. The beehives are in position in a holly copse, so in the autumn I’ll expect to see New Forest honey on sale in the villages.
By early afternoon the horses have retreated to the shade of a similar copse, but the cows are still out in the full sun, many lying down, but several still grazing.
The fallow doe was grazing peacefully on a New Forest ride, deep in the heart of the trees. She soon became aware of us, me and Bryn, my young Border collie, and turned to watch us walk carefully by. We were heading for a picnic spot just out of her sight, the bank of a stream beyond a glade. We were almost there when a fallow buck burst out of cover to stand quite still, watching us and ready to move. He was young, but with an impressive head of antlers. We froze, Bryn at the alert, and I glanced aside to see if there were more deer hidden in the thick bracken. When I looked back the buck had vanished as if he’d never been there.
The bracken here has grown as thickly and well as the Dartmoor variety. It seems even higher, easily concealing creatures as large as the deer, so I walked very carefully and noisily along the rides through the overwhelming stands of bracken that spread under the oaks and beeches. I certainly didn’t want to surprise any more at close quarters.
The foal was curious as we walked along a New Forest ride. It was mainly Bryn he watched, and the two of them stood staring at each other until the foal wandered back to his mother. He moved to graze behind a tree, but couldn’t resist peeking round it from time to time to see if we were still there.
Most of the horses seem to keep out in the open, with only a few foals visible. And none of the ones I’ve seen are New Forest ponies.
Green berries thickly stud many of the holly trees on the fringes of the New Forest woodland at Bramshaw Telegraph.
Nearby clusters of rosily ripening apples glow at the end of a branch. It looks as though it’s going to be a good harvest for both.
The clump of thistles was exploding in puffs of floating down until the air above was thick with it. I presumed a crowd of birds, possibly sparrows, possibly goldfinches, was feeding there, but I was too far away to see them.
It was raining heavily on Newtown Common, but volunteers were out, resolute in their waterproofs. They were busily cutting down the new growth saplings, chiefly silver birch with a few alder buckthorn. These have grown up quickly over the area of common that was cleared a few years ago, and would soon inhibit the growth of the heather and gorse that are blooming there at the moment. The volunteers are, of course, doing what stock, either cattle or ponies, could have done at a much earlier stage by eating up the seedlings.
The blackbird on my shed roof in the early morning looked at first like Bella, the resident female. Then I realised it was a young bird, most of its back clad in long smooth adult feathers, but its plump chest still in softer speckled juvenile plumage. It stayed close to the overhanging berberis, occasionally popping into the branches to seize a berry snack, and its beady eyes were constantly watchful. They were often cocked towards the study window, where I sat looking out over the back garden.
I erred in the other direction in the late afternoon when I saw the blackbird that comes regularly to sit in the elder in the front garden. This bird I thought at first was another youngster progressing to full adult plumage. But this was a scrawny bird, with a virtually bald neck and head. After a while I realised it was Billy, the adult male, reappearing after moulting with new black feathers on his body and little prickly stubbles over his bald neck and head where the feathers have still to grow. He looked not at all like his usual sleek self, and was very thin and anxious.
We were relatively sheltered from the heavy rain in the Hampshire woodland. But the scrub and bushes under the beeches were very wet, and as we turned into the steep path down the slope towards the village we could see how much surface water there had recently been. Water had carved a stream bed down the centre of the path, cutting through the layer of mulch that lay there from fallen beech leaves and nut husks. It was a wide bed, dry now, and half way down the path it fortunately branched off to run away at an angle. Otherwise I would have expected to find a new pool cut out where the path emerged into the field below.
Old Man’s Beard, the wild clematis vitalba, drapes the hedgerow like wisps of fallen cloud. Dusky bloomed sloes peek shyly out from beneath narrow leaves, while the scarlet hips of wild roses vie with the haws for the most flamboyant display. The rustling of leaves, the trembling of branches betrays a bird working its way through them, possibly a blackbird, possibly a thrush, feasting avidly on the bounty.
The buzzard circled quite low, just above the height of the trees edging the field and crowning the hill in its centre. It was patrolling over the stubble and straw left after the recent cutting of the wheat crop. There was little cover left for the animals and birds that had sheltered in the crop while it stood, but a small stand of it had been spared, no doubt to provide cover for soon-to-be-released pheasant poults. I couldn’t help wondering how many creatures were sheltering in it now, avoiding the searching eyes of the buzzard above.
The overwhelming lush greenness of the Hampshire woodland is being overtaken with the colours and fruits of autumn, especially along its lower edge, where it borders a wide field margin.
The red and black berry clusters of the wayfaring tree, viburnam lantana, dangle among felted silvery leaves. There are more red berries, hanging in looser clusters among the more delicate green leaves of the guelder rose, viburnam opulus. These leaves are now turning a lovely rosy pink, similar to nearby elder leaves. And most common of all, if less conspicuous, unless you’re a squirrel, are the pale green unripe hazelnuts in their frilly cases.
White flashes constantly flashed in the gloom beneath the hedgerow on Hungerford common. They came from the gleaming bellies of the swallows swooping through the shady areas where the cattle had rested overnight. Insects were presumably prolific there and the birds were feasting while they could, for they’re probably already preparing for their long autumn flight to Africa.
Insects are feasting too while they can, wasps, bees and several kinds of flies. There are the juicy berries of elder, gleaming black against their green leaves.
Ivy flowers are just beginning to open, and there’s another flowering of white comfrey along the towpath, emerging as the last flowers of greater willowherb open on the very tops of the plants’ tall stems.
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