We drove west through thick fog and coming out of the dimness towards us came a low-flying arrow of geese. They were only slightly darker than the mist, ghostly shapes that were totally silent, evenly spaced, wings beating in unison as they passed, seemingly just above the car roof.
The fog was still thick in the afternoon when we drove over the heights of Dartmoor. Sound was blanketed out and the colours of the bracken and heather and grass were dulled to shades of misty grey. Here and there, shapes were a slightly darker grey in the cloudiness, just distinguishable as ponies or cows. Only the sheep were clear, a bright white as they lay on the edge of the grey road.
The fog was less thick as we walked down from a Dartmoor tor, picking our way carefully on the steep path. The berries were brightly red in the holly trees that lined the narrow route, the bracken over the slopes was a deep rich russet. At a corner of the path ahead a long thin bleached branch rose picturesquely out of the bracken, and was pale against the holly behind it.
It was only when there was an indignant bellow and a startled bark that the branch moved and a tousled blonde head emerged from the undergrowth.
It was a large head, belonging to a Highland cow, and crowned with a splendid set of horns.
She stared in disbelief at the two dogs that stared back at her in surprise. They both came to heel when called, and the cow glared at us for a moment, before disappearing with a faint rustle into the high heaps of bracken on the slope.
The lichened granite blocks lining the edge of the road glittered in the foggy gloom as we drove cautiously over the heights of Dartmoor. The thick bracken created high banks behind the stones, the russet deeply toned in the car lights. It was a shock to realise that the extra-large russet shape protruding almost into the road was actually the rear of a cow, straddling the stones to enjoy a particularly juicy patch of grass.
A bright light shone through the fog on Dartmoor’s heights, like the piercing eye of a stooping Cyclops who had one arm sticking out awkwardly by its side. It actually came from the cab of a digger, whose arm was still. A man in overalls was working here, as he has been for at least a month, carefully rebuilding the dry stone wall that separates pasture from the lane and the open moor. In that time he has created a long stretch of beautifully fitting granite walling.
Gusts of wind brought the leaves drifting down in the Dartmoor woodland. The yellow leaves of the silver birches stood out vividly, like bursts of fireworks on the trees and in surrealist whirls on the other russet leaves on the ground.
The raindrops that came down fell in a different pattern to the leaves, plopping on the ground around us with an erratic musicality. They glittered in drops on the leaves like little lights waiting to be lit. Occasionally they fell in a pool of water and floated briefly over the sodden leaves below before bursting, gone in an instant.
In spite of the damp gloominess in the Dartmoor woodland the paths were highlighted by vivid banks of wet russet bracken. The ants’ nests that had been built here and there beside the path were still now. Their surfaces were no longer alive with busy workers, but were increasingly hidden by a growing layer of fallen leaves. One of those leaves had attached to it a perfect oak apple, stippled with red.
The bronzed leaves fell into the striped whortleberry stems too, making them look like strange miniature bushes overladen with heavy growth. On the ground they made the moss growing over the granite stones look brighter than ever.
The thick fog that blankets Dartmoor creates new views of familiar images, with the background obscured. A silver birch, bare of leaves, is stripped of its colour, and its shape becomes strangely sharpened, like a dark print stamped on a grey page. Gate posts stand out sharply, still marking the entrance to a long deserted building whose uprights loom beyond.
There was little sound on a walk earlier last the week other than occasional raindrops plopping on the ground, so I was startled to hear a familiar booming roar, the sound of a rutting stag, in the Dartmoor woodland. It seemed to come from very nearby, although I reassured myself that the call carries well as I put Bryn on his lead and went carefully on, scanning the shrubbery.
This happened twice during the week in Devon, the second time in woodland around a reservoir, this time in heavy rain. It’s a call I’m familiar with near certain rutting grounds in the New Forest, but it caught me by surprise each time I heard in here.
The heavy rain of the last week has swollen the stream that runs through the Dartmoor cottage garden. Today the flow ran quickly down towards the East Webburn, the water playing musically over the pebbles. Another note was added to the usual tune, that of a frog croaking hoarsely and loudly. The warmth of the recent days, in spite of their wetness, had me out walking in a t-shirt when the rain stopped. That warmth seems to have deceived the frog into thinking spring has sprung. Perhaps the flowering of wild strawberries in the grassy bank above the stream has added to the illusion.
Birds were out in abundance on the Kennet and Avon canal as Bryn and I walked a six mile stretch of towpath, the canal gloomy in colour under an overcast sky.
Chiefly there were mallards on the water, the groups both large and small formed of two or three drakes following one chosen female. But there was a long grey shape too, lifting silently up from the reeds, almost blending with the colour of the water as it beat its wings heavily, first flying low then gaining speed to cross over an island towards the distant river.
The swans were a brighter sight, one drifting along, seemingly effortlessly although her feet were paddling hard under the water’s surface. The other was upended most of the time we were passing, its rear pointing upwards like a stranded sail.
And a kingfisher appeared too, just briefly. Even its brilliant turquoise seemed to be muted today.
I could just see two heads above the brick parapet, bobbing up and down, necks entwining. The wood pigeons were clearly billing and cooing, and a later flurry of wings seemed to indicate that the courtship was successful.
A grey cloud over the valley heralded a hailstorm that swept past in a grey wave. Higher, on the downland ridge, flocks of birds gathered restlessly in the branches of hawthorn bushes. Flashes of brightness revealed the yellowhammers as they emerged, flying down towards the hailstorm. The goldfinches were even more colourful in the gloom as they followed them.
Some of the Hampshire fields we passed were already greening with winter crops. Trees on the higher ridges were bare silhouettes against the windswept clouds. Four magpies alternately sat in the swaying branches as if enjoying a rollercoaster ride, or dipped and dived on the air currents like wild swimmers in a turbulent sea.
A kestrel hovered over the street, at first looking like a miniature version of the red kite whose usual territory this is. But this bird was lower, its wings flickering furiously as it maintained its position in the air, looking down into the gardens below.
The only other birds around were more magpies, three of them this time, engaged in roof hopping. They went backwards and forwards across the street, one after another, from roof to roof as if engaged in playing cat’s cradle. But their activity didn’t disturb the kestrel at all, even when one of the magpies must have crossed his line of sight.
Autumn has coloured the leaves on some of the trees around Hungerford common, where the lemon yellow and green leaves on the limes flutter like prayer flags. Sycamore leaves hang more heavily, strongly marked with russet, while a pair of the oaks by the copse stand on guard over their bared brethren like rusty sentries.
Other trees have been stripped right down to bare silhouettes, like ageing beauties whose bone structures reveal their enduring grace.
Most of the fallen leaves lie in rows along the grooves in the wet grass, so rooks from the nearby rookery congregate in black groups among the russet glory, like a ragged crowd of mourners marking the end of summer and getting stuck into the feast provided.
And above fluttered another kestrel, first outlined against the sky, then almost invisible against the autumnal trees. The rough grass clearly held more of interest to him than the beauty of the fallen leaves. No doubt there were lots of small creatures, wood mice, voles, stocking up to try to endure the winter. No doubt too that the kestrel hoped to do the same.
The sparrows have always enjoyed the amenities, generally shade and security, of the viburnum bodnantense in my front garden. It is covered with tiny pink flowers at the moment, and the birds move as shadowy shapes in the scented shade.
One of the birds was busily working through the flowers as I glanced out of the sitting room window. He was studiously edging up the branch he sat on and inspecting each blossom he found. I was afraid at first that he might be stripping them off, but they were undamaged when I checked them later, so I presume he was clearing then of insects.
The wind was still gusting strongly and the treetops around Newtown common were bending before it. The dark green pines moved like pompous elderly men, while around them the mauve tresses of silver birches tossed skittishly as if they crowned the heads of dancing girls.
The leaves have fallen thickly across the ground of the chestnut plantation. Walking over the creamy-buff layers, it was hard to distinguish the familiar path or the steps, even now they are marked by wooden frames, for these too had disappeared under the autumn covering.
When I reached a corner above one of the path junctions I was even more confused, for the landscape had changed. The trees on the edge of the path had been chopped down, the scrappy sprawl of holly had been cut back and a wide open expanse created, so for an instant I didn’t quite recognise the point I had reached on the walk.
It’s at times like this that I really appreciate how good my dog’s sense of direction is. He didn’t falter over the route through the plantation, or over the turning to take at the junction, so I was thankful to just follow him.
It’s one of my favourite autumn sights. The coffee-coloured fields edging Hungerford common, partially screened by the bare filigree of tree branches held stiffly up by poplars that line the far side of the canal and the oaks that edge the fields. It only takes a group of black crows to fly raggedly across the scene to make it perfect.
There was a sudden burst of musical chatter in the tree behind me on the common. At first I couldn’t see what birds were making the sound as I glanced up into the bare branches of the lime. Then I saw faint movements and spotted the long-tailed tits, about four of them, their beautiful pale pink and grey plumage making them almost invisible.
There was a moving stream of birds through the hawthorn hedges along the downland ridge. As the end of the stream popped into the hedge for a snack of berries, the leading bird popped out on the far side, heading for the next feeding site. Just for a moment one of the birds perched motionless on a bush, revealing itself to be a large thrush with a grey head – one of the first of this year’s influx of fieldfares. No wonder they were glad to fall on the hawthorn berries, after the long flight to get here to their winter feeding grounds.
It looked as though the field had burst overnight into flower around the red Devon Ruby cows. But the bright whiteness of the sudden visitation came from gulls, hundreds of them all busy feeding in the grass at a discreet distance from the cattle.
Water has appeared at the lowest point in the dewpond beside the lane to the common. A large flock of innocuous pale brown hen pheasants searched the grass in its dry upper reaches, close to heavier swathes of nettles and brambles. Here they were sheltered from the intermittent wind and from the sight of the hunters shooting at their companions a few fields away.
Bright red berries glowed thickly on the holly bush that marked the end of the hedgerow on the common. As we passed a flight of fieldfares flew silently out and away along the line of the hedge, with only an occasional quiet ‘chak’.
It was the whirring sound of the swan’s wings that first caught my attention. It was loud in the silence as I walked on the sloping heights of the common.
The single bird flew with deliberation along the line of the canal below, before veering off to return over the sepia-coloured landscape of fields and hedges beyond. It seemed to follow a row of poplars back in the direction from which it had come, flying almost parallel to the canal. Eventually it veered off northwards, towards a stand of trees. If this was its intended destination, the swan had taken a prolonged dog-leg of a route.
The old hedgerow is riddled with tunnels, made by the cattle who graze the common in the summer. They press their way through the bushes, keen to shelter from the sun and the rain, and in doing so they create these winding passages.
After the recent high winds the holly that stands sentinel at one end of the hedge has cast its berries on the ground. They fell across a main tunnel entrance, patterning the dull brown earth with red, as if a Persian carpet had been laid there overnight.
A large white bird was busy in the middle of the lane, pecking at something on the surface. When it became aware of the car it turned to face us, before scuttling into the hedge. It was only then that I realised it wasn’t a stray chicken, but an albino pheasant.
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