A pair of swans preened on the mud flats as the tide went out on the Helford estuary. A little later they drifted serenely past on the ebbing water, turning in to the stretches of mud that lay around the quay where I stood among the surrounding oak woodland.
One swan surged out onto the mud, breasting the slippery mass as if she was still on water. Her mate lingered in the shallows watching her progress. It was only when she began to feed, presumably on small crustaceans, that he ventured to follow her.
Suddenly there were bees all around us as we climbed the low headland that divides Cornwall’s Kennack Sands. The wild bees that nested on the other side of the headland last year have migrated here this autumn, building their individual nests in the sandy soil of one of the main approaches.
It was a day for bees. Perhaps they were busier in the warm sunshine now that the wind had dropped. The walk round the cliffs from here to Coverack often takes us through thickets of blackthorn, which are heavily shrouded in many places with banks of ivy. This is in full flower now, even creating an arch over the path in one place, and there are so many bees feeding on its nectar that they create visible, humming, clouds.
Only a few other flowers are still blooming. There’s the odd late and faded blue squill or pink thrift, and drifts of bright blue rampion, so the ivy is providing the main source of sustenance for the bees.
A small drifting shape, like a coloured blob of foam, drifted inland over Whitesand Bay at Sennen, on the very western tip of Cornwall. It was a red admiral, fluttering purposefully towards the low grassy cliffs.
Oddly, I’ve seen one of these butterflies on every headland and over every bay whenever the wind has sunk enough to let us walk there. Every time, there was only one, no doubt also feeding on the pervasive ivy.
House martins were busy above Godolphin. I’ve seen ones and twos along this far end of Cornwall, but here there was a large gathering, all swooping and swirling through the air.
There was more swooping and diving at Lizard Point, but here the birds were swallows, their bellies flashing brightly white as they turned upwards from a short swift downward movement to snap up a midge or fly. The swallows seemed to prefer the coastal regions, where there were certainly plenty of insects in the air.
Rampion grows thickly at Chysauster on the ridge that runs down the toe of Cornwall. It sweeps around the remains of the ancient stone-walled village houses, that are highlighted here and there with the bright yellow of wild St John’s wort.
Beech leaves lay in russet streaks across the steep slopes of the Cornish woodland. More drifted lazily down to join them as we walked just above the line of the brook in the valley below. There’s an old sett here, and a newer outlier some distance away, where no doubt this year’s young males have established themselves. Judging by the interest Bryn, my young Border collie, took in one of the entrances, the youngsters at least are active.
Growing tall behind the screening trees around the Cornish cottage is a thickly planted crop of maize, the tassels of each cob drifting in the wind like pennants on a mediaeval battlefield. A gnawed cob lay in the lane one morning, the remnant of a badger’s overnight feast. Scrapings in the lawns around the cottage have appeared more prolifically recently, so the badger may be extending his diet to include earthworms, beetles and grubs from our domain. It would certainly explain why Bryn, my young Border collie, has taken to barking regularly just after two o’clock every morning and rushing to the window.
Every Cornish garden I spent time in had one particular visitor. Each time I’d been sitting for a while I became aware that I had a companion. And there, usually framed beautifully by arches of trees or bushes, perched on a suitable prominence was the distinctive silhouette of a robin. Occasionally the bird would come close enough for me to see the red breast and bright eyes, but they were all much more cautious than the one I feed regularly – he will come right up to more and would, I’m sure, land on my hand if I encouraged him.
But the sheep that still roam here know how to stay warm – they congregate in the shelter of the rocks scattered around the tors. Occasionally one stands on a ledge to peer downwards as if checking to see if invaders are approaching.
Bryn was standing beside me under a sycamore on a Dartmoor village green. His black coat was spattered with tiny green flecks and as I leaned forward to brush them off I saw they were minuscule greenfly. More and more of them fell onto him, faster than I could brush them away, so it was easier to move to another seat. Here we just had fallen conkers and their split cases to negotiate, although many of the bigger shinier ones had been collected earlier in the week.
The pigs I see on Dartmoor don’t roam freely among the other stock. They live in a field right on the edge of the moor, where they are just as keen on rushing up to see me as I am to look at them and the view beyond. The gingery Tamworths live side by side with the Large Whites, and both come speeding up to stare at me. One of the Large Whites even brought her bracken snack with her.
Green grass shoots were growing through the stubble in the large Hampshire field. Sun shone down brightly on it, making the bleached stalks even paler. On the distant fringe of the field, edging the woodland, there was a constant shiver of movement as pheasants fed out in the open. From a distance they looked like clods of earth that had become faintly animated. Closer to the gorgeous plumage of the males gleamed and their movement across the ground was much smoother and swifter.
There was a cloud of swirling mud on the edge of the canal. In the centre of it was an orangey crayfish, drifting awkwardly over a silt shelf, almost overburdened by its long front claws.
Further on there was a splash as a water rat jumped into the canal. It swam right out into the centre before diving, leaving an arrow shape trail over the surface, ending in a circle of expanding ripples.
Some of the neighbouring cypress branches were hacked off recently. I found some of them in my garden, and next to them the stone-cold corpse of a baby wood pigeon whose nest must have been destroyed. He was almost large enough to survive, but although his fledgling wings were spread out and had rudimentary feathers they weren’t large enough to support him in his fall, so he lay on his back, his beak slightly open, quite dead.
The spider normally sits at the centre of the large web it has spun across the middle of my sitting room bay window. It’s an intricate web, faint delicate strands at its heart, thicker strands for the rest of it.
The morning sun lights each individual line of it, as it hangs suspended from attaching silken anchors. The accumulated catches of the previous yesterday had gone when I looked today. The web was unencumbered by any prey and the spider was busy. It went round and round where the delicate heartland met the bulk of the web, testing with one leg each spoke that supported the construction, tugging hard enough to visibly pull the silk.
The spider was already busy when I saw it in action, and while I watched it went round the whole web four times doing its testing. Then it returned to the oval hole at the centre, testing that too before fitting its legs around the edge of it and settling down to wait.
A couple of cormorants were unusual visitors to the canal. These were coal black, unlike the albino one I saw earlier in the summer, and their gleaming scimitar beaks, like dulled steel, were conspicuous against their sable plumage. No doubt they were attracted by the large fish I’d clearly seen in the water a few days ago.
When I startled the birds and they flew away they circled widely overhead. I thought they were heading towards the nearby river, but after a couple of passes over the willows they descended to the canal in almost the same spot. The fishing must have been good there.
I walked along the canal towpath admiring the autumn colours of an elder tree reflected in the water. A small brown bird popped out of the rushes beside the water and flew into the trees on the other side of the path. This happened every few yards for quite a while, so presumably a family of wrens was spreading itself outwards from their original nest.
A group of mallards drifted on the water further ahead. There were eight of them, three drakes each followed by a close cluster of females.
The swans closer to town were a family. The eight cygnets had grown to full size, their whiteness still streaked with mink-coloured juvenile feathers. They were close together on the water, or in the shallows, while the pen groomed herself vigorously on one bank and the cob came sailing towards his family, wings slightly curved over his back.
A cool silent stretch of water lay ahead between tall ranks of trees. A flight of crows arrowed over the sky above, their cawing briefly disturbing the piece.
The group of tits that burst out of bushes on one side of the canal and darted over to dive into the trees on the other didn’t make much noise. But their sheer speed and business was startling. Even once they were out of sight a faint twittering marked their presence, and one great tit emerged to sit on an outer branch, eyeing the world and us as we approached.
A column of gliding buzzards circled higher and higher into the sky. Although one drifted away and then back from time to time, they kept formation well, resembling a flight of World War II fighter planes, especially when the sunlight flashed from the markings under the birds’ wings. And from time to time one dived towards another, forcing it to take evasive action.
The strong scent of honey heralds the thick stands of ivy along the towpath. But there’s no loud buzzing to accompany it now. The bees have mostly gone, because, in spite of the scent, there are very few flowers left on the globular umbels.
Mallards have always congregated in great numbers by the town bridge. In recent years quantities of swans have come to join them, floating in regal manner among the masses.
Recently there’s been another addition, a cormorant who today was perched on the tip of a promontory unconcerned by the crowds going by on the bridge above.
A line of golden leaves showed the strength of the river current as it entered the canal, leaving it again in some force over a weir further along. The leaves were taken away at a steady speed, moving in a row like the series of barges that once worked their way along here, bearing coal, stone, and other heavy bulky goods.
The cormorants that have begun to favour the canal seem to prefer the quieter waters, where the underlying flow from the river is not so noticeable. I saw two birds, each patrolling a mirror-smooth section of water below a lock.
Reed mace has colonised a small pond on a nearby landed estate. It looks as if a group of wealthy Edwardians has just drifted out of the nearby house for a casual smoking session, with the cigar-like fruits jutting upwards as if waiting to be lighted.
When I first knew this pond, possibly once a dewpond, it was congested with weeds, and its main glory was the mountain ash that flourished at one end of it. The tree has gone now, but the pond remains, perhaps in the spot it’s been in for at least a couple of hundred years. Now no doubt the sheep that graze the parkland around it in the summer come down to drink from the water, as perhaps their ancestors did in times gone by.
The silver birches have metamorphosed into a golden glory on Newtown common. Their white trunks look more striking than ever and provide a noticeable backdrop for other autumnal colours, like the bright orangey-red berry clusters dangling from a mountain ash, whose leaves have already fallen.
Holly berries are bright red and numerous on the trees on the common. Sometimes the berries grow on a full-grown tree, their colour acting as a beacon among the gold and green of the other plants. Sometimes they grow out in sprays from a more rambling bush, framing a view. But this year they are definitely growing in abundance.
I had only just filled the birdbath and the front garden dog bowl when I went indoors. Walking into the sitting room I saw that Binkie, the female blackbird, was already splashing vigorously in the bowl. Two sparrows were wallowing in the bath, twisting and turning carefully, but without the energy that Binkie was displaying. They flew away first, and were replaced by a wren, who perched decoratively on the rim for a fraction of a second, before dipping into the water. When she flew away she was followed almost immediately by Binkie.
In all, both lots of the water had virtually been used up within two minutes of being put out. It went faster than the mealworms and suet pellets I put out in the morning.
I was tidying up the front garden when there was a sudden burst of song. Glancing round, I saw a robin standing on the grass verge next to the empty water bowl. I’d turned out the water to avoid dropping leaves and soil into it, and was planning to fill it when I finished work.
But obviously water was wanted now. As I went to fetch some the robin occupied himself by pottering around the cleared flowerbed, picking up infinitesimal grubs and insects that must have been revealed by my clearance.
I always leave plenty of ground cover, both for the pond frogs and the hedgehogs. I clear the flowerbeds in patches, leaving enough of this year’s plants to provide shelter, and wait for new growth until I take out the remainder of the old. I had only just started pulling out some of the crocosmia stems that lay flatly across the side path when a large frog jumped out from almost underneath my hand. It sat frozen on the brick path for a minute, then leaped into cover among the thick pile of leaves that I allow to accumulate on the far side. Both sides of this path are home to slowworms, and I suspect they spend the winter in the leaves that I don’t disturb.
Once darkness or daylight peace falls there has been feasting on Newtown common. The creatures that live there have found a plentiful spread in the sweet chestnut grove, where the prickly husks have been torn open for the fruits inside.
On the towpath the feasting has been on chestnuts too, and also the little green apples that lay in a hazardous carpet in one particular spot. There is an apple bounty in my back garden too, attracting birds as well as the hedgehog to the windfalls. And in the middle of them is a newly flowering primrose.
It looks as though a host has descended on Newtown common’s gravelly plain and erected its tents. Gorse grows thickly here, and canopies have been flung across it in great numbers. Some spread out side by side, others grow upwards in tiers. It’s only now, in the early morning, when the light shines on the damp strands that the webs are revealed, indicating just how many spiders congregate here.
I paused to watch a party of long-tailed tits working their way through the crevices between the branches of an ancient oak, then walked on through showers of silently falling golden leaves under the beeches of Selborne. I’ve come here for many years, when there was a natural beech cathedral along one of the walks, and I walked along its open nave on a russet carpet. Fallen trees first destroyed the line of the cathedral, and years of growth on the survivors have obscured the rest of the image.
But now one of the glories of the common is the open grassland on the summit of the hill, reached up the zigzag path built by the local naturalist Gilbert White and his brother. Wide grassy paths cross the common, isolated from the world below by the thickly wooded slopes. It was completely silent, and strangely empty. Nothing moved among the trees, not even a bird, although one called harshly from time to time. I imagine the White brothers’ efforts brought them out to a busier scene on the common than we find now.
Now and then a tight flock of starlings shot out of the tree tops, executed a neat turn and disappeared back into them a little further away. It was as if a mysterious embroiderer were throwing wild stitches out above the trees.But suddenly the thread broke free and the birds flew in a looser pattern up into the wide open sky.
There was another flock approaching and instead of avoiding each other in all that space they met headlong. The birds mingled and parted, each group going its own way, its formation much more straggly after the encounter.
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