A wood in autumn can be like a place of burial, the leaves closing in as they fall and the mulch of leaf decay beneath one’s feet. The feeling that dusk is getting nearer as time passes. A melancholy, yet varied landscape filled with experience of a turning year. The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote of the bitter-sweet sensuality of the season in a letter to Cezanne:
At no other time does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sands-containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.Rainer Maria Rilke
Walking along the footpath from the Shere Road to Badger Wood the trees form an avenue, a tunnel which draws us on, as if travelling to an unknown region. The undergrowth in the woodland north of the path has been cleared, giving a great sense of spaciousness, though why this has been done I can only hazard a guess. Is it to make shooting pheasants easier? There are several rabbit holes along the path, showing evidence of recent habitation and smaller holes which accommodate rodents like mice and voles. A Grey Squirrel scampers up an oak tree, getting lost in the labyrinth of knotted branches high up. It is a busy time of the year for rodents, who will be taking advantage of autumn’s plenty to feed up for the winter. Squirrels will bury hoards, which they return to in the hardest months of winter and so we see more of them at this time of the year. I will talk later about the fruits we have found this month but as a prelude it is worth mentioning the abundance of acorns this year; you feel the bed of crunchy nuts scattered under any oak in the area and this, of course, is good news for squirrels.
At the stile the field is a lush green and is peppered by substantial mole-hills; these are much larger than ones I have seen earlier in the year and I wonder if this means the animals are now having to dig deeper as worms and other invertebrates might burrow further down as the nights get colder. We are walking in the mid-morning and it is sunny and mild but even in early October there is a chill in the air in the evenings and mornings. The large badger sett, just near the bank of the stream shows no sign of recent activity and the latrine a little way down the path has not been used for some time. Badgers slow down in winter, spending much more time in their setts and work on these has shown that bedding is dragged down deep into their tunnels and temperatures above 7 degrees centigrade are maintained as a constant, although aeration vents are also important to keep the air fresh. The badger, though, does not strictly hibernate during winter and it does not enter the torpor that truly hibernating creatures such as hedgehogs do.
We take the main track which skirts the wood; the towering beeches which line the first part of the path as it climbs upwards are turning to a beautiful golden copper. This grove of trees takes me back to Rilke’s meditation, for it is easy to imagine rituals of life and death being performed within the cloistral boughs of these trees. As we move through the pillars a day-time owl hoots, a strange, haunting presence in this other-worldly place.
I am puzzled that stones have been placed across the path and wonder why they go against its general direction. This path becomes water-logged in winter and almost impassable but a thin line crossing it would seem to make little difference for an easy passage. The sandstones look as if they have been there a long time and would also have had to be brought down from the hills, so effort has been exerted for some unknown reason.
I cannot resist conkers and find it hard to believe that it is possible to find a bounty of them uncollected. When I was a boy it was always a skirmish to get the best ones and children used to clammer to get to chestnut trees early enough for rich pickings. Conker fights were part of autumn’s ritual and it seems a shame that this old game is no longer fashionable. Several years ago I wrote a poem recalling the old chestnut tree where, as a child, conkers were eagerly fought over:
Gripping tightly our sticks of yew,
(named the bone)
pulling back green-stick arms
like archers at Agincourt,
we aim at the highest conkers
survivors of the night’s wrecking wind
and toss the wood into the sky
and watch the rain of glossy eyeballs
fall to earth.
Then there is a scramble,
the best child wins
grasping his prize,
polishing it against the duffle coat
his mother made him wear,
‘for there is a chill in the air today.’
This matins ritual, at the lych-gate,
near a war memorial
where the dead wait
under the old horse chestnut,
as the golden harvest is gathered in
and gifts are laid in St Peter’s aisle;
the boys prime their conkers,
using an alchemy of vinegar
vulcanizing them to hard nuts,
precisely skewering the bitter pith,
almost tasting the poison broth
oozing out of the gimlet-hole,
as it hardens to flinty stone
like frost on a grave.
September mist carries
an early scent of decay
as the cracking of skulls begins,
a schoolboy duel;
the battle cries are heardRichard Sellwood
across the green
as the cobblers concuss,
like a rap of timpani
and brothers take arms.
On the edge of the path are two horse chestnut trees and scattered around their bases is a treasure trove, which Jackie and I gather up with all the excitement of children. The magic is in the polished chestnut brown skin, with its round mark of light beige and the smooth feel of the nut. Really we just collect them for the sake of it, because it connects us back with past childhood and because they will make a seasonal display in a bowl at home. Sadly, once they are out of their spiky green husk, they soon lose their lustre. Horse Chestnut trees have been attacked in recent years by leaf miner moths, whose larvae burrow into the tree’s leaves, turning them prematurely brown in the summer. This year I have a sense that this has been less noticeable, with fewer trees showing signs of depredation and it is also true that the bug does no long-term damage to the tree. There are other threats to the chestnuts, the worst being bleeding canker, which does eventually kill the trees but with luck we may control this.
There are many fallen trees in the woods, some have decayed with age, others the victims of gales and all reveal the inevitable cycle of life now offering rich habitats for all manner of insects and invertebrate, which in turn give sustenance to birds and small mammals. I have recently started collecting old bits of wood to put in my own garden, encouraging wildlife. You can create a whole world by doing this, as logs often have holes in them that collect water and can become a micro pond or afford housing for animals. Log piles will be a good habitat for hibernating frogs and toads, if you are very lucky a sleepy hedgehog may even take up residence. These havens can be made with the minimum of space and virtually no effort.
We track down towards Radnor Farm where we meet a couple of ramblers. The lady tells us she is planning a route for her Godalming hiking group; she loves this area and the peacefulness of these woods but she is a little worried that her group, many of whom are in their eighties, may not cope with the stiles, which are not in good shape. Her husband adds that she hasn’t told us that she, too, is in her eighties. Jackie says that age is only a number but I have to agree that the stiles are in bad repair and she is not the first to be discouraged by their potential danger. Whilst it has been a difficult time to maintain footpaths, it is also very important that all people have access to the countryside. The couple also mention that they notice the absence of birdsong these days and it is troubling that the decline of birds in both variety and number has meant that the woods are no longer filled with rich melody. Despite a feeling of environmental gloom hanging over us, we do have an influx of birdlife at this time of the year and it is a good time to go “twitching”. Many migrants will be arriving in the autumn to stay in our temperate climes during the hard winter; this will mean that birds like Redwings and Fieldfares can be seen in fields and gardens but also flocks of native birds are joined by those who come over from continental Europe. For example, Chaffinch numbers increase and flocks will come into gardens to feed. If you are lucky these are sometimes joined by Bramblings, which migrate south west from Scandinavia. Siskins are another woodland bird that spends winter in this country and is tempted into gardens by birdseed. I mention these birds, there are many more that over-winter here, because Ewhurst is a heavily wooded area and birds favouring this habitat will frequently visit adjacent gardens, particularly if they have trees, shrubs and hedges in them. Irruptions tend to follow food availability; the nearest plentiful food supply on the migratory route will govern how far the birds move. In some winters the range means that we experience an irruption in numbers, whilst in others we may see fewer birds. Interestingly, some birds may fly as far as southern Europe when food is scarce further north. All this explains the fluctuations in numbers of wintering birds, though it can also be a result of successful or unsuccessful breeding years. Ornithologists have also concluded, perhaps not surprisingly, that the growing popularity of bird watching and the eagerness of people to feed their birds with a whole array of seed types has very much encouraged woodland and other birds into our gardens.
We walk onto the junction of paths at Radnor Farm, which is also the confluence of a stream coming from the north with a brook which crosses down into Ewhurst. At this point the water is clear and I get a fantastic view of a crayfish, making its methodical way across the sandy bed of the stream. I am pretty sure it was a Signal Crayfish and what strikes me is the enormous size ratio of its claws to body size; enlarged it would make an excellent sci fi monster and even at twenty centimetres long, it is intimidating. It is pleasing to see it as further downstream pollution in Cobbler’s Brook has recently killed off many invertebrates, including crayfish, as I reported in an earlier piece.
Berries and fruit have been plentiful this year, a warm summer and rain have plumped them out. The wayside is made colourful by the hawthorn berries, bryony, rose hips, elderberries which form a palette of reds, pinks and purples among the changing tints of the hedgerow shrubs. On our walk we see that all the sloe berries have vanished, whether they are collected by people or animals we don’t know and also the best of the blackberries are over. The elderberries, which make good wine, have not been touched and people today are not interested in the tonic qualities of rose hips; high in vitamin C, rose hip syrup was given to children during the war, when citrus fruits were hard to come by. Later, in the fifties, I remember being forced to take spoonful each day-not at all willingly: I wonder if it was as bad as I think it was.
We skirt Bramblehurst Farm, returning to the village, and see myriad crab apples strewn across the path. I am surprised that these have gone unpicked and I’ve seen several trees weighed down by the harvest of these sharp little fruits. Crab apples are ancestors to our apple trees and folklore has it that if a lover throws the apple pips into a fire, saying the name of the loved one, and the pips explode, then the love is true. Celts burned the wood during their fertility rites, the smoke presumably being inhaled with an aphrodisiac effect.
On a more mundane note, I decided to make crab apple jelly from fruit my daughter Laura brought me from her garden. I under-estimated how many apples I would need and the bagful she gave me resulted in half a jam jar. Still, it was satisfying to make something out of wild fruit and I was proud of the clear jelly, which had set. The poet Vicki Feaver wrote of the frustrations and satisfactions of home-producing crab apple jelly in her 1992 poem, which begins:
Every year you said it wasn’t worth the trouble-
and yet concludes with a feeling of radiance:
When they were cool you held one up to the light to see if the jelly had cleared. Oh Mummy, it was as clear and shining as stained glass and the colour of fire.Vicki Feaver
For walkers in this region of Surrey the joy of great contrasts within a small geographical area are one of the great benefits: this brings many ramblers and cyclists here. This is always brought home to me when I walk on Pitch Hill and look down onto the rich pasture and woodland that characterises Ewhurst. The woodland on Pitch Hill is typical of that found on sandstone, silver birch and scots pines are common and there is the heathland habitat which is unique to Southern England.
The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is probably the most distinctive and well-known toadstool in this country and the acidic soils of woods and heaths are an ideal place for them. It did not take us long to find some, the bright red caps showing up well among the fallen leaves. These fungi are poisonous, containing the psychoactive compound muscimal and the closely related ibotenic acid. The fungi’s chemicals can cause hallucinations and it is believed that it may have been used to induce trances in ancient rites. For many of us it is familiar as the toadstool on which fairies sit and it is also the fungus that Alice in Wonderland eats when the pedantic, irritable caterpillar, (who, incidentally was based on an Oxford don known to Lewis Carroll), suggests that she eats it if she wants to grow. It has been suggested that Carroll had sampled the mushroom, which can distort size perception; my feeling is that, as a severe migraine sufferer, he was drawing on his own experience of visual auras during an attack.
During the course of our walk we saw thirteen different species of fungi: I envy mycologists who are able to reel off their names, especially as many of them are only known by their scientific names, making it harder for us mere mortals to learn them. However, after painstakingly going through my field guides I’ve managed to track the following, (some will remain a mystery, as the ones I’ve taken photos of bear no resemblance to anything in the books): The Blusher (Amanita rubescens), Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fusciculare), Pholiota squarrosa, Common Earthball (Scleroderma citrinum), Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda), Shaggy Parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes) and Common Yellow Russula (Russula ochroleuca). I have discovered the rich variety and I’m struck by the inventiveness of English names, opening up a wide-eyed world of imagination that is quite distinct.
On the heathland the routes are sandy, open rides, giving a very different atmosphere to the narrow, winding paths of the lowland. The sky is visible up here and it is as if the trees have moved out of a shadow land, where sunlight picks out every detail of trunk, branch and leaf. The Scots Pine’s coppery bark catches the light, reflecting a deep sienna glow, which forms a lovely counterpoint with the bracken, which has turned a tawny brown as it dies down. I have a sentimental attachment to this tree, as I used to love climbing them as a boy: the branches often form a ladder up the trunk, making it easy for a child to shinny upwards and enjoy the exhilaration of being on top of the world. The bark feels like the hide of a rhinoceros and exudes a sweet smelling sap, the fruit are the distinctive pine cones, which are often collected for decoration and the leaves, called pine needles are adapted to harsh climates as they are tough and thin, reducing transpiration. It is Scotland’s national tree and the only native pine.
The labyrinth of rides on the Surrey Hills mean it is easy to lose your bearings; we take the track which goes from the trig point at the top of Pitch Hill and ends up in Peaslake. There are lots of cyclists out and the recreational value of this area is immense; there are signs that the land-owners are concerned about the damage bikes can do to trees and vegetation and certain paths have been blocked. Marrying the needs of people with conservation is a delicate thing and habitats such as this one are fragile. No one wants to stop people enjoying their pastimes but we also need to preserve this place for future generations: goodness knows, we have destroyed enough already!
Walking back from Peaslake we follow the deeply incised valley, which is densely wooded on the slopes. The ground is much damper here and this means that flora like mosses, lichens and ferns are abundant. It is easy to overlook these ancient plants but observed closely they are beautiful and fascinating, often living on the edge of life. Sphagnum moss grows in boggy places, where the rainwater is trapped; in valleys like this one water flows both down the valley floor and from the slopes on the valley sides. In places where the land flattens or dips, saturation of the soil occurs and there is an accumulation of acidic compounds leached from the surrounding strata: this provides an ideal habitat for sphagnum and there are several places where it can be observed. In a similar way many ferns enjoy damp, shady conditions. I saw Hard fern growing by the path, which is an indicator of ancient woodland and has ladder like leaves on its stem. It is also known as Deer fern, as deer will eat it during hard winters. In the past people also would cook and eat both the rhizomes and tender stems when starvation threatened. Its medicinal uses have been known a long time, treating conditions ranging from skin problems, lung complaints, diarrhoea and even in cancer therapies. The health potential of many common plants cannot be under-estimated. Another common fern I found was the Harts-tongue fern, named because its leave resembles a deer’s tongue, it is another ancient woodland species with many medicinal benefits.
Autumn, when most flowering plants are over, can turn our attention to other types of flora, many of which evolved in the dark mists of prehistory before dinosaurs were wandering the earth. It makes my spine tingle when I try to imagine the aeons that these simple plants have existed.