IMG_2553_fotorA day of little surprises yesterday, born out of the initial annoyance of a road closure. Making my way back from a meeting I was diverted off a main road onto a route of lithely wriggling ‘B’ roads, looping and curling round the hills, not sticking to the valleys as elsewhere. These particular country lanes took me up one side of the Malvern Hills, over the top through a wooded col and then down the other side into Great Malvern. Looking east from there is an endless vista; a great plain, with Malvern directly below and Worcester to the north east, Tewkesbury to the south east. The Malverns have a character like a spine – the knobbly vertebrae sticking out from a body that needs a good feed, a generous plate of suet pudding and mash, with spotted dick for pudding. And from these backbones, looking west, it is an entirely different panorama, entirely rural, rolling rounded hills like a tray of green velvet eggs, heavily wooded and hedged.

Autumn is well under way now, and the fallen leaves march down roads in unnaturally ruler-straight lines where the whirls and eddies fight to a standstill allowing them to congregate in the dead air below. The pulpy mulch softens kerbstones and hides pavements, people tread tentatively as if over-stepping onto a bowling lane. And the trees are bashfully nude, a few lingering leaves hide their modesty for a matter of days but as the sap sinks, the inevitable final act of the strip tease is soon at hand.

With it, nature’s first harbinger of Christmas is clear to view – the balls the trees were hiding – Mistletoe. I’ve never seen it in such profusion. Near Eastnor castle a whole stand of trees, slender, reaching vertiginously full of these dappled decorations, like rooks’ nests at the heart of the tree. In Great Malvern, near the outskirts of the town, a tree lined arcade of oaks and horse chestnut, each full, as if the tumbleweed mistletoe had rolled from the hills and bounded and bounced down hill, only to be stopped here, natural run off lanes. A beautiful sight – one which I have never seen in such profusion: Mistletoe is a parasite of course, piercing the skin of the tree, attaching itself then feeding from the tree’s sap, leach-like. Perhaps birds of feather flock together (carrying the seeds with them too) and a new collective noun is needed for the plant. One thing is for sure, it was clearly too early for modern-day Getafix’s to be up in the trees with their golden sickles removing it for the magic potion money reward of today: bundles on sale down the Garden Centre in time for  Christmas’s under-tree smooching. I give it three weeks, tops.


IMG_2525_fotorUntil yesterday, I thought that the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy was a work of fiction. Turns out though that Douglas Adams was more of a seer: the Vogons have taken over. Whilst we may not be threatened with an interplanetary bypass, they have infiltrated every Parish and Borough Council planning body up and down the land. They have re-written procedures. Made things more efficient. And made things utterly opaque.

Our neck of the wood is characterised by river floodplains – broad, meandering rivers, oxbow lakes, levees, river terraces and floodplains. Our soils are rich with lovely river cobbles, rills of quartz running through them from aeons ago, then worn smooth by hundreds of thousands of years of gentle fluvial frottage. Each cobble is matt and sullen when dry but lights up, glossy, pearlescent when wet, sparkling with mirror-like beauty. Between the cobbles is thick clay, smaller stones and grit.

It’s the bloody grit the Vogons want. From the air, the Trent snakes north east, broad and shallow, an ancient transport thoroughfare. But either side are the scars: gravel pits and mounds; the machinations of engineers, the machines of extractors. The Vogon planners are in on this and with the weasel word-tunes they play, they charm us lowly naïve snakes: ‘New gravel extraction will create 11 jobs’; ‘New habitats to be created on site of former gravel pit’; ‘New leisure complex and family play area for Burton’.

Thousands of years of our land, gone in a week. Miles of hedgerow, teeming with life, rent and pulled, ripped, slashed, burnt. The shy and secretive bat; their world destroyed – at least they can take flight and – hope; but not the rabbit and their warrens or the badgers and their setts. A small price to pay? Meadows destroyed; ancient rights of way, removed of diverted. The seasonal ebb and flow of the trees foliage, cleaved apart, thrown to the ground, dragged off. The sad cry of the corncrake or piping lapwing left for the reserves on Springwatch or Countryfile, like some perverse Truman show theme park.

Anger. We would have stopped it of course, had we known. How could this be? This won’t happen on our watch. But we didn’t. We didn’t care, apparently. It went through with no objections.

They told us it was going to happen. They put up posters. We can’t complain. We were given fair notice. They were on display for two weeks.

Yeah. In Alpha Centauri.

“A fine dewy morning”

A chill morning, the sparkling dew emphasising the intricacies of the spiders webs and leafless foliage. A fug of watery fog, low lying, birds sitting motionless as if under fright but then almost silently, rising as one and letting off songs of joy as though the joys of Summer remain above the cloud.  It reminded me of an old song:

Oh the lark in the morning she rises from her nest
And she mounts in the air with the dew on her breast
And like the pretty ploughboy she’ll whistle and sing
And at night she will return to her own nest again


Early autumn jottings

September 2nd
An early start to Herefordshire, and the first sense that Summer ebbs as Autumn flows. From the broad valley with the Cotswolds on one side, and the Malverns the other, the M50 is the apple route. It becomes immediately more rural, and grassy. Rather than illuminated signs telling you to “use hard shoulder when busy” here they just say “Soft Verges”, a polite warning not to break down as the hedgerows will swallow you up. Then, outside Ledbury, the apple trees begin, defiant, proud, spiky despite huge stands that map the rolling lie of the land. They are heavy with fruit.

September 11th
With a strange circularity today, I meet an old colleague Giles. He worked for an advertising agency in Edinburgh who my old company used, and in 2001, we were up in the Scottish capital in a ‘pre production’ meeting, a critical stage in making an advert where everything about the forthcoming shoot gets agreed. During the meeting we heard the whispers. ‘Have you heard what’s going on in New York?’. Diverting the focus of the meeting, we watched transfixed. When the towers fell, it was impossible to comprehend what was going on. The setting was so familiar, so much like a movie set, watching it felt like one. But it was only in the taxi on the way to the airport and the flight home, that what had happened sunk in. We flew home.

IMG_2337The Plane trees in London are beginning to hunker down in preparation for winter. Leaf edges are curling up and turning cello brown. Some fall early; walking between parallel rows, the gravity of expectation is almost palpable. I don’t know why Planes are so named; but I have a soft spot for their versatility and constitution. Their fruit hanging like posh Christmas decorations, bulbous, glittering and furry; unlike conkers they don’t seem to fall. The Planes have adapted to thrive, like urban foxes.

I wait for my train at the British Library. To work at the library café it seems you must have an Apple computer, but they seem to sell very few apples at the counter, only cakes and excessively crusty sandwiches. It is though, to paraphrase ‘the restoration man’, George Clarke, ‘a great space’ and time passes quickly.

September 14th
I ride 62 miles on my bike, but feel unwell throughout. The land however is bursting with health and vibrancy. Climbing over the Chase under trees, I glance up at the canopies overhead. With the strong light behind, the canopies form patterns like fancy pants wallpaper, Laura Ashley, Farrow & Ball.

September 23rd
With the passing of the Autumn Equinox the daily stride towards darkness begins. And so too the bustle of Autumn, everywhere activity. As the sap in the tree falls as the days shorten, so the wind can starts its ironic late Spring clean, loosening the leaves’ attachment to their home.

The light lingers long now, backlit, iridescent. A short walk against brooding dark skies sees the hills lit up with spotlights. Greens are greener; the autumn colours commence, duns, browns, burgundies, reds. And the puffs of falling leaves have started. The horse chestnuts are letting go all around, a leafy mulch on the pavements. Other are less forthcoming, the oaks are still green, the little coins of the beech are preparing.

September 30th
This morning, low mist hangs over the fields and in places hill tops jut through, floating on the clouds. The sun is low. Bright reflections and long shadows of a leggy man striding across the fields. Squinting. And in the distance a swan, wing up, preens, preparing to hunker down.

The rook’s nest

There’s an ash tree in a corner of our land, a youth really, strident teenager, all lanky growth and fecund fertility. It throws off its keys with profuse thoughtlessness; blocking gutters, fertling their way into preposterously tight spots – lodging tenaciously underneath car windscreen wipers, tightly wedging themselves into window seals and muscling into the etched grips in shoe soles. Yet already, thoughts of chalara fraxinea are a shadow on the horizon just as it on so many blackened stands of this tree: will it find its way to our ash, separated as it is from its breathren or will it manage to keep its head down despite the fact it is reaching ever higher?

Certainly the jackdaws will miss it if it goes, the crows too. The jackdaws love Autumn, throwing themselves from the tree into the wind’s blustery vortexes, arcing and laughing as they do, sweeping up and round, wings outspread and curving; an air-fuelled dance with the breeze. The crows look on disdainfully, legs outspread along the fence top, braced, with their chokking caws, guttural, coughing. They would take to speaking Flemish with ease. The rooks though are above it all, aloof and aloft. A small family resident in the ash tree, probably moving into an old nest and then extending it, ignoring the planning laws, The Local Plan and Conservation Officer to boot. The nest certainly looked big from below, we would gaze up watching it grow, the rooks with their straight white beaks and glossy domed heads looking down on us, waiting for us to go.

Then tragedy. Violent wind, making the ash keys dance into the air like the crotchets and triplets of a musical melody line penned by nature, levered the nest out too: a finale to the score; the base drum, booming to earth. It landed in the night, the reverberations still felt the next day as the baleful drawn out cries of the rooks had vanished. With their home fallen, they moved on, seemingly without sentiment, their rebuilding must commence, this time elsewhere.

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Image: courtesy http://www.wildlife-sound.org

For us the legacy was their nest; a prickly-edged oval, close on a metre long, two-thirds across, half deep; its scale up close shocked me. Like most of us, I had only ever seen the nests from afar, a jerky outline of a mess of sticks in a far off tree in a naked winter tree. But this was no jerrybuilt affair – they consulted Building Control after all. Tightly inter-woven with long flexible pieces of ash and dogwood, stripped of leaves and with strengthening braces running down, it was padded out with tufts of moss and wiry dried grass. Not neat and crisp like a wicker basket, but pliant and strong all the same. The wind that dislodged it had been ferocious: it needed to be to upend this home.

Now, the ash is home to woodpigeons and a new chorus has begun, the soft breathy woo and coo; the backing singers have stepped into the limelight it seems. Yet, just this last week, I chanced I saw a gothic feathery outline bouncily balancing in a neighbouring willow, a white beak, flashing like an epée this way, then that. Perhaps the rooks’ housing cycle is starting again.