An Autumn Walk

by Ann Brixey

Season of Mists and Mellow fruitfulness, Keats’s poem “To Autumn” describes so well the weather and the countryside on this morning in late September.

A slight mist hovers over the distant hills. In the orchard, the apple trees are still loaded with beautiful red fruit and in the hedges that separate the fields, brambles bend with the weight of luscious blackberries.

Today’s walk was to be a shorter walk one than usual. With such favorable weather, somewhat overcast, mild, with a slight breeze, it should be a good one. Starting our walk from the home of one of my walking companions, we took the route through the village of Tockington to Old Down Hill.

At this time of the morning, the village was fairly quiet. From a white van, the name of a local dairy painted boldly in red on its sides, a man took several crates of milk, and carried them into the doorway of a little store.

From a nearby bakery tantalizing aromas of freshly baked breads and pastries mingled with  the crisp autumnal smells of wood-smoke A bell jangled, jarring the morning’s peace, a gangly youth emerged from within the bakery’s still dark interior, and warm baking smells of burnt sugar, and spices assailed our nostrils.

Hurrying on his way, he munched on a large sugary bun. As he passed by, a sheepish grin crossed his face and he nodded a greeting. Stopping occasionally to adjust the bulging book pack on his shoulder, he finally reached the bus stop, there he dropped the bag onto the ground and continued eating the bun with evident relish.

We continued with a short climb to the top of the hill, through the kissing gate and to the public footpath. This part of the trail, a narrow strip of woodland edging the road, was well known to us, it was the start of many of our rambles. Sounds from passing cars are muted by the tall thick hedges that line the path, it already was a different, peaceful world.

Despite walking around Bath and the Brecon Beacons the previous weekend, I felt somewhat out of shape, and found the climb rather taxing. But once we had reached the top, it was easier going. The first fence was a kissing gate, good, that meant no scrambling over a stile. On the path ahead, coming toward us, was a woman walking three dogs. A Golden Retriever was the most friendly, before visiting with everyone, he rolled in a dew soaked, grassy patch, then, wagging his tail happily, he shared with us, his enjoyment of his dewy wet coat. The little Springer Spaniel was rather standoffish, and the little Mongrel only made a nodding acquaintance, he didn’ want to wait around, there were too many new smells and burrows to discover, sniff and explore.

We said our farewells and walked on.  Further along, we met up with another Golden Retriever, trotting importantly alongside his owner. This dog reminded me so much of Chachi; a friends Retriever back home in Florida. He was so like Chach, friendly, curious, and like a big cuddly teddy bear, that I just had to stop and make friends.  I felt a pang of homesickness as I said goodbye to this lovely dog, and continued our walk.

After short tramp through the woods, and a gentler climb, we reached the top.  Clearing the stile, we found the field, which, according to Linda, had been waist high with nettles just several weeks before, was now thankfully cleared. From this vantage point, we could clearly see the white towers of the bridge that spanned the rivers, Wye and Severn. In the morning sunlight, the river Severn, a tidal river, was just a narrow ribbon, bordered by bands of thick brown mud. But soon, when the tide turned, those muddy banks would be waterlogged.

Many of the fields sweeping down towards the river were just stubble, the crops having already been harvested. Trees and hedgerows were still mostly green, but patches of rust and gold, were evident in places. It was altogether a spectacular scene.

The sights, and sounds of the countryside were all around us, gulls feeding in a freshly harvested field, above, in the patchy blue sky a hawk searched for his next meal. We could hear the steady thrum of a tractor as a farmer gathered late crops, and cattle lowed in a far off pasture. In the distance, a car dashing along a narrow road looked like a matchbox toy, as it bobbed and weaved among the hedges

In a nearby field several horses grazed quietly, as we leaned over the gate, they looked up and casually trotted to us. Hoping, for a treat they allowed us to pet them, unfortunately, we were ill prepared, and had no apples or sugar for them to munch. Sensing this, with a snort and a toss of their noble heads, they ambled away to continue feasting on the lush, soft turf that sprouted close to the hedgerows.

We gathered a few blackberries, from the loaded brambles, they were lush and ripe, and we could not resist popping these sweet and juicy treats into our mouths, all the while laughing, at how we should have washed them first.

Rose pointed out two lovely old houses, both very dissimilar. One stood at the top of a rise, and had been built of red brick. It appeared elegant and stately, with tall chimneys, and large windows.  But, standing in the shade of the trees that partially surrounded it, looked foreboding. Reminding us of the house Mr. Rochester and Jayne Eyre might have lived in.

The other one, a farmhouse built of local sandstone, glowed like burnished gold in the morning sun. Its once sharp corner stones now softened by winds and rain. The slate roof no longer grey was green with a mossy covering. As we neared it we could see that the two ground floor windows were adorned with slightly yellowed lace curtains, while at the bedroom windows, blinds, once green, looked tie dyed where the sun had bleached it in patches. It looked so warm and welcoming and homey in the bright sunshine.

Typical farm sounds greeted us. In the yard, hens clucked noisily as they foraged for corn, whilst the cockerel, once in a while uttering a strangled “Cock a doodle doo,” strutted majestically around overseeing his harem. The clash of pails and the hum of machinery, confirmed our suspicion that it was milking time in the long low building. A lusty bellow told us that the head of that particular herd of girls was not very far away.

A clatter of metal on the cobblestones announced the arrival of a large chestnut colored carthorse. He whinnied, tossed his head, and pawed the ground somewhat impatiently, as if to say,  “Come on, it is time to be working.”

In a corner on a small patch of grass, lay an old black and white collie. He raised his head for a moment when he heard us greeting the farmer’s wife, then, almost as an afterthought, gave a gentle woof, stood up, turned twice around and lay down again.

On some time worn steps, close to the dairy, was a large black cat contentedly soaking up the suns rays, while a tabby, with what looked like half of an ear missing, prowled the perimeter of the yard. Reluctantly we left this bucolic scene, and continued on our way.

Most of the public rights of way throughout Britain are generally well groomed, but once in a while you come across one that the farmer has not maintained. We found such a one, this path, thickly covered in nettles, was impassible. Making a slight diversion, we walked among the grain stalks instead. In the next field, the path had been groomed, but because of the rain at the weekend, and the showers overnight, was like the previous field, quite muddy. In such conditions, I am so glad Peter persuaded me to buy hiking boots instead of shoes. We were inches deep in mud; but at least my feet stayed dry.

Walking along a narrow road, we passed several small cottages. Their front gardens were neatly kept and still quite colorful. In the tidy borders were Chrysanthemums of every hue, and pretty purple Michlemas daisies.  Along an old wall grew several wild rose bushes, now only a few blossoms remained, but masses of bright red hips added a generous splash of color. These haws were providing a feast for the Waxwings, who, as we got closer, flew quickly to the safety of the trees, trilling loudly at us till we were a safe distance away. Then, when they felt it was safe to do so, returned quickly to continue feasting on this treasure trove.

Further along the road, we climbed over a stile and stepped into the canopy of trees, it was quiet in this leafy glade. With many of the visiting songbirds having already departed, other sounds could be heard, like the rustling of leaves as a field mouse scampered by, or the trickle of water from some nearby streamlet.

The woods have a different look now, summers vibrant green is muted and there is a hint of gold and brown about the leaves. Even the rooks are quieter, although I know that will not last.

One of my most vivid memories of autumn is of a nature ramble taken during a high school botany class. Heading into the woods on that particular, cool, misty morning in late October, the pungent smell of wood smoke from nearby bonfires mixed with the peaty, loamy smell of decaying leaves on the woodland floor. These certainly were the smells of the season, but it was the cacophony from the rookeries high in the treetops, which became for me, a lasting impression of fall.

The cawing of the rooks is such a distinctive sound, like no other bird makes. It has stayed with me all these years. Soon, when the branches have shed their leaves, and the nests are clearly on view, the woods and lanes will resonate with the calling of these large black birds.

I was surprised when I checked my watch and found that it was 10 o’clock, we would have liked to continue walking, but knew this adventure would soon be over. We marvel at what a perfect morning it is and wonder how many more times we will be able to enjoy such splendid weather. According to the forecasters we are to get the remnants of a tropical storm during the next few days. We talked about our next ramble and decide that providing it does not rain too heavily we will still walk on Thursday, but this time after our Pilates class.

We soon found ourselves entering the village. The main street was bustling now, delivery vans parked along the curb, their contents being carried by hand, or stowed onto carts, all to replenish shelves in the little shops or pub.  Outside the General Store, which also serves as Post Office, Coffee shop and general meeting place, locals stop to chat.

At the bus stop, several matronly ladies, all similarly dressed, in quilted car coats, pleated skirts and sensible shoes, chatting noisily patiently wait for the next bus. A couple stood slightly apart from them.  The man in a tweed jacket, tie neatly knotted, a flat cap on his head, listened rather abstractedly to his companion, who, unlike the other matrons was elegantly dressed in a stylish pant suit, and wearing high heeled shoes. Judging by the large shopping bags being toted, these villagers were off to the nearby town to shop in the supermarket. There they would purchase goods not readily available in the village stores.

We stopped at the General Store to get the latest copy of the Parish handbook. This little guide is a mine of information, each new edition keeps everyone updated on local happenings. We particularly treasure the walking map printed inside, each month directions for a new and exciting trail is given.  But we are unlucky with this copy, there is no walk shown.

The return journey took us past a small pond. We stopped for a while at this tranquil spot. Across the water on the grassy bank, several ducks, and other waterfowl jostling for a spot, upset the serenity of the moment, but they soon settled and quietly began the task of preening their feathers.

Several weeping willows with long branches gently touching the surface sway in the gentle breeze, making wavelets in the already rippled water. Long narrow willow leaves, like tiny barges, bob gently on the waves, and sail happily along, till they bump softly against the bank, their journey over.

We had spotted several carp on a previous occasion, but since we could not see the fish on this day, a Heron lurking on the bank, made us think perhaps they were hiding, or worse…

A short distance away, next to a gate, was a small wooden stand, on it stood a large tin can, and some egg crates. Linda checked them, and found there were eggs for sale (Free range), there were also two boxes of quails eggs, but the water on the box tops indicated that they had been there for several days. We decided it was not wise to buy them.

Once back on the level road, I decided to pick up my pace, and walk the last half a mile as a power walk. When we met up again, the girls told me about the Power Walkers Group that meet three times a week in town, but I responded “I don’t mind walking fast for a short burst, but do not want to do it regularly.”

Nowadays I enjoy ambling through the countryside, and thoroughly enjoy taking in the scenery. My days of walking a mile in 10 or 11 minutes are over. The way we do it now is so much more pleasurable. I am able to enjoy the beauty of this quintessential English countryside.