When will the fieldfare and redwing come? The weather is so mild, so calm- scarcely seasonal for winter thrush. Chevrons of geese fly over town, calling to each other in a world of their own. Another beautiful morning with a soft blue haze taking out the fells to the west of Scout Scar. On the escarpment edge there’s a bank of heather and birch bark gleams silver, the leaves golden. Beyond lies the cliff with dark yew growing on a buttress of scree. A thrush alights in the top of a birch, sees me, and flies deeper into the wood. Which of the winter thrush, I wonder?
Kendal Race Course earned its name today. Here was a major orienteering event come to Scout Scar and Helsington Barrows. And a clash with a hound –trailing event was imminent! Loudspeakers warned that the hounds would race across Kendal Race Course at 12.45 pm. 'Watch where you walk, you might get flattened''- a steward warned me. 'The fast orienteers run with their heads down, reading the map'. If the orienteers don’t flatten you the hounds might.
Down off Sheffield Pike, out of the cloud and onto the golden October slope where Mossdale Beck rises and flows down through the wood into Ullswater. A dead tree branch like antlers reminds us of stags bellowing in the fells across the lake where the deer rut is on. We look back at the silhouette of crags on Black Crag and Heron Pike where we came down. Then we enter the fringe of wood beside the beck for a different kind of magic.
Glencoyne is a busy working farm close to Ullswater, a beautiful location. The bull bellowed among his cows , with calves being ear-tagged in a pasture. I remembered drinking coffee in the farmhouse kitchen and learning from Sam and Can Hodgson about farming here. Gathering their sheep, they see voles leaping in the tussocks at sunset, braving the hunting kestrel at Glencoyne Head. We quickly climbed into low cloud and the atmosphere was full of moisture. After weeks of fine weather this might have been disappointing. But walking in cloud has a magic of its own.
Patterdale and the deer rut: that’s our objective. It’s a rite of autumn. Over the years, I’ve learnt where and when to go. The Martindale herd is scattered about the fells. The bellowing of stags and the deep-voiced raven flying in amongst them is the theme of the day. There’s something atavistic about the experience and this herd goes back to medieval times. The stag and the raven share a long history in hunting lore. Steep and inaccessible slopes give the deer solitude. They are loud, but elusive. The stags’ voice resonates, but the acoustic of the fells traps the sound within the dale. So what will we see and hear today?
Watching seeds take to the air on a roadside verge is a thing of wonder. Being woken out of a deep sleep in the darkness of 4.00am by a transporter that throbbed and pumped out diesel for the next hour felt like a nightmare. Switch off, for goodness sake! We do not want to breathe in filth. There are enlightened countries where it’s illegal to keep an engine running whilst a vehicle is stationary. This willowherb grows on the wayside verge right where people park to climb the stile heading for Scout Scar. It’s an emblem of where urban and rural meet, where respect for the environment comes into being. Or does it?
Fireweed. Get rid of it, burn it, the thing’s a weed. Fireweed springs up on waste ground and spreads like wildfire. ‘Weed’: we name it unwelcome, unfit for horticulture, rubbish. Time to rebrand it, I say. Rosebay willowherb. A flower of rose-purple, the plant tall and stately as willow, its slender fruit-capsule splitting to reveal fluffy white seeds to be borne away on the wind. Willowherb: herbs are precious, flavoursome and medicinal. No stopping to admire it on the motorway embankments it adorns as flower and seed-head. Not rare, but worth a closer look.
An atmospheric day. Lurid light, darkness, low cloud hugging the tops. The profile of Pen Y Ghent was lost in cloud. Red grouse was the motif of the day. A chorus of red grouse accompanied my approach to Pen Y Ghent through the heather encircling its lower slopes. Go back, go back, they called. So many, cackling in a range of different notes. They broke cover and flew low, perching on hummocks, disappearing amongst tussocks of grass. Their calls gave the morning an air of solitude as Pen Y Ghent loomed out of the mizzle. Climbing the stone staircase to the top, always the call of red grouse from the heather below.
Where water-tracks run off the fell-side there will be devil’s-bit scabious, bog asphodel and – if it’s not too late- grass of Parnassus. I know this because I’ve been photographing this seasonal motif for years, on Lingmoor and on Loughrigg Fell. 1st October, a balmy, beautiful day. Sunlight pours through the last of the flowers, down the fell-side toward Grasmere Lake. The slope faces north-west so water-droplets will linger on spiders’ webs. What can I find?
Jan Wiltshire is a nature writer living in Cumbria. She also explores islands and coast and the wildlife experience. (See Home and My Books.)