Today, on an atmospheric November morning when the fells are hidden and rain clouds lour, we gather sloes, linger by the orchard at Sizergh, and leave the poisonous fruits of the hedgerow to birds, mice and field voles who eat them without harm. A scaffold of black bryony weaves into the hedgerows, trailing twisted ropes of glossy red berries. Beautiful to look at, best left alone.
There are rites of autumn, seasonal patterns spooked by uncertainty, by weather. Will there be a glut of hawthorn berries to attract redwing and fieldfare? Winter thrush fly in from the North in search of berries. If there's a dearth they will not linger. And what of the bright red yew arils, poisonous to man, a favourite of winter thrush? When yew arils are plentiful the winter thrush gorge on them and excrete blobs of red jelly, tell-tale signs of their presence. The limestone all about Sizergh Castle is the place for ancient yews, a wood perfect for the longbows Thomas Strickland and his men took to Agincourt.
There are bullrush in the lake but on the banks guelder rose are bare of fruit and the leaves look unremarkable. A small spindle is almost perfect, pink fruit capsules with one or two split to reveal a bright orange seed and autumn leaves mellowing through rose, gold and green.
Back at Helsington Barrows there's a spindle tree I have watched since late summer when it had a crop of green berries. Each time I walk that way I've noted the berries slowly ripening and rough winds have not stripped the slender tree of leaves. Perfection requires abundant bright fruit and mellowing autumn leaves. Each autumn is different so you can never tell what season and weather will bring about. It's so rare to come close to perfection that there's a frisson of anticipation as the skies grow dark, the wind grows stronger and branches laden with pink fruit capsules show in a rosy glow in the gathering gloom. Most of the leaves are green, not yet of warm autumn colour but I don't think I've ever seen such a crop of berries. It's delightful. I take photographs of arching branches of pink capsules but by now the light is gone and heavy rain is falling. I might search for years without finding such a lovely spindle tree.
We drive home through a landscape engulfed in mist and rain.