thistledown

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

Advertisements

Autumn’s mood board

When the wind is in the east – that’s when spiders spin their webs. So the saying goes, and the wind has been easterly for a while. Outside our front door, a garden spider is digesting a fly in the centre of a splendid web. As I walked through the village, I noticed several houses were being painted and it occurred to me that autumn, like spring, is a time of renewal. The dust and frippery of summer is being shed, leaving bare structures and neatly packaged seeds in storage.

The hedgerows were like a decorator’s mood board of texture and colour – the nuts and bolts of a bigger structure starting to emerge. The bare timbers and scaffolding of the countryside yet to be outlined against the sky in midwinter. In the meantime plants were beginning to reveal their geometry – the stark radial spokes of hogweed, lacy dock leaves, intricately designed seed pods and high-gloss berries, horse chestnut leaves damaged by the leaf miner moth, leaving blotches of paint-chart colours. A frieze of wild hops wreathed sprays of elderberries and swags of blackberries.

Flowers were still blooming halogen-like among the shrivelling leaves – the sugary-pink of Himalayan Balsam, retro-yellow ragwort and dandelions, daisies, mauve stripy mallow, clover and tissue-paper bramble flowers. I walked along through an intermittent shower of things falling to the ground – sycamore propellers, drifting feathers, curled leaves like peeling wallpaper and sandpapery beech nuts. A speckled wood butterfly zigzagged in the shade.

The low sun shafted through the trees on the lane and everything felt silent and restful. A group of workmen sat drinking coffee beside their van emblazoned with the word ‘Inspired’. I walked on to my special place near the old way. Suddenly a tawny owl hooted – a moonlight sound in the middle of the afternoon. Thirty seconds later a train echoed the hoot on the nearby crossing.

Swans decorated the margins of the chalk stream and a trail of litter was caught in the grass verge – piece of paper with the headline ‘Forward to Seeing’ and a concertinaed newspaper like a giant butterfly, wings spread on the tarmac. Squashed wild cherries and damson made red and yellow splotches on the pavement. Burdock in various stages of growth showed either burgundy centres or wire-brush seed heads.

The hedgerows were stippled with exquisite seed heads the colour of brown paper, but with finely drawn patterns and shapes like stencilled stars. Bright yellow lichen curled like flakes of paint on a twig. I saw wads of thistledown caught in the branches along with feathers, spiders’ webs and tufts of sheep’s wool, giving the illusion of an old mattress disintegrating on a dilapidated bedstead of rust-coloured hogweed.

Goodbye to Summer

Early morning and the sun shooting low, straight in my eyes like an inquisition. I couldn’t see where I was going so studied the ground, seeing for the first time, reflective specs in the white lines on the road. The low light revealed snail trails like invisible ink – a log of night-time journeys, written in loops and flourishes. Bird droppings studded with yellow seeds blotted the pavement. Overgrown brambles and nettles plucked at me on the narrow path.

On the river half a dozen young mallards had turned sideways against the current as they swam under the bridge – perhaps to slow themselves down. Petals of Himalayan Balsam lay flat on the surface of the water like purple hearts.

Along the lane where it borders the site of an ancient track I got my usual goose bumps. The sun dappled the road through the trees and the only sound was birdsong. Suddenly I heard approaching footsteps – a jogger going by. I looked over towards the old high track almost expecting to see someone. As I emerged from the shade my shadow sprang ahead and startled me.

I could hear sheep tearing at the grass. Low down in the hedges, convolvulus flowers were furled in the shade, but open trumpets in the sun. Higher up, was a collage of colour and texture. Berries of all hues and sizes hung against a green backdrop – deep purple elderberries, dusky wild damsons, red and orange honeysuckle berries, wild cherry plums and peppermint-white snowberries. In an alder tree were compact green cones like hand grenades about to explode.

Some plants made up for lack of colour with intricate patterns and shapes – propellers of sycamore, knobbly hog weed seeds like jacks ready to scatter, wads of thistledown on the wind and delicate drifts of dandelion seeds counting down the days to autumn.

At home about twenty house martins were swooping up, one after another, to a nest under the eaves then dipping away as though saying goodbye to summer.