North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, November 2016
Three o’clock and the sun sinks in the east, casting long rays of light through the papery sepals and stems of knapweed and agrimony, summer’s relics. Threads of spider silk drift between these old frameworks, a material stronger than steel by comparison. The experts will tell you that at this time of year birds depart the highest open reaches of the downs, and there are few birds around. This is the perfect camouflage for a crow, the sun so low and dazzling there could be hundreds of them chowing down on the edge of the hill. One lifts up, gliding on the wind, hovering kestrel-like, remembering its place.
I came here with thoughts of waxcaps bright and beautiful, but two hours out here and I only find one picked and overturned. The life is being scraped from the downs by the raking wind, the tumbling temperature and coming dark, the slide into winter. Yet every seasonal change is the same, like a shift in human history, it is not one event that brings about the enclosure of darkness but several over time. You can find its waymarkers, indicators of something different on the horizon. Each season, like each era of civilisation, is a product of the ones which came before.
The cows graze the grasslands, their coats lit red by the sun setting behind them. Their breaths puff out like smoke as they chomp. It is a reassuring sound, grass uprooted and chewed over. They offer few glances to those of us passing by this morning. Pied wagtails, a bird I don’t often see here, perch on their backs and pick at their pats. In the scrub slowly being cleared from the downs by the City of London, redwing break between hawthorn and rose, their wings lit as they break cover. I know why this work is being undertaken, I’ve helped with it elsewhere on the North Downs, but I am losing my old signposts in this open landscape. The area where willow warblers once nested, where redwing and whitethroats used to feed up, a hawthorn where chafers fed one evening: all of it grubbed out, the soil lightly ploughed. This scrub is being cleared to allow the return of chalk grassland, one of Europe’s rarest habitats, much of which is found in England and a surprising amount in London. Our response to the clearance of trees is almost always emotional, that’s okay, but it’s important to know why it’s happening but equally important to ask why.
A woman passes me with a broad smile, covering her eyes from the sun to look at me. She stops:
‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ she says, her companion a little surprised that she has stopped mid-conversation. ‘Cows, fields and sunshine.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It’s like being in the countryside. Wait a minute, I think it is the countryside.’
‘I’m lucky, I live just next to it,’ she says, making her way.
I agree with her, she is lucky.
Up ahead a figure sits on a mobility scooter next to the millenium monument atop the hill. They are taking pictures of the sun disappearing behind the hill. Knowing I’m part of the photos I stop and ask, ‘would you like me to give a certain pose?’ She laughs and throws out her arms to suggest a stance.
‘What camera have you got there?’ she asks, my camera on its tripod resting over my shoulder like a bazooka. ‘I’ve got a Canon but haven’t used it in a while,’ she adds.
I don’t enter into the Nikon-Canon banter.
Her name is Tilly and she lives locally in Coulsdon. ‘Just down the road,’ she says. ‘Where are you from?’
I tell her that I’m not so local and I come here to get away from the SE postcode.
She asks what I’m here to photograph, ‘wildlife?’ She has it right, but there are a disappointing lack of mushrooms. ‘It’s probably the wrong time of year for that,’ she says.
It’s been the right time before but an anxious thought creeps in – does someone know the movement of waxcaps here in some kind of hyper-intuitive detail? Probably not, it’s just been a rubbish autumn for them. She recounts tales of campervan holidays out in the New Forest’s old military sites where she could bolt her caravan into the old RAF concrete and fly agarics fruited on her portable doorstep. ‘I’ve not been there for a while though,’ she says. ‘I was ill last year, and I’ve been ill this year, too.’ She nods as if admitting something.
The sun has left us now, a few scraps of cloud coloured by the glow.
‘I love the red of those clouds,’ she says. ‘Apparently there’s a green flash when the sun goes down.’
‘It’s called the green ray, there’s a French film about it called Le Rayon Vert,’ I say.
‘Oh, I’ll have to look it up,’ she says. ‘Watch out for the cow pats.’