Tag Archives: fungi


October 16th, 2010. Three hours. Late afternoon. It’s bright, clear and cold. A light breeze out of the north has driven the clouds over the city to the south, unveiling the sun, though I still need a jersey and jacket, a cap and scarf to keep warm. I meet Rose, walking her collie. She gives me her news. The buzzards on the west side of the village are still there, having nested this year. One day in August she counted eight water voles in the ditch that runs from Histon, before they cut and cleared it. In the brook, the six crayfish are down to two, both males she thinks (the two I saw back in August?), the females apparently gone. And she’s seen goldcrests by the rec. I have little to offer in return… three juvenile swans, that’s about it. A lifetime of walking these fields has opened her eye as well as her heart.

I set out for the scrubland and woods below Histon. On either side, the rich brown ploughland is studded with gulls, shining white in the lowering sun. I haven’t seen so many since winter. The clear weather has brought out the dogs too, and their walkers. Fifty feet above the scrub a kestrel quivers in the clear air, in front of a pale three-quarters moon. A gang of long-tailed tits works through the bushes, always busy and sociable. There are still some late blackberries on the brambles, but small, soft and insipid. Not so the acorns, fresh-fallen and green. I crack one underfoot and it releases its plump, moist, ivory seed, as sweet and fresh as a brazilnut.

Colonies of mushrooms have hatched from the deep, all very localised. In a grassy field the white flaky cylinders of Shaggy Inkcaps unfurl into black-fringed bells on very tall stems. True to their name, their spores have been found in the ink of medieval manuscripts. In the litter of a plantation outside the village, Wood Mushrooms abound at all stages of growth, the newly-emerged as tight and white as golf-balls. Very good to eat apparently …but the fungal world is full of deception… caution is called for. The more open areas in the scrubland are strewn with Milkcaps of a kind, with wavy orange caps slick with mucous. Once you accustom your eye to these strange and beautiful creatures they’re all over the place at this time of year.

I have discovered what I think is an active badgers’ sett. It is on the side of a hollow in the middle of a small circle of woodland, betrayed by conspicuous yellow sand that has been excavated from the tunnels and strewn round the entrances. I enter the wood as silently as possible. The soft, damp ground muffles my footfall. I take up my position, well-hidden, some 80 yards from the sett. I wait. And wait. There’s no movement, no sound, no shuffling shape. It’s now so dark in the wood that I can barely see anyway. Losing patience, I go to inspect the sett at close quarters. It seems that someone’s been at them. The sand is patterned with bootprints and a great log has been thrust down one of the entrances, effectively blocking it. Kids or vigilantes? As far as I know there are no cattle within range so there should be no persecution.

I emerge from the night of the wood into dusk. On the western horizon a strip of pale orange and yellow cloud reflects an inglorious sunset. Trees are silhouetted black against a green ocean of sky. A few late flocks of seagulls head north, high and silent. I set off home through a deserted and soundless landscape. Long-gone are the dog-walkers. But where are the birds, where are all the creatures? All is still, all is quiet. Only the water in the ditch, trickling through a culvert under a bridge, is alive. The great rookery at Westwick is utterly silent, as if abandoned, and even the parkland below the big house has been emptied of sheep. Dusk falls fast at this time of year. It’s soon quite dark, in spite of a now bright-shining bitten-off moon. As I near the village I catch the smell of someone else’s supper. Slabs of yellow light fall through uncurtained windows. Somewhere far off, a dog barks.

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August 13th, 2010. The third day of Ramadan. A three-hour wander before sunset, when I can break my day-long fast. It has been noticeably cooler today, with dark, low clouds and intermittent showers. Not half a mile from home I am caught in a downpour. At ground level the air is still, but overhead the wind picks up suddenly, boiling through the high tops of trees. Then down comes the rain – a hard flung rain. Overarching trees provide little shelter. Five minutes later it’s all over, the storm passes, leaving a lingering drizzle and the land rilled, puddled and pooled. My cap is sopping, waterproof jacket soaked through, boots and socks cold and heavy with water. And I’ve only just started out.

Two wet weeks have re-sprung the land. The sere, bleached pastures and mown meadows now show a bright green sward beneath dry, brittle stems. Beck Brook’s the colour of milky tea, risen and flowing again. I hopscotch across a once more muddy yard at Lamb’s Cross Farm, trying to avoid the puddles. While a little wheat was harvested weeks ago in the long dry spell most is still standing in the fields, brown and drab, no longer golden, waiting for a break in the weather. Not so the fungi. This weather they love and now is the start of their season – a single large horse mushroom sports a head-dress of leaves borne aloft as it pushed up through the litter; a colony of slick orange-brown parasols on slender stems crowd the edge of the track; several tight white buttons hug the ground beneath horse-chestnut trees. This is a world I know nothing about, and must learn, before the year’s out.

As I top the rise on the old track above the farm, I feel the cold. The drizzle thickens, now slanting across my path. The distant evening is hazed with rain. Two hundred rooks with their sentinel jackdaws rise from a field like wet black rags, the only birds out and about. Intimations of autumn. Yet, despite the rain and the cold, and the fasting, or because of it more likely, I feel light-hearted, light-footed and, in truth, a little light-headed. So I decide on a longer route than I had planned, touching on the villages of Rampton, then Long Stanton, then back home to Oakington – some six sodden miles.

The lower end of Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway, is lined with wild plums, hawthorns and blackthorns. Here the damsons and cherry plums are not ready for picking, yet I gathered the same luscious fruits, ripe to bursting, one week ago not two miles further south along the same track. Similarly, the blackberries round here are still tight redddish-green knots. Purple-black sloes cluster along sprays of blackthorn, as hard as shot. Haws and hips are taking on colour. The flat heads of elderberries, swelling and blackening, droop in the rain. Crab apples, hard and green, are still not much larger than golf balls. Everywhere I go, I see fruits beginning to burgeon.

Detouring into a strip of orchard to check out the state of the plums, I actually fall down a rabbit-hole. Down to the knee at any rate. A large warren occupies a nettle-covered mound, riddled with burrows, but its black earth is so soft and loose, like the lightest of peat, worked by generations of rabbits, that I plunge straight through it into the tunnels beneath. I extract myself with some difficulty, for each time I try to step out my foot breaks through the surface again. I feel some remorse at my clumsy demolition but it appears that this warren has been fired quite recently and has probably been abandoned. I see no sign of rabbit.

The rain eases off again, and for a brief spell a weak sun shows through the cloud. Then a special gift is granted, as always on these walks, out of the blue. On passing a copse beside the Detention Centre I hear that old familiar mewing – the cry of a sparrowhawk, or what I think is a sparrowhawk. This is the fourth separate location in my patch where I’ve heard this distinctive, plaintive sound and the first time I’ve caught more than a glimpse of the bird. A pair of hawks is wheeling and diving low across the ground, buoyant and agile, then swooping up into a tall ash tree, then taking off again, chasing each other and mewing almost incessantly. As they turn in the air I see their closely barred underparts, banded tail and blunted wings. Unfortunately my way is blocked by an 8-foot chain-link fence and I cannot get closer. They must be 150 yards off, yet through the binoculars I get a pretty good look at the birds as they preen in the dead topmost branches of the tree, fluffing out their feathers and holding their wings out to dry. They look smaller and more slender when still. I watch for at least 20 minutes but the light is poor, and the distance great, and I am still not absolutely sure of the species.

On my long trudge home in the dying light, the rain starts again. A car pulls up, shuddering with the boom of drum n bass. A young couple. She lowers the window and asks if I want a lift. Brave of them I think, bedraggled and dripping as I am, and kind. But I cannot abandon the walk a mile from home, and tell them thanks, but I like to walk in the rain. And I do. And it’s not long before I burst through my back door, peeling off clothes like a wet-suit, just in time for a breakfast of dates and glass of cold milk, followed by spicy sambusas. Food never tasted so good.

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