A celebration of autumn: part 4 – conclusion

Three years previously I started to write a series of nature posts using the wonderful Ladybird ‘What to look for’ books as inspiration. Other work took over and the project stalled, as things often do. This post marked a temporary return to the series and the last of the Autumn pictures.


My original intent was to reflect on changes in the countryside, to face the losses in the unbearably short time since the books were made. Even since I started writing the circumstances of our lives have worsened. We live in times devoid of leadership, allowing ourselves to be controlled by corporate power and toxic media. In our passivity and delusion, we seem happy to accept the spread of mediocrity and loss of agency. I believe it behoves us all to take back whatever small powers we can, to spread the warning messages far and wide, to say again and again that our blind addiction to wanton consumption is not just unsustainable, but insane.

If you would like to read the earlier Autumn posts, you can find them here:

‘Harvest’: part 1 – naming autumn, a ploughed field, wild harvest, hop pickers, flight of the swallow

‘Fruit’: part 2 – a hayrick, wild berries, hazel coppice, Sydenham Hill Wood

‘Inedible’: part 3 – foxes, fungi, weasels, wild ducks

A digression on shooting pheasants

As I write this in late November, the autumn colours of the English landscape (at their best a week earlier) are disappearing in cold winds. The dynamic mixture of colours reminded me of the dioramas of childhood, where dyed reindeer lichen stood in for trees and shrubs. Now yellow leaves blow along like manic butterflies, the ironic counterpoint of Spring. Frost and ice begin to slow things down – except in city worlds, which know no seasons and barely pause for sleep.

Hearts of Oak

Acorns, wood pigeons, fairy rings
What to look for in Autumn – acorns, wood pigeons, fairy rings

Reflecting on the ridiculous English vs. Spanish bluebell war, Richard Mabey wrote that the Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) have been regularly hybridising for millennia, yet there is no sign of either original species dying out. There may be specific reasons for this resilience, but the comment serves to highlight the rigidity in some nature conservation.

Importing disaster

Native trees and shrubs support a multitude of species and none more so than the Oak (I wrote a separate piece on the extraordinary ancient oak ‘Majesty’ here). Unfortunately, the dance between host, predator and parasite has been rudely interrupted by ignorant human behaviour. Pollution, agricultural nitrates and the traffic in live plants have created massive problems for trees. The virulent form of Dutch Elm Disease that completely altered the English landscape came from imported Canadian logs (the Elm itself is non-native). The fungus that causes Ash dieback also came from imported trees, probably from Asia. Even oaks are now at risk from Acute Oak Decline and Sudden Oak Death.

Number of insects and lichen supported by various trees
Number of insects and lichen supported by various trees

Opinions vary, but oaks support around 300 insect species and a similar number of lichens. Compare this to the sterility of imported species in the table above. Our towns and cities have been largely populated with alien species. In the country, massive conifer plantations, inimical to local wildlife, have effectively depopulated whole tracts of land. All this change has taken place very quickly in the context of historical deforestation.

Consider first the population of the UK. Very slow historical population growth suddenly leapt after the enclosures and clearances, and the spasm of the Industrial Revolution.

UK population in the last 2,000 years
UK population in the last 2,000 years Source: http://chartsbin.com/view/28k

But afforestation in the UK has been low for centuries. Successive needs, starting with fuel and building, and the expense of imported timber meant that forests in the UK suffered more than those in mainland Europe.

UK deforestation in the last 2,000 years
UK deforestation Source: https://www.forestry.gov.uk/

Overlaying the population chart with a line for the percentage of UK afforestation shows (as far as one can tell without accurate records) that tree cover reached its nadir in the early nineteenth century and has improved considerably since. However, the improvement includes conifer plantations and many other non-native trees planted for economic and aesthetic reasons. Look again at the table to see that the trees originally native to the UK are also the most important for other wildlife. One-third of the rest of Europe is under forest, so the UK is still lagging behind.

Survival of the Commons

I expected to find that the practice of feeding pigs on acorns would have died out in the UK. To my surprise, I discovered that it is alive in the New Forest with the custom known as the Common of Mast. The New Forest Commons are of Pasture, Fuelwood, Mast and – historically – Marl (lime-rich clay) and Turbary (peat turves for fuel). Sustainable Commons, both physical and figurative, will become more important once again, as the economy begun by the Industrial Revolution convulses.

The ‘Fairy Ring’ of myth and folklore can be caused by a number of species, but probably the most usual is Marasmius oreades, the Fairy Ring Champignon.

Marasmius oreades
Marasmius oreades by StrobilomycesOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Grey Death

With the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which has effectively displaced the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) from the UK, we once more encounter the prejudicial word ‘invasive’, a word always used against species introduced by humans that have gone on to prosper. There are few more hypocritical terms than this one.

If our woods were as diverse as once they were, Pine Martens (Martes martes) would quickly bring the Grey population down, to the benefit of the Reds. But Pine Martens are only present in England in tiny numbers, so the spread of the Grey Squirrel goes unchecked. The smaller size of the Red Squirrel apparently gives it the edge over Greys when it comes to avoiding martens. Evidence of this also comes from the reintroduction of the Pine Marten into the Irish Midlands.

What to look for in Autumn - red squirrel, jay, death cap. beech mast
What to look for in Autumn – red squirrel, jay, death cap. beech mast

The Grey Squirrel also carries parapoxvirus, lethal to Reds. According to the Independent newspaper, parapoxvirus from Greys has all but destroyed a Red population in the Lake District. Grey Squirrels, unlike Reds, strip bark from trees, rendering them vulnerable to fungal attack. Human arrogance is responsible for the spread of the Grey Squirrel, a spread so damaging that the animal is regarded by some as a biological weapon (presumably homo sapiens is the most effective such weapon). The answer lies not with expensive and inefficient culling (or in novelty beer bottle holders) but in increasing diversity. Unfortunately, we are very bad at it. Our monolithic culture pays lip service to diversity while failing to engage with it except in the form of tokenism, or in the conservation of relict populations.

Toxic slip

Tunnicliffe’s illustration of the False Death Cap (Amanita citrina) looks a little stylised. Although this mushroom is edible in small quantities, its similarity to other (highly poisonous) Amanita species renders it unappealing. The excellent nature site http://www.first-nature.com, describing the true Deathcap, writes of “the repulsive smell that, to anyone with a nose, should betray the evil within a mature Deathcap”. Such an interesting slip to describe poison as ‘evil’: it could be put to evil use, but in itself is not.

False Death Cap
False Death Cap by The High Fin Sperm WhaleSelf-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Eels and greed

Of the species mentioned in the next image, only the Long-tailed Tit exists in decent numbers. Water companies have substantially reduced the very habitat depicted. Agricultural run-off has poisoned most of the rest. The Kingfisher is on the decline and is on the UK Amber List for birds. Luckily for the Kingfisher, eels are unlikely to be a part of its diet. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla), once a staple food, is now critically endangered. Eels are victims of not only ‘environmental factors’ (code for human habitat destruction), but a roaring trade in eels smuggled to Asia.

The consequence of this shocking greed is that the number of eels in the UK has dropped by a staggering 95% since the 1970s. Eels, as this article makes very clear, have become the ivory of Europe. The image of the stream full of eels was accurate. Rivers, particularly those emptying into the Atlantic, would turn silver with the numbers of migrating eels. This is a sight that is almost certainly lost forever.

Long-tailed tits, kingfisher, eels
What to look for in Autumn – long-tailed tits, kingfisher, eels

The Sargasso Sea, to which mature silver eels travel to spawn and die, has a high concentration of plastic waste. The huge North Atlantic Garbage Patch is there. As we know now, plastic absorbs pollutants, making it poisonous to anything that eats it.

Bonfire of the vanities

The Tawny Owl is also on the Amber list after declines in population and breeding range. The illustration is prescient. The owl sits aloof, as if in judgment, high above the spectacle of the bonfire. It is a suitable image for our hot ferocious destruction of the world about us.

Tawny owl
What to look for in Autumn – tawny owl

It is also notable that Tunnicliffe has shown the Scots Pine, the only conifer (other than Yew and Juniper) native to the UK.

Autumn: a digression on shooting pheasants

As much as the media wishes us to believe that it is Christmas (and therefore winter), it is autumn here until the solstice on December 21st. So I have time for a few further pieces in which I draw further inspiration from the Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged). This post looks particularly at the plight of the millions of pheasants reared every year to be shot.

My explicit aim is to explore changes in the British countryside over the last fifty years. Implicitly though, I sense a political and psychological purpose unfolding, which I hope will become more transparent as I write.  You can find the first piece, loosely arranged around the harvest, here. The second piece looks at autumn fruit. The third examines some less edible fruits.

I originally intended this post to hold six more spreads from the book, but I have only included two. When I arrived at the painting of pheasants a more important need arose, as I hope will be clear further down.

The decline of the common starling

Starling, magpie, puffball
What to look for in Autumn – starling, magpie, puffball

Seen close to the starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a very beautiful bird . Its feathers are iridescent, shimmering. Perhaps it is no surprise that incredible wheeling flocks of starlings, murmurations, should attract such interest. But the population of this long-lived characterful bird has crashed by around 70% over the last fifty years. Their food is principally worms and leatherjackets crane fly larvae). These have both declined as a consequence of the chemicals used on farms, and dry summers attributable to climate change. A proportion of starlings migrate to the UK in the autumn/winter and it’s wonderful to witness their excitement upon arrival, their hungry pecking at the soil and eager whistling.

Some people think badly of the acquisitive ‘robber’ magpie (Pica pica) because it takes the eggs of songbirds. But according to research carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, there is no impact on the songbird population in areas with a high penetration of magpies. This is born out logically since the songbird population is in sharp decline, but the magpie population is stable.

I can find no further information on what a hat made from a Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) might have looked like. II wonder if the expression, “… I’ll eat my hat” might be related to this forgotten practice, for this is another edible fungus, despite the sense of alarm in the text.

Pheasant, spindle
What to look for in Autumn – pheasant, spindle

Spindles for spinning wool were actually made from the wood of the Spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus). These days it is used for making charcoal for artists. In the past, the poisonous fruit was ground to treat head lice and mange in cattle. The Spindle may not be in much demand for its economic uses now, and it is mostly planted for ornament, but it supports a wide variety of insects, many moths and aphids, and birds who prey on the insects. I can’t identify the fungus.

The beauty of the pheasant

The very sight of the Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) conjures any number of rural associations. Our images of the countryside include both the distinctive whirr of the wings of a startled bird, and its ‘kok, kok’ call. Here is Alexander Pope’s famous verse:

See! from the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings:
Short is his joy; he feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.
Ah! what avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold,
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?

Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest, 1713
The Pheasant, by J. T. Barker

There is a sense in both poems of the exotic beauty of the pheasant. I wonder to what extent the attraction we feel to it has led to it becoming a game bird. Pheasants are battery raised in dreadful conditions to be shot out of the sky in the hundreds and thousands. King George V once personally shot a thousand pheasants out of a total of 3,937 during a shoot in 1913, remarking later, “Perhaps we overdid it today.” This unrestrained blood-lust was eerily prescient of the millions of humans (and the untold millions of the other than human) slaughtered during the following four years.

Lies, damned lies…

A huge industry revolves around the shooting of game. According to the British Association of Shooting and Conservation is worth £2 billion. The BASC claims that the management of land for the purpose of shooting has benefits for all wildlife. This, the BASC claims, is because hedgerows, coverts and other features of rural Britain are kept intact, rather than being grubbed up for large scale farming.

According to the BASC, ‘shooters have access to two-thirds of the rural land area of the UK, much of it effectively inaccessible to wildlife agencies.’ The BASC provides a system for landowners to make records of ‘quarry species’ and ‘other species… among the Government’s farmland bird indicator species which are used for gauging the health of the countryside’. Landowners are encouraged to submit data because ‘every piece of land entered and wildlife species recorded creates more information that BASC can use to protect and promote the sport.’

It soon becomes clear that the BASC’s idea of conservation is about protecting the entertainment of its members and defending itself against those who would see shooting banned or curtailed. Indeed, the BASC represents a powerful lobby of wealthy landowners responsible for ‘two-thirds of the rural land of the UK’. Here is the journalist and author George Monbiot:

According to Kevin Cahill, the author of Who Owns Britain, 69 per cent of the land here is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. It is profoundly wrong, I believe, that people struggling to support their families should be forced to extend alms to dukes, sheikhs and sharks: the absentee landlords, speculators, and assorted millionaires who own much of the farmland of Britain and other parts of Europe.”

George Monbiot, Feral, Allen Lane 2013

This is what we do with beauty

Pheasants, and other game birds, are kept at unnaturally high densities. A detailed report, prepared by consultant ornithologist Peter Robinson, suggests that the annual release figure of 20 million pheasants is wildly conservative, indeed Animal Aid says that it is now a staggering 42 million. The report goes on to say that the pheasant as a truly wild bird is becoming extinct, as captive-reared birds fail to breed successfully and are more prone to attack by predators. The increase in predation of these weak birds leads in turn to attacks on the predators themselves by estate managers, and the true extent of this remains hidden.

I recommend reading Peter Robinson’s report in its entirety. The report carefully examines the effects of stress on the birds, including the consequences of de-beaking and the fitting of anti-peck bits, the extent of predator control, crippling of birds through shooting, lead-shot deposition and lead poisoning as well as the economics of the shoot. This Animal Aid video, shot this year, is highly distressing:

The consequences of Enclosure

Though these days my diet is mostly vegetarian, I acknowledge that I have eaten many pheasants in my life. I am not against the licensed and controlled shooting of wild game birds for human consumption. What I contest, with mounting anger, is the ‘industry’ of shooting huge numbers of birds in the name of ‘sport’. That landowners use ‘conservation’ as a weapon to preserve this anachronistic behaviour is risible. It is high time that the land was restored to the people who once enjoyed it in common ownership. Oh, but surely the Acts of Enclosure put an end to the poverty of subsistence farming? That is the myth. Monbiot again:

These changes in the ownership of land lie at the heart of our environmental crisis. Traditional rural communities use their commons to supply most of their needs: food, fuel, fabrics, medicine and housing. To keep themselves alive they have to maintain a diversity of habitats: woods, grazing lands, fields, ponds, marshes and scrub. Within these habitats, they need to protect a wide range of species: different types of grazing, a mixture of crops, trees for fruit, fibres, medicine or building.

The land is all they possess, so they have to look after it well. But when the commons are privatized, they pass into the hands of people whose priority is to make money. The most efficient means of making it is to select the most profitable product and concentrate on producing that.”

George Monbiot, http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/the-tragedy-of-enclosure/

It is apparent that the dispossessed are growing in numbers, not just those dispossessed of a home, of a garden to grow a few vegetables, but also of a connection to the land and a sense of community, and in another piece I will suggest that much of our modern behavioural problems are consequent upon this dispossession.

A celebration of autumn: part 3 – inedible

You can see my first two posts on Autumn here and here. As before I have added spreads from the Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged). The focus here is on the inedible (by humans) that comprises the bulk of the harvest.

Previously I said that the work has its own narrative because the posts explore change in the British landscape over the last fifty years. We see some successful species, ones that have managed to withstand the difficulties caused by population and agribusiness. There are many others that have been less fortunate. I hope that the skein of life, the web that connects us as humans and the other than human, becomes apparent as the series continues.

The pursuit of the uneatable

The hunt, blackthorn, parasols
What to look for in Autumn – hunt, blackthorn, parasols

Fox hunting may seem to have had its day but it is still legal in Ireland. A powerful lobby exists to bring it back. The lobby is led by the members of the House of Lords (who refused to pass the legislature) and the Countryside Alliance. But hunters no longer have an affinity with the land. The majority of foxes still killed are the victims of illegal hunts and poachers.

I cannot see that a pack of dogs, followed by a body of people on horseback, who in their turn are followed by still more people on foot and in cars, is anything other than a gross travesty of hunting in any form. It is neither ritual (because it has no spiritual significance) nor is it a sport. The prey is uneatable, as Oscar Wilde so memorably pointed out. So the hunt continues, sans fox, as a relic of privilege. The hunt itself is a dominant hierarchical symbol that is a mirror to the worst excesses of capitalism. It serves to illustrate the contempt that those who are elevated (whether on horseback or in power) have towards those without status.

.Quietly framing the anachronism of the hunt are the wild plums we call blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The acrid fruits are called sloes. They are also inedible but a fine flavouring, particularly for gin. There is a fine crop of Parasols, probably Macrolepiota procera. The author doubts that they are edible. In fact, Parasols are delicious, though they need to be positive identification before eating, and may not be picked from nature reserves.

Fungus the Bogeyman

Autumn crocus, shaggy inkcap
What to look for in Autumn – autumn crocus, shaggy inkcap

The distrust of fungi in these islands so prevalent fifty years ago makes itself known again on the very next page. The author correctly asserts the toxicity of the Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) but goes on to claim that ‘no living things’ except maggots and insects, would touch the ink-cap toadstool. In fact, the Shaggy Inkcap (Coprinus comatus) is also delicious when young.

Inedible yams

Potatoes, black bryony
What to look for in Autumn – potatoes, black bryony

We have to be careful about looking at the past romantically. Some loss is welcome, and one such practice was the back-breaking work of picking potatoes by hand. E.L. Grant Wilson wonders if the tubers of Black Bryony (Dioscorea or Tamus communis) might be edible. Don’t be tempted, they are not. This is another plant that has suffered from the grubbing up of hedgerows. I used to regularly walk a path that had Black Bryony growing on one side and White Bryony on the other. The two plants are not related. Black Bryony is our one representative of the Yam family, whereas White Bryony belongs to the cucumber family. The fruits of both are inedible.

Weasel, horse chestnut, wood blewit
What to look for in Autumn – weasel, horse chestnut, wood blewit

The Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda) is not perhaps a species to seek out for the table as it seems to disagree with some people. The naturally drying fallen Horse-chestnut leaves shown here are now only seen rarely because of the Horse-chestnut Leaf Miner (Cameraria ohridella). The predations of this leaf-mining moth prematurely dry and shrivel the leaves. Imported plants have enabled the moth to spread from its home in Macedonia. Since the late 1970s, it has moved inexorably northward. The tree is left unharmed, it seems, but this new moth species is also seen as a consequence of the reduction in diversity caused by over-planting. The tree is only distantly related to the Sweet Chestnut. The seeds are inedible, even to horses!

Misplaced morality

The Weasel – here the Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) is shown – has a good population and is not of concern. It also has a fascinating mythology, presumably owing to its shrill calls and its fierce demeanour. The evidence for a weasel killing ‘for the sake of killing’ seems to come from owners of livestock, chickens, rabbits. The oncentration of animals in a small space creates confusion. I can’t see that one can apply a moral judgement to a weasel, and I wonder if this comes from the Puritan notion that weasels were the familiars of witches. The name itself has a base meaning of ‘stinking animal’, from its musky scent, and the connotation of ‘weasel’ as something underhand (‘weasel words’) is related to the weasel’s ability to suck out the contents of an egg without destroying the shell.

One in six

Teal, shovelers, goldeneye, black-headed gull, heron, lapwing
What to look for in Autumn – teal, shovelers, goldeneye, black-headed gull, heron, lapwing

Teal, Shovelers and Goldeneye all share RSPB amber status as, alarmingly, does the black-headed gull. The lapwing has red status, with a very much reduced population. It was wonderful to see them at the London Wetlands Centre, of all places. Of all these lakeside birds then, only the Heron enjoys a stable population, but it is a comfort to know that they are still all with us, decorating the still waters of late Autumn and Winter.


I ‘wrote’ all of these Haiku out of doors. Nietzsche observed that “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” and while I offer no judgement as to their worth or otherwise, I certainly found them useful to invent in the moment and so for me they worked as  ‘great thoughts’ in difficult times.

I was criticised by someone on Twitter who told me that I should loosen up and ignore the 5/7/5 syllable ‘rule’. In one sense he was correct in saying that a syllable is not the equivalent of the Japanese mora. Even in English Haiku forms, there are many variants. However, something about the form of the traditional Haiku appeals. I place value in the adherence to structure, the importance of the ‘cutting word’ and the seasonal reference.








April: and the trees
Flap and flutter with the wings
of pigeons fucking.

Celandines are out.
In the fumes, I think of those
Bright buttery stars.

I hate Valentine’s.
But Magnolia buds swell,
Swaddled in soft down.

I see a greening
In the tightly furled birch buds.
My tax bill is here.

Go to the Top


A hot day in June:
Confronted by pale orchids,
my pain is greater.


A tired aroma
of cheap fat barbecued meat.
Life in the city.

High Summer, rain falls
on sweet-scented Buddleia
This is without shame.


Still so far away,
but so close: an honour guard
of tall hollyhocks

A grey shroud of dusk:
Fat pigeons grazing the lawn.
A thud of car doors.

Goldfinches twitter,
The sun starts it’s slow descent
Behind tall grasses.

Glancing up you see
The sky criss-crossed with contrails.
The city’s white web.

The cafés are full,
iPads and sharp pencils poised.
Elsewhere curlews call.

Go to the Top


My footsteps fall hard.
Each sodden leaf in my path
Reminds me of loss.

I saw a Brimstone
In November. But it was
Just a leaf, falling.

In late Autumn light,
Each branch is dressed with bright shards,
And loss cuts deeply.

A few flowers still,
Scattered by the river bank.
A dog rolls in leaves.

Hedgerows are weary
With great swags of Old Man’s Beard.
The earth calls for sleep.

Go to the Top


Which invidious
Part of us dreams of white cliffs
And the hum of bees?

Black fruit and lush green
Of Ivy in the cold sun.
This is what matters.

Slender willow twigs
Droop into the stream, or are
Blown like golden locks.

Just a little sun
On a cold day – and small flies
Appear like magic.

After the market
Has gone, yellow grass straggles.
A twist of tinsel.

Beginning again,
Pushing up through frozen ground.
It looks so easy.

Go to the Top


How small things remind:
the smell of a wool carpet
to a lonely child.

My pillow mocks me.
I wrap myself round it but
it cannot reach out.

It is hard to feel
the deep yearning in my heart
for sacred places.

It’s seven o’clock.
Dinner jackets and silk gowns
Gather to eat lies.

Another day goes.
Peaches and avocados
Belong to last year.

As the dark settles
I begin to dread the night.
Yawning hollow hours.

Dawn brings foolishness.
My black sea – was it so deep?
I reach out again.

I don’t often find
That poetry can quieten
The shrieking sirens.

It’s Saturday night.
Loud voices spill from the bars.
But they can’t listen.

In the morning sun
They can’t see how I’m bleeding.
I chase my desire.

I breathe a great breath
and swing the antique sabre.
Look how it glitters!

They want me to fight
To don the rusty armour.
Once more, with feeling.

What is this sharp pain?
A memory of spun gold:
Her hair in the light.

Sick for what I’ve lost,
A sweet longing dwells inside.
I spurn all doctors.

How a picture wounds,
Bringing back from long ago
A scent of ripe pears.

The gardens were closed,
I was robbed of many things.
Days of peace and light.

With a storm, a surge,
Things of the past are revealed.
My secret sadness.

How much I would like
To see tall buildings fall, and
Gaze at distant hills.

The Tories: neck deep
In the blood of bribery,
And the stink of lies.

The world will force you
To stay safely in the light.
But you need the dark.

Go to the Top

A celebration of autumn: part 2 – fruit

You can see my first post on autumn here. In this post, I have added more spreads from the delightful Ladybird book ‘What to look for in Autumn’, written by E. L. Grant Watson and with illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe (copyright acknowledged) as well as a few pictures I took at Sydenham Hill Wood. This post talks a bit more about autumn fruit. These posts have another purpose (if there has to be one). We are exploring both actual and perceptual changes in the British countryside over a fifty-year period. The work already has its own narrative.

The hayrick

Barn owl, Wayfarer Tree, Traveller's Joy
What to look for in Autumn – barn owl, Wayfarer Tree, Traveller’s Joy

Hayricks might be a thing of the past but luckily but there is still plenty of Traveller’s Joy, also known as Old Man’s Beard or the rather more prosaic Clematis vitalba. It’s a great food source for many moth species but its invasive habit makes it a problem outside the UK, particularly in New Zealand. In France it has the name herbe aux gueux, meaning beggar’s herb, because (according to this article) beggars used the juice of the plant to deliberately inflict ulcers, so arousing the pity of passers-by.

The wayfarer

The Wayfarer tree (known in the past as hoarwithy, an entirely pleasing name) is also relatively common but often goes unremarked. E.L. Grant Watson wonders how it got its romantic name of Wayfarer tree, speculating that it was so called by passing pilgrims. There is a poem, reproduced below, that suggests a similar origin:

Wayfaring Tree
What ancient claim
Hast thou to that right pleasant name?
Was it that some faint pilgrim came
Unhopedly to thee,
In the brown desert’s weary way,
Midst thirst and toil’s consuming sway,
And there, as `neath thy shade he lay,
Blessed the Wayfaring Tree?

Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894

A nice idea, but this description applies to the Guelder Rose, Viburnum opulus, not the Wayfarer tree, which is Viburnum lantana: besides, the fruit is toxic to humans. One uncredited source suggests that the name was invented by the Elizabethan botanist John Gerard. Confusingly, the name ‘Wayfarer tree’ is also applied to the European rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). The idea that the shrub is a natural signpost has some credibility, and so perhaps the name ‘Wayfarer’ was applied to any shrub or tree with vivid red berries.

Extraordinary that Grant Watson seems to consider that any reader might have had a pet barn owl. At the time the book was written DDT would have been in use in the UK, one of the causes of significant population decline in barn owls.

Wild berries

Bullfinch, Elder, Maple, Ash
What to look for in Autumn – Bullfinch, Elder, Maple, Ash

And here is one of the other ‘Wayfarer’ trees, the Rowan or Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia), a tree with a history of usage going back to prehistoric times. I’m thinking of making some Rowan jelly if I can find some fruit, it’s been a long time since I tasted any (here’s a good recipe).

At the time of writing, it is too late for elderberries (Sambuca nigra). Like much wild fruit, elderberries are slightly toxic until cooked, but you can make wonderful things from them without too much effort. Cordial, wine and syrup can be made from the flowers and the berries, but the leaves, and all the other parts of the plant, contain cyanogenic glycosides – hence the use against flies.

Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) were until recently very common but suffered a dramatic decline in numbers. Happily numbers are rising again. If you can’t see bullfinches, you might be able to hear them: their particularly mournful call can be easily identified.

The Hazel coppice

Nuthatch, Hazel, Rose
What to look for in Autumn – Nuthatch, Hazel, Rose

This illustration is a personal favourite (I love the rust on the hazel leaves). Hazel (Corylus avellana) was once very widespread, and much used in hedgerows and coppicing. It supports over thirty moth species and it follows that the reduction of hazel coppice has had a negative effect on biodiversity. Moreover, the eradication of temperate rainforest through the intensive hill farming of sheep has had an untold consequence. This detailed look at Atlantic hazel in Scotland reveals the beauty and mystery of a particular type of hazel forest and the extraordinary life that it supports.

The jewelled rose-hips of the dog-rose (Rosa canina) are a particularly wonderful sight in Autumn. I often feel like picking one of these juicy gems and eating it, but unfortunately, the seeds are covered with irritant hairs (used once for itching powder) and need to be removed carefully before consumption. If you can persevere with the de-seeding task, you’ll be rewarded with fruit high in antioxidants and vitamin C. They also taste good – and can be made into tea, wine and syrup. I almost used to look forward to having a cold as a child because it meant a dose of rose-hip syrup! It’s good that Tunnicliffe painted Robin’s Pin-cushion galls, a chemical response caused by the gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae). Birds and other insects predate the galls. What intricate relationships exist around the hazel and dog-rose alone!

The Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is also common, with an increasing population. If you see a bird running headfirst down a tree trunk, you are not seeing things, it’s a nuthatch. Here’s a link to its call.

Sydenham Hill Wood

Camille Pissarro - Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871)
Camille Pissarro – Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich (1871)

I visited Sydenham Hill Wood quite frequently once – it is an interesting mixture of old and newer woodland. A railway used to run through it and there was a station, Lordship Lane. The line was closed in 1954 (so the infamous Baron Beeching was not responsible) but the closure meant that new woodland could emerge alongside the old. Astonishingly, the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro painted a scene of the track.

This is an old photo of the footbridge itself:

Cox's Walk footbridge, Sydenham
Cox’s Walk footbridge, Sydenham

And a contemporary view from the footbridge looking down the old track:

View of the trackbed from the footbridge. Sydenham Hill Wood
View of the trackbed from the footbridge. Sydenham Hill Wood

You can walk across the footbridge Pissarro used and compare the painting to the current view of trees – this must be one of the few reversals from open land to woodland in London. It is managed by the London Wildlife Trust and it’s a wonderful place for many important and rare species, as well as a good spot for a short walk amongst glorious trees. Right now the forest floor is rich with fallen leaves and fungi. There’s a blog here about Sydenham Hill Wood with a wealth of information about its history and wildlife, but sadly not updated for a couple of years.

Hairy Curtain Crust

The wood has many species of fungi, including these fantastic bracket fungi (rejoicing in the name of Hairy curtain crust, identification courtesy of @wildlondon_SHW) growing from an old tree:

Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum
Hairy Curtain Crust, Stereum hirsutum

So far we have looked at the red berries of the Wayfarer tree, Rowan and Rose. To conclude this post here are another fruit, Holly berries dripping with rain, looking as pristine as one could hope.

Holly berries
Holly berries

A celebration of autumn: part 1 – harvest

Autumn – autumpne in the 16th Century, from the Old French autumpne, automne (13c.), via the Latin autumnus (or possibly auctumnus, perhaps from auctus meaning ‘increase’).

Before the 16th century, the season we call Autumn was called Harvest – though that word has now come to mean the action of harvesting, rather than the entire season. Some believe the lost root suggests a ‘drying out’ and point to the old English word for August: sere-month. If we could go back in time I wonder how many of the harvest scenes below we would recognise. How many of them belong to the imagination? Even sixty years ago, well before the advent of Big Ag, people were looking back wistfully at a time before world wars and motorways.

The wonderful painting by the 16th-century Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, shown above, depicts Autumn wittily personified. In this New York Times article, the author asks if Arcimboldo was insane. A meaningless question, since the tastes of the 16th-century aristocrat who commissioned Arcimboldo were of their time and place in history, which is not ours. Moreover, collectors and artists alike have often evinced a taste for the bizarre and theatrical. It is entirely fitting that the Paladin 1977 edition of Thomas Szasz’s seminal work ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ bore Arcimboldo’s painting ‘Water’ on the cover. Here it is:

Thomas Szasz: ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’
Cover of the Paladin 1977 edition of Thomas Szasz’s seminal work ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ features ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

I’ll write of the Four Elements in a later piece, but as part of my celebration of Autumn, I’m posting the illustrations and text from the Ladybird publication ‘What to look for in Autumn’, with words by E. L. Grant Watson, and illustrations by C. F. Tunnicliffe. The illustrations in particular are deeply evocative of a lost time and place.


The book I own was published in 1960 (it is not my own, which I lost over the years). Leafing through the pages I am transported back in time. Once again I experience the fascination with nature that these books inspired. The books even have a slightly musty smell of old damp, redolent of Autumn itself, just as my lost books did. Back then, without central heating, everything was slightly damp.

While it is clear that the books are out of print, the copyright belongs to Ladybird books. I acknowledge this and hope that my scans will be allowed to stay online (I emailed Ladybird to ask for permission but received no reply).

Here are the first four spreads of the book:

The Harvest

Pigeons, stoats, oats, mushrooms, harvest.
What to look for in Autumn – pigeons, stoats, oats, mushrooms, harvest.

There is a sad innocence in the writing. Nowadays venturing onto a ploughed field is to invite prosecution for trespass, and quite possibly illness from the residue of spraying.

A note too about identifying mushrooms: please go on a course or find someone who has expert knowledge. There are many species that look superficially similar but differ considerably in toxicity. For identification that is not aimed at consumption, here’s a good site: http://www.first-nature.com/fungi/index.php

The Wild Harvest

Starling, blackberries, greenfinch
What to look for in Autumn – starling, blackberries, greenfinch

We’re past the blackberries now, though I still have an untouched bottle of cordial that I hope is still drinkable. Nothing evokes late summer/early autumn quite as much as the scent and dark wine-like flavour of blackberries. To harvest blackberries is truly a labour of love. You are torn and bloody by the time you emerge, sticky and purple with blood and juice. A shot glass of warm blackberry cordial served neat, is a truly delicious nightcap that will instantly conjure hot country lanes and the sound of drowsy insects.

The Hop Pickers

Hop picking
What to look for in Autumn – hop picking

As far as I know, this is an activity that has just disappeared. No one goes on hop-picking holidays now, though they used to be an institution. Here’s a rather bucolic account and here’s another more socially aware treatment from none other than George Orwell.

The Flight of the Swallow

Swallow, house martin
What to look for in Autumn – swallow, house martin

I love Tunnicliffe’s lichen-covered roof (it looks so hot and dry) and the carefully observed stances of the birds. You can read a celebration of autumn: part 2 – fruit here.