Autumn is Knocking

The light on the horizon has changed significantly this past week, casting long, broad shadows across the hills.  The sky is filled with an eclectic mixture of brooding, grey clouds adorned with cotton-candy-like puffs of white accentuated with splashes of blue.  Crisp leaves are beginning to carpet the ground and collect in corners of the garden and in all our drains.  An annual autumn project of clearing leaves has now appeared on our to-do list.  The most notable announcement of the season’s change is the formation of the bright flame-red berries dangling from the Rowan trees.

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Where did the summer go?  It seems just yesterday we were filling the long days with visitors and projects.  We were busy tending to the vegetable garden and our on-going repair of stone walls.  Daily we pulled weeds, maintained the garden, and filled potholes.  We spent hours gathering and consuming the abundance of our vegetable beds, building a new fence — which resulted in an unfortunate concussion for Roger — juggling family demands and embracing the arrival of the thoroughly modern Millie!

In the summer months, we carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam and Millie or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. Foxes and badgers make their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley sings a musical riff.

Now, as I walk the dogs in the early morning, I feel a chill in the air and can see our breath in the dawn air.   This first walk of the day is one of two stories:  Sam sniffing all the news of the day to come and slowly awaking his achy bones as he lumbers down the track; while Millie darts from one moment to the next, chasing her toy and racing past me and Sam to exercise her job as the Ambassador of Joy!  I certainly have my pre-coffee challenge with the two dogs moving at different speeds and entertaining their different interests, but our pack of three sync up with the pleasure of the crisp morning air.

As we turn the corner on our walk, down in the valley the fog hangs along the river as if a dragon flew past in the night and left a breath trail.  Exposed by the morning dew are the webs of the thousands of spiders who make their homes in the gorse bushes.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures, many of these spiders now seem to be making their homes inside our house and not a day goes by when I don’t discover yet another large arachnid awaiting rescue from the kitchen sink.

It’s not just spiders who have made their way into the house, we’ve had a few bats too.  Recently, I was spending the afternoon stacking our winter wood supply in the barn when I noticed something flapping about in jerky flight.  Too late to be a swallow or a house martin, they’ve left for warmer climates and won’t be back again until the spring.   When I stopped to investigate, I spied a bat hanging upside down in the rafters.  I’ve not seen it there before or since, so I suspect this is simply a temporary rest stop as it was too early to be out and about hunting insects.  Sure enough, later that day Roger and I spent the better part of the evening trying to isolate the Horseshoe bat, which had found its way from the barn into the house.

The greater horseshoe bat is one of the larger British bats with a wingspan of about 35-39 cm, and also one of the rarest.  We are in one of the few areas in the country where these bats are still breeding, so it is a treat to see one.  After Roger photographed and confirmed its identification, we managed to get it into a room where we could close the doors, turn out the lights, and open the windows so it would head out into the night to commence its hunting before returning to its roost in parts unknown to us.

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As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.  But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more of our time inside by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions to projects inside.  We have a water tank which needs replacing, pipes which need relocating, and we’re making some changes to the hot water system as a result.  Roll on Autumn….

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All The Leaves Are Brown

Crockern Farm

After an extended and beautiful summer, autumn has arrived. Crisp leaves now carpet the ground. A damp air freshens and awakens. And a lower angle of light on the horizon casts longer shadows. On early dawn walks with Sam, I spy spider webs glistening on the gorse bushes and glimpse my exhaled breath as we walk down the track. If there is a mist – and now there is almost always a morning mist – and if the sun is just right, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle. With the end of October near we will soon enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, especially if it is as wet and windy as last year.

This season brings the arrival of chillier weather, and with it, more of the critters from outside join us inside: spiders who spin intricate webs in a moment; the long eared bat; moths and a few late season butterflies; and our chickens. These are a curious clutch of hens and if the door is left open a jar, they march in single filed to see what might be on offer.

With its cooler air and changing colours, autumn always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, raking leaves, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures. Halloween is a once a year opportunity to get dressed in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations and cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars. Who doesn’t enjoy that?

It is disappointing to accept, but once again I do not think we will get any trick or treaters up our long track. All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring. And imagine if our doorbell did ring!   How would that brave soul — or, boooooooh undead being — behave if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats? Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when lost souls roam and haunt! What if a coven of witches on their way to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient stone circles on the moors knocked on our door in hopes of receiving a bite size Snickers Bar? Well, I for one refuse to disappoint!

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Pumpkins ready for carving.

Autumn is also a time of finishing up all those outdoor chores before winter arrives. As the plants die back to conserve their energy for a spring bloom, so too, Roger and I have turned our attentions to readying for winter.   Most recently, Roger has been repairing the shelves under the kitchen counter – a truly awful project – whilst I’ve stacked more firewood, cleaned the greenhouse, raked the fallen leaves, cleared the drains, given the lawn one last mow, turned and bagged compost, weeded, laid mulch, and straightened the barn. “It’s preposterous, I’m cutting shapes which have never been invented before!” said Roger as he walked past carrying a new shelf to replace the rotten ones under the counters.  And watching him contort himself underneath the kitchen counter, home to spiders and decades of accumulated dust, to solve the puzzle of these shelves has me realizing how easy my chores have been.

Except for one. I’ve just finished planting over 350 bulbs. How is it that bulbs seem so few when you buy them and oh-so-many when bent over planting them? I can only hope when spring arrives I appreciate the number and avoid my usual mistake of thinking, “Hey, we need more bulbs for next year!” Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowan, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, and Laburnum — under which there are now more clumps of bulbs. These snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils with their delicate yet proud stalks holding flowers will declare, in the fullness of time, spring is on its way.   They will be our hopeful signs that winter is not forever.

But we aren’t there yet. Soon, we will spend more time by the fire and less outside. As the nights draw in and our wood burner provides daily comfort, we will turn our attentions back to finishing the downstairs. We got stalled.  The summer was just so nice. No, it was glorious! That, and the demands on our time were extensive. Work, travel, and the real test to any relationship, selecting plumbing taps, had us running to play catch up. Yet, we’ve endured. The fixtures are all here and the plumber arrives this week. We’ve framed and wired the new bathroom and with that, we can hopefully complete the downstairs before the year’s end.

This week, however, we will carve our pumpkin, enjoy the visit from our friends, and wait for the knock on the door from those lost souls!

The colours of autumn.

The colours of autumn.

Bring Out Your Dead and Halloween Candy

I took an early morning walk with Sam, a few weeks ago, and found myself marveling at the dew covered spider webs hanging from the gorse bushes that cover our part of the moor.  If there is mist – and there is almost always some morning mist in Dartmoor – and if the sun is just so in the sky, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle like an Elton John cape from the ‘70’s.  But now that the end of October is near and we officially enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, I’ve noticed that many of these spiders have moved inside with us.  They are huge, hairy and probably slightly terrifying to many, and most likely none other than Tegenaria domestica and Tegenaria gigantea.  That’s house spiders to you and me and they are here in time for Halloween.

House spiders

House spiders

Shortly after setting up camp inside the house, these spiders are seen busily scuttling across the room, climbing walls, and weaving some seriously impressive webs in the corners.  Naturally, before friends or family come to visit, we make an effort to neaten the house and remove the webs, but now that Halloween is upon us, I’ve been letting the spiders carry on with their silken decorations to create a spookier feel to the place.  Besides, they work hard to build their intricate traps and, given the number of projects we are facing, I can appreciate that need to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.

Autumn, with its cooler air and changing colours, always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures.  Halloween is a once a year opportunity to dress up in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations on the walls and ceilings, cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars.  Who doesn’t enjoy that?

Just because we live in a national park, whose history is riddled with numerous stories of ghosts roaming the moors, and what with Wistmans Woods – supposedly the most haunted place in Dartmoor – just a short walk away, and potential prisoner escapes from the jail just around the corner, doesn’t mean we are guaranteed Halloween success.   I recall, as a child, that spine-tingling sensation as my friends and I gathered the courage to make our way up a long drive to a dimly lit house with the sounds of ghouls blasting from the stereo speakers.   Dressed in our Superman, Princess Leia, Ghost, Hobo, Clown or Frankenstein outfits, we would steel ourselves, pillowcases in hand (selected to hold more candy) our hearts racing waiting for the door to creak open before we screamed, “Trick or Treat!”  But here in Dartmoor, we are some distance up a track and every kid knows you can’t maximize candy collection when houses are far apart.

So if Halloween won’t come to us, maybe we need to go to it.  In looking for the local Halloween events – certainly, there must be a haunted house to visit or a 5K Zombie Run For Your Life – I stumbled upon what may be the scariest of all events on the National Park Authority web site:  Ranger Ralph is leading a Ghosties, Goblins and Ghoulies walk for the whole family with “spooky stories and traditional Halloween fun.”  Among the numerous downsides to this event is that “fancy dress” (that’s costume for the non-UK reader) is optional.  Honestly, where’s the fun in that?

Every October marked the beginning of my costume planning.  We had a box in the attic full of dress up costumes and previous years Halloween outfits, but I always wanted something new.   I would beg and beg until my parents took me to the shops to see the latest selection of Halloween gear.  I longed for the magical outfit designed to help me bag a big cache of treats from the neighbourhood suppliers.  I carefully considered the season’s latest in plastic masks and polyester capes with glee while my mother carefully examined my costume choice for quality, pouring over its cheap snaps and weak seams and reviewing the small print label assurances that the material was indeed flame retardant.  As Halloween approached and the weather turned colder, my mother would insist that I wear a winter coat OVER my outfit.   As every child knows, it is not possible to ward off evil spirits and ghouls when that specially chosen costume’s super powers is covered with a coat, nor is it easy to paw through the candy selection while wearing mittens. My mother and I could never see eye to eye on this.

Halloween Clown

My friend clowning around. We were about 16 at the time of this photo.

It is disappointing to accept, but I don’t think we are going to get any trick or treaters this year.  All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring.  And imagine if our doorbell did ring!   How would any brave soul  — or undead being — feel if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats?  Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when those lost souls without a pulse haunt the land and magic is at its strongest!  Imagine how chuffed a passing coven of witches might feel upon trick or treating for a bite size Baby Ruth Bar before heading off to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient moorland stone circles.  When we were kids, soap on the windows or toilet paper in the trees were the sorts of shenanigans inflicted on those pretending not to be home because they didn’t have any treats to distribute.   But this sort of mischief is nothing compared to the collective powers of witches who can turn someone into a toad or standing stone should they feel the urge.  Without a treat to offer, I’m certain we don’t have a chance at deflecting their hatched spells.

Halloween Dads

My Dad (on right) and two of his friends one Halloween circa 1975.

Luckily, Ranger Ralph is not the only game in town.  Each year a group of paranormal enthusiasts gather to exorcise the two hundred year old ghost of Kitty Jay who, as a young barmaid at a local pub, was seduced and left pregnant by a young farmers son, who subsequently disowned her.  In her anguish, she committed suicide therefore preventing her body from being buried in consecrated ground.  Instead, as was custom then, she was buried at a crossroads with a stake through her heart.  This last act was done to stop the Devil taking her soul and also to confuse her spirit so that it could not find its way back to haunt the living.   It is believed that her soul still wanders restlessly on Dartmoor.  Really, who needs paper bats and skeletons when this sort of stuff is on offer?

This part of the world is filled with places that just cry out to go and visit to celebrate All Souls Night.  I’m oddly drawn to some of the spookier places with names like Bleak House, Bloody Pool, Coffin Wood, or best of all, Scary Tor.  There are lots of places with Devil or Pixie in their names that could keep us busy for some time were we to visit them all.  I want to get into the spirit, as it were, of this holiday, so we may just set out on a walk along the Lych Way, also known as the Way of the Dead.  It was along this track that the corpses were carried for burial at Lydford and as luck would have it, it is just a short walk north of our house.

More than likely, we’ll stay home and carve our pumpkin, open a bottle of wine, don our masks and wait for that knock at the door.  Anticipation is often the scariest part.  I wonder who’ll come to your door?

Halloween Souls

Wandering souls in search of ….