I like this time of year. I like the dying days of summer and the shortening hours of light. It felt especially autumnal today, with big blustery skies and a coat-cold wind blowing.
I decided to spend the afternoon at Attenborough. I haven’t been for a while now and all through those intervening weeks I’ve felt its pull. I’ve been imagining those paths and waterways and cycling along them in my mind. At the moment I’m reading The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, a writer who is as obsessed with place as I am, and it is full of brilliant quotes about place and landscapes. This one, from a Czech writer called Václav Cilek, came back to me as I cycled to Attenborough:
A place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.
I suppose I have taken Attenborough to heart.
Throughout the summer and especially with the lovely sunshine we’ve been getting, the paths through Attenborough have been packed with people, but it was much quieter today and more like it was when I first went there, last autumn. I crossed the train tracks and headed towards the village, along a path I don’t usually take, though it is one of my favourite paths because of the arched bridge that provides a good vantage point over the water. I stopped at the bridge and took out my binoculars to scan the water. What had looked like mallard ducks from a distance, now looked like juvenile tufted ducks, still with a hint of brown to their feathers.
Further along the path I passed a sand flat that was covered in wading birds. Again I got out my binoculars and to my delight realised that they were lapwings. I quickly counted them: 153. As I counted them I also noticed a few starlings dotted amongst the group. I watched them for a while, noting all the colours of their plumage – the black and white, the deep green and hints of light brown – and admiring their crests, which flick up off their heads like back-to-front quiffs. Lapwings are a bird I’ve long wanted to see. I can’t explain why, but I know other people have had that experience too – you see a bird in a book and somehow your imagination latches on to it.
In the water, just out from the sand flats was a heron, slowly stalking its prey. I waited for a while, hoping to see it strike but in the end I had less patience than the heron and cycled on, through the village and along another pond. In Attenborough you are either on the water or on land that feels as though it has been dredged, reluctantly, out of the water.
A large swan waddled up the bank out of the pond to my left and slowly crossed my path. Not wanting to startle it or run it over I rang my bell. The swan stopped, turned towards me and hissed. It had the desired effect. I stopped and waited as it carried on its leisurely way. It pausing for a while before disappearing into the vegetation on the other side of the path, as though to make sure I knew who was in charge.
I carried on and came to an oak tree by the water, its low branches cried out to be climbed. I stopped and pulled myself up into the tree. It had obviously been climbed many times before. The tops of the branches were all smooth from countless hands and feet. I found a comfy nook and sat down. The leaves formed a perfect dome around me and jostled in the wind, whilst the sturdy branches resisted it oakishly. Through a gap in the canopy I could see the pond’s choppy surface and I watched the leaves and the water, unsettled by the wind. Eventually my head leant back and my eyes closed. I listened to the wind in the leaves – an act of homage to Thomas Hardy who, as a small boy, tried to learn to identify trees by the sound of the wind in their leaves. I felt as though I could fall asleep, but I dragged myself away and carried on along the paths.
Just when I think I have explored every bit of Attenborough, it surprises me. I took the path along the side of the railway tracks, past the pylon and the field with the black cow and brown horse. Usually I take the left side of the fork, but I decided to take the right side instead and found my way to a tarmac road I’d never been down before. I decided to take the road and cycled along a country lane, with overgrown verges and overhanging trees. It was only a slight detour, but in a world of paths, it is nice to be able to connect up the threads.
After the detour I headed back home along the Trent. The trees on the river edge revealed the ghostly silver undersides of their leaves and the whole world felt transported, as though readying itself for the advancing cold. Already there are wind-swept winter migrants flapping through my mind.