Earthstars and Peacocks.
The belt of trees between the down and the arable field is protected from both the hedgecutter and spray drift by a wide, conservation strip. The grass is long and pale, full of spiders, beetles, bugs, moths, butterfly eggs, mice and voles and – as I walk its length – about a dozen brown hares, their fur soaked with dew. The belt is a thin wood – or a wide hedgerow, whichever way you look at it – and full of fruit. There are sloes, hips and haws, the dripping rubies of guelder rose, dogberries like small blackcurrants, wild privet berries and crab apples. Black buckthorn berries cluster like tiny bunches of grapes along the branches. A field maple is thickly encrusted with lichen the exact same butter-sunshine colour its leaves have turned. Only a closer inspection reveals that both are giving it this vivid colour.
In the scrub on the down, gorse, wild privet and box create warm, waterproof hollows and dens for all sorts of wildlife. A muntjac bombs away, a fox burns away, looking back at me between narrow shoulder blades. Its brush, a little thin at the base, seems to linger while the animal has already gone – the white tip following on like a cigarette in the dark as the fiery chestnut stole is snatched away like a jealous afterthought, as if I were after it. A peacock emerges then, from the cover of this wild, remote place. I am not as surprised as I might be. A small population survives here after being dumped, years ago.
It walks in self-conscious grace, with a slightly embarrassed air in these wild surroundings, its magnificent, though slightly battered tail trailing behind like a rich, torn, paisley gown slung over a shoulder. I feel I’ve interrupted the morning after last night’s ball.
Further along, I slip on the leaf-covered roots of a beech on the steep wooded down and land on my hands and knees. My thighs and wrists ring from the latent sting of old nettles. For a moment, I crawl because it is easier and, looking down, come face to face with seven earthstars.
A rareish find, these fungi look like cups and saucers. The first layer opens and peels back like a wooden flower revealing a central globe. The pouting sphere puffs a smoke of dry, powdery spores when flicked: dead stars, burnt-out comets, still smoking from the fall. Yet some of the outer ‘petals’ have curled back in their second stage, raising the earthstar up on its own platform, in a gymnastic ‘bridge’ above the leaf litter. Very much alive, they look crab-like, as if they’d been sidling up the hill, and only froze when I found them.
When the night comes, it is clear and cold at last. More redwing, fieldfare, golden plover and woodcock come in from the north, calling down and reorienting my compass. Even past Bonfire Night, there are peacock-bright fireworks, rockets and comets on the hill and laughter. And just along from the car park, into the true darkness, all manner of wilder wonders and mysteries.