people The Valley of the Rocks, North Devon
A sudden shift of air Author Marcia Willett takes a favourite autumn walk along the coast in Exmoor
t Luke’s little summer: those few magical weeks following the equinoctial gales that bluster in from the western approaches, battering the last frail summer blossoms, wrenching damaged branches from unprotected trees. There is a special kind of peace that follows this first wild heralding of winter; a sense of waiting. This is not the expectant longing of the countryside as it waits for spring to burst out of the frozen, sealed-in earth. This is a quiet, contented waiting: the satisfaction of something completed and the prospect of a well-earned winter’s rest. Down on the storm-battered coast, the placid sea rests gently against the shore; its surface, smooth and shiny as silk, is wrinkled occasionally by a fitful breeze. Black-backed gulls, driven inland by the gales, are once again following a fishing boat, and I can hear their yarking, raucous cries echoing back from steep cliffs and rocky coves. The beaches are empty now; sand and shingle deserted by the holiday-makers. I wander at the high-tide line, followed by my elderly Labrador who pants along with a piece of drift-wood clamped between his jaws. Two fishermen sit at the water’s edge in companionable silence, watching their lines, the afternoon sun on their backs. In the deep twisting lanes the air is warm and still. Along the hedgerow I see a late crown of faded honeysuckle looping amongst the spiny twigs of the blackthorn, and a few wild roses trailing fragile tissue-paper petals. The lush green canopy of summer has faded and shaded into yellow and brown and red. Leaves, crisping into old age, swirl and twirl in a sudden gust of wind; the beech randomly giving away its gold. I watch the starlings swoop low across stubbly fields, flying upwards in a great cloud, only to fall again, diving through the clear blue air, sleek and graceful as a shoal of fish. Inquisitive heifers barge and trample at the farm gate as I approach whilst beyond them, on the hill above the valley, a tractor moves slowly; the newly turned crimson earth glistening under the plough. Walking home across the high moors, I see that the rusting stands of bracken are damaged, broken down by the storms, but hawthorn berries burn on the twisted branches of ancient trees and gorse is still flowering: ‘When gorse is in flower, kissing’s in season’. Amongst the brittle cages of the heather, tiny spiders fling out silky tents and go tight-roping it across the delicate threads in search of prey. A small knot of ponies clatter from behind a rocky outcrop and gallop down the steep slope towards the sheep-cropped turf that edges the river where curling mists rise and drift above the water like smoke. Autumn is full of colour. The flame of a beechwood; the flare of a bonfire; the glow of a grinning pumpkin at Hallowe’en. The sun rises later, sets earlier, plunging down in a fiery display, to be extinguished in the molten sea beyond.
Photography: Loop Images
Marcia Willett’s new novel, Postcards From The Past, will be published in October by Bantam Press priced £16.99.
“Along the hedgerow I see a late crown of faded honeysuckle looping amongst the spiny twigs of the blackthorn, and a few wild roses trailing fragile tissue-paper petals” 75