IT’S been a month of first frosts and misty mornings, fading fungi and the smell of fireworks.
It began with a final blaze of autumn colour in the run-up to Bonfire Night and Armistice Day, and ended with an icy blast, a reminder that winter is definitely on the way.
November is a ‘game of two halves’ in many respects, starting with a fortnight of burnished golds, yellows and russet hues before the trees get stripped bare by fierce winds and driving rain, and we enter an altogether bleaker period of the year.
Wordsmith, author and friend Alan Cleaver, better known in his neck of the Lake District by his Twitter monicker @thelonningsguy and for writing about the “corpse roads” of Cumbria, reminds us that Cumbrian farmers identify a fifth season of the year covering the dull, drab fortnight or so before winter properly sets in.
“Back End” is the term they use, and it somehow perfectly encapsulates this sullen no man’s land between autumn and winter, the ‘scrag end’ of the year.
Writing in his blog back in 2013, Alan wrote: “It’s such a blindingly obvious fact to most Cumbrians that you really do wonder how the rest of the world copes with a mere four seasons.
“We’ve just entered the ‘lost’ season of Back End. It comes between autumn and winter when autumn’s lost its glory but winter is yet to bite. There’s some dispute but most people will place it around the first two weeks in December.”
No one is quite sure of the precise timing of this season, he concedes: “But we want to keep the rest of the world guessing. We’ve revealed there’s a fifth season – now let them work out when it is!”
As literary translator Antoinette Fawcett put it a couple of years later, “backend” is a “blunt-sounding word, plain and to the point. and…firmly associated with the northern counties of England”.
Northern roots or not, it’s perfect for summing up the dank, drab, lifeless feeling of some days in late November, when the light feels bleached and the undergrowth sodden. But not all days are like that – and chilly glimpses of winter sunshine uncover some hidden attractions.
For a start, those crisper, clearer mornings reveal some stunning cloud patterns, glorious sunrises and mist-coated fields.
Evergreen trees and bushes provide a pleasant colour contrast and the array of berries provide rich pickings for native birds and migrants alike, like the wintering redwings arriving from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland, or this tiny goldcrest, pictured at Burnham Beeches.
Hawthorn, holly and mountain ash all provide valuable food sources for birds and small mammals during the winter months, along with blackthorn, juniper and dog rose.
It’s that time of year when ladybirds huddle together in large groups and start looking for suitable sites to hibernate, sheltering under tree bark or leaf litter perhaps. Hedgehogs are seeking out a comfortable den after escaping the perils of bonfire night and badgers are pulling moss, leaves and bracken into their underground setts where they spend so much time snoozing.
Out on the local lakes and quarries the wildfowl are squabbling, the migrants have arrived in force and under and around the feeders the usual array of tits, squirrels, pigeons and blackbirds have been boosted by the occasional less familiar markings of a magpie, nuthatch, pheasant or parakeet.
Out in the woods the fungi may have faded but the mosses and lichens are creating a colourful carpet over the roots and branches, with many trees looking as if they are boasting furry green pyjamas.
December is almost upon us, with the forecasters warning of icy blasts, though with no immediate threat of snow on the horizon, here in the south at any rate. Does that mean we are still in the “backend” season, then? I guess we need our farming friends in Cumbria to let us know about that.
A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for December, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.