IT’S a chilly November night in the heart of the woods, with the star-studded sky casting a ghostly glow through the ancient branches.
Only an hour ago, the place was awash with autumn colour, the last afternoon rays of sunlight lighting up the russets and browns of the fallen leaves.
Now, although it’s not late, there’s little stirring among the frost-tipped leaves. The dog walkers have long headed home and most creatures with any sense have burrowed down for the night.
The call of an owl pierces the cold night air and the occasional explosive flurry of a startled pigeon or muntjac is enough to get the heart beating a little faster, but for the most part these dark woods seem deserted.
That’s something of an illusion, of course. It may be quiet, but this is still a refuge for wildlife of which we often catch only tantalising glimpses.
How often have we spotted a weasel or dormouse, for example? The occasional rustle among the leaf litter reveals we are not alone, and the reassuring hoots of the owls are a reminder that food is plentiful if you know where to look for it.
But although a fortunate wild swimmer might bump into an otter in the Thames, or spot a bank vole preening its whiskers, you have to get up with the lark or mooch silently around at dusk to stand a chance of catching a glimpse of our more elusive mammals.
On night walks like these, it’s easy to have a sense of time standing still: of past generations sharing the same sounds and emotions as they trudged along the local drovers’ roads and ridgeways on just such a wintry evening in a past century.
Amid this picture postcard landscape, Romans built their ancient roads out from London, stagecoaches swept past on their way to Oxford or Amersham, and displaced Polish families lived for years among the trees after the Second World War…
November is the month of woodsmoke and fireworks, of first frosts and misty mornings, of fading fungi and a fabulous fortnight of burnished golds, yellows and russet hues as nature puts on its own glorious fireworks display before the trees get stripped bare for winter.
It’s a season of remembrance too: of poppies and memorials, of wreath-laying ceremonies and sombre thoughts of past battles and lost loved ones.
As temperatures fall, this is that bleak, sullen fortnight or so before winter properly sets in that, we learned in 2020 from author and friend Alan Cleaver (better known in the Lake District as @thelonningsguy and for writing about the “corpse roads” of Cumbria), Cumbrian farmers identify as “back end”.
The landscape may start feeling somewhat bleak and unwelcoming, but it’s a time when our bird tables come alive with tiny visitors and crisper mornings reveal gloriously intricate spiders’ webs and colourful mosses and lichens carpeting old tree stumps.
Some less familiar faces may join the native birds feasting on the hawthorn, holly and juniper berries, while hedgehogs and badgers are seeking out comfortable spots for a wintry snooze – and there might even be a chance to catch sight of a stoat in its winter coat of ermine…a camouflage tactic that offers somewhat less protection now that our winters are becoming less and less snowy.
Chilly it may be, but our timeless Chilterns landscape has not lost all its colour yet, tempting us out in our scarves and mittens in the hope of hearing the whistle of a kite or hoot of an owl, watching the wildfowl squabbling at the local quarry or the bats coming out to hunt as darkness falls.
Here, where the buried flints and pots beneath our feet remind us that this landscape has been home to people like us for thousands of years, we can smell the woodsmoke rising from ancient chimneys, watch the silvery Thames slicing through the fields and feel just a little more connected with the natural world around us.
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.