Has the sun really set on summer?

SEPTEMBER. Suddenly, there’s a chill in the morning air.

It’s as if nature knows you have just changed the month on the kitchen calendar and wants to tell you to forget all about those long humid dog days of summer – autumn is definitely on its way.

It’s not as if this should be a surprise. Days have been shortening since the summer solstice. But it’s the pace of change that suddenly seems to quicken.

From late May until near the end of July, sunset in the south-east is after 9pm. But we lose around three minutes of daylight every day from August through to late November…it just may take us a little time to notice.

That’s why, on a crisp morning in early September, we suddenly start muttering about the nights drawing in and winter being around the corner.

Dramatic skies foretell of more changeable weather to come. Even though in practice September is often a month of long hours of sunshine and relatively warmth, sunset is now before 8pm and will be almost an hour earlier by the end of the month. Psychologically, those long sunny summer evenings are already feeling like a distant memory, especially with the children back at school after the long holidays.

MORNING CALL: a small skein of pink-footed geese PICTURE: Tim Melling

It’s still getting light early, and we’re woken by the reassuring honking of geese flying past in perfect formation – just one of some 4,000 species of birds around the world migrating in search of milder weather and more plentiful food.

It’s a friendly sound, as if the family are having a lively conversation, although scientists speculate that it is actually a way of keeping the flock together on their long flights, with those behind honking encouragement to the ones in front.

The shape makes sense too, creating uplift for the bird immediately behind and adding much more flying range than if a bird flew on its own. They swap positions en route, so that when the lead goose gets tired, it rotates further back in the ‘V’ and another goose heads up front.

TEAM SPIRIT: wild Canada geese, pictured in North America PICTURE: Tim Melling

Even more amazingly (and much quoted on team-building courses around the world), when a goose gets sick or is wounded and falls out of formation, a couple of other geese obligingly fall out with their companion and follow it down to lend help and protection, staying with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies; only then do they set off to catch up with the rest of the group.

The geese aren’t the only ones of the wing. The skies are hectic with criss-crossing migrants and down at the local gravel pit the numbers of gulls and cormorants will be building.

Around the country from the Tweed estuary to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, birds are arriving in huge numbers, pausing before pushing on with their remarkable journeys.

KNOTS LANDING: a flock of knots and dunlins at the Humber Estuary PICTURE: Tim Melling

Meanwhile in the woods, it’s conker season for pupils wandering home from school and the acorns have been dropping like rainfall – or, as botanist and author @LeifBersweden puts it: “One of my favourite September activities is to sit in the sun near an oak tree, close my eyes and listen for the quiet plick-plock-thump of acorns pinballing between branches before falling to the ground. It might not sound like much, but that sound is just utterly wonderful.”

FUNGUS FORAY: many of the more colourful toadstools and berries are poisonous

The foragers are out looking for mushrooms and other edible delicacies, although many of the toadstools and berries are far from safe.

Start nibbling the fly agaric, destroying angel, death cap or white bryony and you could face vomiting and diarrhoea, stomach cramps, hallucinations and even death. Maybe not such a great idea for the uninitiated, then.

Ants and hornets are busy at work building their nests in the woods, bats are swarming and the baby moorhens are skittering around on their lily pad rafts.

Around the country, harvest has been under way for weeks, with early finishes in some areas where the weather has allowed, and heavy rain delaying the combines elsewhere.

Normally falling towards the end of September or early October, the harvest thanksgiving festival dates from pagan times, traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox (September 22 or 23).

Once Lammas Day at the beginning of the harvest season on August 1 was the time of celebration, when farmers made loaves of bread from the new wheat crop and gave them to their local church for ‘loaf Mass’ to be used as the Communion bread during a special mass thanking God for the harvest.

LAND OF PLENTY: harvest celebrations date from pagan times

The custom ended when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and nowadays we have harvest festivals at the end of the season which usually include singing hymns, praying, dancing and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food.

Michaelmas Day is traditionally the last day of the harvest season: the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel on September 29. St. The patron saint of the sea, ships and boatmen, of horses and horsemen, he was the Angel who hurled Lucifer down from Heaven for his treachery.

HARVEST HOME: today, celebrations take place towards the end of September

In the past, the harvest festival differed, based on when all the crops had been brought in, and was a matter of life and death that would involve the whole community working together, including children.

A prosperous harvest would allow a community to be fed throughout the potentially barren winter months and would be cause for much celebration. As an occasion steeped in superstition, it’s no surprise that so many ancient customs and folklore pre-date Christianity but still reflect the importance of crop gathering and the reverence in which the harvest was held.

THANK THE LORD: a prosperous harvest was a time for prayer and thanksgiving

Even 150 years ago all the work was done by hand – including the cutting of cereal crops like wheat, barley and oats – and everyone was roped in to help out, including wives, children and roaming groups of migrant labourers who would seek employment from farms at the start of the season, especially in the eastern arable counties.

Gathering sheaves into stooks was back-breaking work too and days were long, from 5am till dusk, but the compensation was extra pay, a midday meal and often all the beer or cider needed to keep a labourer going through a hot day.

OPEN OUTLOOK: farmland in Bedfordshire

After the harvest came the celebration – one of the great village festivals shared by all the local community and culminating in an evening of dancing and merry-making.

We may not have reached Michaelmas Day yet, but many farmers in the south-east have already finished their harvest, despite concerns about crop quality and yields.

With daytime temperatures staying up in the 20s, it’s clear that summer’s not quite over – but for better or worse, around the Chilterns, this year’s harvest is almost gathered in…

Time for a moonlit meander

TIS the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as Keats put it – of ripe fruit and harvest time, of an evening chill in the air and shorter days as we inch towards Michaelmas Day.

It’s the time of year where bats are swarming, birds are migrating and, deep in the woods, mushrooms and toadstools are flourishing.

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But while shepherds, farmers, druids and astrologers might have been all too familiar with equinoxes and solstices, city dwellers may be a little less aware of the significance of the Latin terminology, religious ceremonies and country folklore associated with the month of September.

Michaelmas on September 29 is the third quarter-day of the year and marks the Feast of the three archangels mentioned in the Bible (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael).

Traditionally this was the time when accounts would have to be settled by tenants, when the harvest was over – and the impending autumn equinox means it is also associated in the northern hemisphere with the start of autumn.

More than 50 English churches take their names from St Michael and All Angels, including those at Aston Clinton and Hughenden (below) in Buckinghamshire.

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Michaelmas is the start of school, university and legal terms, as well as being the last day of the year that blackberries can be picked, according to English folklore, since legend has it that when St Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, he fell from the skies and landed in a prickly blackberry bush.

Satan promptly cursed the fruit and, depending which part of the country you come from, it is said that he scorched them with his fiery breath and stamped, spat or even urinated on them so that they would be unfit for eating.

Hence Michaelmas pie is made from the last berries of the season, while another ancient tradition suggests that a well-fattened goose fed on the stubble from the fields after the harvest should be eaten to protect against financial need in the coming year: “Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year”.

Indeed the day was also known as “Goose Day”, apparently following the example set by Elizabeth I who was dining on goose on the saint’s day in 1588 when she was told of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

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Looking to the skies, this is also the month of the autumn equinox, one of the two times a year when day and night are almost equal all over the planet and traditionally taken as marking the beginning of autumn.

Since that makes Michaelmas the time of year that the darker nights and colder days begin, the celebration  is associated with encouraging protection during the winter months when it was believed the forces of darkness were stronger – and who better to protect one than St Michael, the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels?

This is also the month of the most famous of all full moon names, the Harvest Moon, with numerous harvest festivals being celebrated around the world, from America to the Chinese mid-autumn Moon Festival.

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In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar months, and for millennia people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named the months after features they associated with their seasons.

Today, we use many of these ancient month names as full moon names, including the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon nearest the September equinox. 

Immortalised in music by Neil Young in a song on his 1992 album of the same name, it is not the only full moon to have provided musical inspiration. October’s Hunter’s Moon or Blood Moon provided the title for Night of the Hunter’s Moon, a track on the 1978 solo debut album from Sally Oldfield, older sister to Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield

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From Anglo-Saxon times, the Hunter’s moon is associated with hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use in the coming winter months.

For other moon names, see the Time and Date website.