A Different Sort of Somewhere

The Broads may be boggy, but another corner of Norfolk stubbornly turns steppe. Modelled piecemeal by ice ages until hard chalk was topped with sand that varies from a skin to full-blown dunes, it is patterned now with a truly bewildering array of wild things. Breckland is dry, cold, haughty and mysterious, the sort of land that grew the likes of Queen Boudicca and buried 17th century villages in roving sandstorms.

It was helpful to prehistoric people, however; it supplied them with flint. I’m not qualified to say if this flake is manmade but it is a reminder, like the rabbits introduced by the Normans, that humanity and the Brecks have known each other for a while, and still aren’t quite sure what to say.

Flint Brecks

You know when you are in Breckland, but like the geology, the landscape is a riddle to describe. Heathland, ice age formations like pingo ponds, sandy warrens, flowers that grow nowhere else in the country – it’s also ended up supporting lowland Britain’s largest coniferous forest, planted in the 20th century to supply timber. 

And the rabbits keep watching.

Rabbit Brecks Oct 20

But it was the fungi that stole the show last week. There is fly agaric, which looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

Fly agaric Brecks

There is death cap, which has found itself in many tales, generally of a rather dark kind involving assassinations of unpopular royalty.

Death cap Brecks

We have given many species ill-fitting names, but not the death cap – it is precisely what it claims to be. It is packed with amatoxins and just half a cap can be fatal. I don’t often come across it, but like deadly nightshade and grizzlies, it is a reminder that nature has rules and needs to be treated with respect.

More innocent, perhaps, are the fungi that decorate a pine cone.

Cone fungi

And finally, shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig.

Lawyer's wig

Its fame is that it self-dissolves into a gooey ink, which some say was used to sign the Magna Carta, although I’ve been unable to trace the source of that claim. A touch of unknowable seems requisite for residents of the Brecks.

Turning Seasons

Strange thing, September. For the last two years, autumn has appeared to start precisely on the 1st. The air cools, the mornings are sweeter, and the last swallows hunt over dewy fields. And woodlands acquire that watercolour glow.

Autumn comes

Water – rainwater – is what fungi need, but last year’s switch from dryness to extreme undying rain produced few. I hope we have more of a show this year, and the boletes have already fruited, carpeting the road verge with otherworldly glory.

Bolete 5 Sept 20

And the foxes – hints of their winter coats are starting to frost the russet.

Fox stepping WF 31 Aug 20

Bright as a Button

Autumn is my favourite season. The flowers may have largely taken their leave, but in the wake come things brighter and stranger.

Beech russula 15 Sept 2018

It’s a brittlegill, AKA a member of the Russula family. Something is eating the brittlegills; this is one of the more intact ones that I’ve found. My trailcams caught squirrels tucking into what appeared to be the much greyer charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha, but that is unlikely to be the whole story. Rodents, slugs and even foxes eagerly accept wild mushroom buffet.

Russulas are famously difficult to identify to species level. This could be a beechwood sickener Russula noblis, which might explain why the squirrels haven’t munched on it.

They brighten up the woodland floor, whatever they are. A small spider is resting on this one’s stem.

Beech russula3 15 Sept 2018

Jelly-ear fungi decorate branches.

Jelly ear Figgs Aug 2018

Mower’s mushrooms Panaeolus foenisecii add intrigue to the grass.

Fungus golf course Aug 2018

And bracket fungi of all kinds form shelves on the dead bones of old trees.

Bracket fungus Aug 2018

Autumn has much more to give. Most of the leaves are yet to fall.

Khamsin in the wood 15 Sept 2018

Seeing Stars

The dust has gone, but clouds have taken its place, and there’s little hope of astronomy tonight. But earthly stars thrive in the rain.

Earthstar 19 Oct 2017

This bizarre fungus is an earthstar, which superficially resembles a puffball. Raindrops knock spores from its mouth.

Waxcaps are also thriving in autumnal drizzle. Parrot waxcaps are green with varying flourishes of orange. Like many waxcaps, they are indicator species which signal relatively undamaged ancient grassland.

Parrot waxcap 19 Oct 2017

I have hardly seen the sun today, but when it rose on Tuesday morning, there was still a Saharan edge about it.

Red sun 17 Oct 2017

Sunrise from the train 17 Oct 2017

Sepia

Sepia sky1 16 Oct 2017

Today the sky says that it is not an island. It’s painted sepia from lands far away, and dyes the world beneath into almond and darkness.

Sepia sky2 16 Oct 2017

The air is coloured with ash from the forest fires in Iberia and dust from the Sahara, sucked northwards by the force of Hurricane Ophelia, which is currently battering Ireland as a post-tropical cyclone. At 3pm the light levels slumped as if in the afterglow of winter twilight, and humanity rebelled by flicking on streetlights and headlights – but it seemed feeble under such a sky.

Before the dust, there was colour: leaves that would seem improbable if a human artist drew them.

Leaf 16 Oct 2017

And fungi carved into maple leaf-shape by slugs.

Leaf-shaped bolete 16 Oct 2017

Their less-eaten peers were in full show this morning. Meadow waxcaps are one of the largest of the waxcap family, and this is the first time that I’ve found one in my area.

Meadow waxcap 16 Oct 2017

But any giant is relative. The waxcap was dwarfed by a monster in the ancient woods. The lens cap is about 2 inches (5cm) wide, and the mushroom cap would dwarf some saucers. Its identity still eludes me, but possibly it’s an exceptionally big honey fungus.

Fungus giant 16 Oct 2017

The dust is sweeping northward and the sky is greying. I would not surprised to find a sprinkling of African sand over the cars tomorrow.

On a blustery day

A girl with windblown hair – perhaps. Funny how the imagination sees things at times. Her hairstyle will not last for long; she is a glistening inkcap, and is self-dissolving. Inkcaps turn themselves into inky soup that allows the spores to drip away.

Glistening inkcap 8 Oct 2017

While inkcaps dissolve, waxcaps dazzle. They are often called the orchids of the fungi world because of their glamorous colours. They also conservation waymarkers; it can take eighty years for them to recolonize a site after disturbance. Fields with high waxcap diversity are old by definition, and precious.

Golden waxcaps sprinkle gold dust in the mosses.

Golden waxcap 8 Oct 2017

Diamonds and rubies may follow – many other waxcap species dwell under that field, each a different and improbable colour. I will keep walking and watching.

Around birch trees, the theme is red and white.

Fly agaric2 8 Oct 2017

Fly agarics do not look quite real.

Fly agaric1 8 Oct 2017

Sadly, this one had been knocked over by someone. But even in its severed state, a mature fungus will continue to drop spores; they are only the fruiting bodies of the mycelium which is hidden in the soil. I left it there to continue its work.

The Amethyst

There are two observation challenges while walking in nature: the first to find the hidden species, and the second to see the beauty and importance of common, obvious things that seldom capture much of our time.

There is a national trail in Surrey that reveals plenty of both. The North Downs Way is south-east England’s most absorbing footpath, threading through over 150 miles (250km) of chalky hills, ancient beechwoods and rolling farmland. I live on it, or very nearly; it runs through my parish on its pilgrimage to Canterbury and the sea.

It is big enough to feel uncrowded, human-wise, but the wild is there to offer its company.

Amethyst deceiver 3 Oct 2017

Amethyst deceivers bring royal purple to the forest. The name reflects their variable shape which can outfox identification. These clustered on a fallen beech, joining moss in a living shroud.

The beech that still stand are catching the light as though it were a cricket ball flying towards them in the season’s last match.

Beech leaves in light 3 Oct 2017

Flowers, too, are still shining. Poppies redden the edges of arable land.

Poppy 3 Oct 2017

Scarlet pimpernels peep through the grass.

Scarlet pimpernel 3 Oct 2017

And here – the harbinger of spring, resting on a grass stem coloured by autumn:

Brimstone buttery 3 Oct 2017

It is a brimstone, and although at rest it mimics a leaf, on the wing the male is brilliant yellow. One of our longest-lived butterflies, it hibernates through the winter.

Whatever wild dramas autumn and winter bring, it will be oblivious.

Defiance

Autumn is tossing rain over us in fits of its own timing. Most trees are clinging defiantly to their leaves, indulging in a final dose of chlorophyll before the judge called Frost settles the matter.

The tunnel 27 Sept 2017

The pioneers have fallen, and frame deadwood that is slowly being consumed by fungi – in this case, the candlesnuff fungus Xylaria hypoxylon.

Candlesnuff fungus2 30 Sept 2017

White is the theme of the moment. We also have white spindles:

White spindles 27 Sept 2017

White warted puffballs:

Puffball 20 Sept 2017

And what I think is a species of cavalier mushroom (Melanoleuca).

Cavalier mushroom 30 Sept 2017

White mushrooms often provoke fear; amongst their number are the destroying angels, the most lethal of all fungi. But something far smaller than a human tasted this cavalier, leaving toothmarks as relics in the cap.

Meal for a bank vole, a predator of mushrooms. But it still stood under its birch tree, spilling spores from its gills.

Defiance.

Waymarker

The mapmakers built it, long ago. Lichens write the years upon it, and autumnal mist steals its vista from human eyes, but it remains our grey witness to the hills.

Waymarker 27 Sept 2017

The Ordnance Survey’s trigonometry points crown hilltops throughout Britain. Surveyors used them to triangulate distance and draw this island upon maps for countless purposes. They are a monument to scientific brilliance, but only in chorus. One trig point makes no more sense than one limb of a tree.

But its sister hill with its own trig point is still there, 11 miles away, wreathed in cloud. Trig points may have concrete hearts but they share wild nature’s habit of hinting at greater tapestries beyond our sight.

Shaggy scalycap1 27 Sept 2017

Fungi like these shaggy scalycaps are only the fruiting bodies of the mycelium, the thread-like organism that lives unseen within soil or tree.

Slime mould 27 Sept 2017

A slime mould is only one life stage of the wood’s strangest lifeform: it existed as single cells before aggregating and becoming sessile.

Goat's rue 27 Sept 2017

Goat’s rue is a quiet monument to human hope. It is not a native species in the UK but has been here since at least the 17th century, given passage as a forage crop for livestock. Perhaps these dew-spotted petals are descended from plants tended by farmers who walked these hills in centuries past.

Crystalline clear skies seldom provoke questions about what lies just beyond our view. Mist is the master of those.

Tree in the mist 27 Sept 2017