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Autumn arrives on the North Downs Way

 

A North Downs Way Diary

NOVEMBER

It is amazing what can happen in a week, one minute we are enjoying the warm rays of the sun and the next as a chilling wind blows in from the North, huge drop in temperature, made worse by the clear skies at night and although the skies are still gloriously blue during the day, we are searching around for hats and gloves or the comforting warmth of a good fire.

Bonfire Night one of the few events still held in the United Kingdom to mark a particular moment in history (or is it ?)

For our Pagan ancestors, no doubt acknowledging that this time of year was a significant point in the lands life cycle, fire would be an essential survival tool as they prepared for the dark, cold months ahead, a symbol of sun and fertility, young adults would test their bravery by jumping through flames or running across burning embers. During the pagan festival of Samhuin, cows would be walked between two fires to release all the evil spirits in the land, animals and people, nowadays we just cut up a pumpkin and put a candle in it!

Then, perhaps tired of all those holidays in the sun and cheap wine? Along came the Romans. Realizing that it wasn't much fun spending so much time and resources going to a place where it was always raining, they soon went home only to return building luxury mansions, improving the roads, sanitation and to a certain extent tolerating the local customs maybe even enjoying some of them, sitting out on their terraces eating al fresco, drinking wine, placing a few side bets: How long will the fire last? Will it rain? How many dwellings will catch fire and will that chubby Cantiaci kid make it through the flames this year? With the Romans came a new modern way of thinking and some of the old traditions didn't fit into the shiny marketing plan, some were merged or even adopted under a different guise, others slowly forgotten.

Facing a few problems of their own back home the Romans slowly drifted away for good leaving the locals to ponder about what they used to do on the cold winters nights before the posh people moved in.

Apart from the occasional witch burning, the idea of having a good festive bonfire or at least the reason why they were having one slipped from the memory.  The fertility aspect lingered a little, in a fore-runner to speed dating girls would put nuts inscribed with loved ones names into the ashes and if one popped out intact the partnership was bound to be a lucky one.

Queen Elizabeth 1 revived human curiosity with fire by instigating annual celebrations to mark her ascension to the throne, which by coincidence also happened to be in November, but it was Guy Fawkes who in 1605 really kick started things again.

The plot to blow up the King, Protestant Church Leaders and Lords at the state opening of Parliament was initially scheduled for February but due to the after effects of the plague was rescheduled for early November. Following the suppression of the plot, Parliament decreed that there should be public bonfires every year on November 5th, in fact in 1859 it was still illegal not to celebrate the event. This led to a blurring of the 'official line'  to celebrate the saving of King, Parliament and Church. For some it became a symbol of  the audacity of Guy Fawkes in attempting such a plot in the first place -  sticking a finger up to the authorities. The effigy traditionally paraded through towns was originally the Pope, then Guy himself but Kings, the local lord, just about anybody hated by the majority at that particular time has been known to feature prominently in the festivities.

Centuries later we still gather around bonfires on November 5th. Standing on the North Downs Way, with its close associations to ancient tracks and pre-roman trading routes, it is a romantic notion to think about the links back to our ancient pagan ancestors.  In places, such as Gatton Park the wide view south across the weald makes it an ideal viewpoint to look over the lands of the Cantiaci Tribe attracting large crowds to watch the fireworks lighting up the sky over villages and towns in the distance.

The magical effect of the bare chested rambler's dance that we had noticed last weekend was obviously working, the sun hasn't gone just yet! We walked across the downs from Gatton Park to Boxhill and as the sun broke through the early morning mist the temperature increased to the point where Lizzie had to take her jacket off, complaining of being too hot!

The good weather and glorious blue skies meant that the paths close to car parks were quite busy.

A very friendly dog came bounding along the path towards us then stopped looked either side of us walked and around a bit looking puzzled and slightly confused, 'Don't worry about him, he's just looking for your dog.' advised the man following behind.

Further evidence, if needed, that a dog of some sort is an essential piece of kit if you are walking along the North Downs Way.

Leading it's walker the dog wandered past us no doubt wondering how we would be able to manage by ourselves!

 

Two young boys sped past us on an expedition, the parents we expected to see following them around the corner didn't materialize and it only dawned on us when we met a guy running after them along the path a few minutes later later that this expedition may have been a little secret.

The boys had slipped away without their parents noticing and with paths heading off in all directions their disappearance had naturally caused a lot of panic and concern. All we could do was guide the man in the direction we saw the boys and then, later on, shout out to the other parents so that they concentrated the search in the right area. Hopefully the boys were found but this incident made us wonder whether we should have been more alert at the time and stopped the boys or spoken to them, unfortunately in today's society the right thing isn't always that clear and may have been misinterpreted.

The good weather had also brought large groups of cyclists and mountain bikers including a girl who was having a little bit of difficulty keeping up with her partner but must have felt quite smug when he fell off after just passing us trying to ride up a steep slope, the girl being more cautious had, despite his mocking, wisely decided to get off and push her bike.

According to country lore the first few weeks of November are a significant time for winter weather prediction; a warm, dry spell would allow farmers to sow winter wheat, barley and beans. A frost would indicate a mild winter ahead but if there were heavy showers the farmer should forget all about a final sowing.

Still a week to go to be absolutely certain but this farmer is sticking to the traditional timetable and making sure the ground is prepared for a winter crop.

The trees, by the way, are still hanging on to most of their leaves and Kev is convinced that he heard that Parakeet again!

At least that was his excuse for taking   us half a mile down a track only to have  to plod back uphill, it was flying too high to be visible, really???

Ok, so this picture is a bit of a cheat. Although we have heard Parakeets flying overhead and seen one fly past as we walked along the North Downs it hasn't been possible to actually photograph one.

This was taken in our back garden - Parakeet on the Christmas Tree!!!!!!!!

 

It's a great time of year for being out in the countryside. Paths and views that have become familiar take on a completely different appearance as, finally, there is a burst of Autumn colour. Golden leaves underfoot bring back childhood memories of running, kicking all the leaves into the air.

Across Oxted Downs the summer flowers and wild herbs have finally died away replaced by scrub and Bearberry, a wild form of Cotoneaster, the bright red berries making the hillside come alive in a blaze of colour. The bushes are gradually spreading across this part of the  downs even invading and splattering the white chalk cliffs left bare by centuries of quarrying with red splodges. The autumn colour is augmented by ripe apples still not blown to the ground.

The farmer had guessed right. The mild weather continues - causing some confusion in the plant world, blackberries and field roses being fooled into flowering. And on November 15th the BBC weatherman declared that ' It would be a warm summer's day in the South'  and it was, of course it rained non stop the next day and the next and next....... a typical British summer then!

We finally decided to see what the 'dog walkers'  circular walk was like, but first we warmed up with an 8 mile walk along the North Downs Way, tagging on the 5 mile Woldingham Countryside Walk at the end. Surprisingly it was only when we were approaching the car park towards the end of the walk that we actually saw anybody walking a dog, and it wasn't long after having passing us as we headed back towards the car park that they also reappeared after what would have been a short walk. A pity really because  they missed some fantastic views along what is a very pleasant well waymarked walk through old woodland and along country lanes.

The view over Marden Park

One of the common problems that we encounter along the North Downs Way is missing signage, this can be caused by walkers taking the waymarkers as souvenirs, damage to the posts or fences to which waymarkers are attached or deliberate attempts to mislead or deter walkers by removing or destroying signposts.

Whilst the latter is rare we have seen signs that have been deliberately sawn off and in one place in particular, a sign post physically removed and all temporary replacements destroyed. It was a big surprise then to see the old original sign, below, recently reappear in the middle of the forest drive - although it wasn't long before it had once again been pulled out of the post hole and left lying on the ground.

So here we have proof it exists, and we will be keeping our eyes on it in the future!

Traditionally this was a time of year when farmhands were laid off, unless they were lucky enough to be retained for another year they would have to leave the farm. During their employment workers received food and lodging but only received their pay at the end of their contract, less deductions for breakages, those with homes to go back to would make their ways back to families, others would set off seeking further employment and find a way to survive winter.

Many headed off into the woods to make a living from coppicing, annual winter auctions would be held and the right to manage and work on lots of woodland bought. The successful bidder would then be entitled to coppice the wood selling material for fencing, baskets and of course firewood. These auctions were usually held in a local bar and had a tendency to go on for a long time, during which the bar stayed open with successful bidders often receiving a free drink from the landlord. The idea of 24 hour licensing laws is nothing new!

Nowadays the management of woodland is a business the landowner still has to carry out even on land owned by the National Trust and along the North Downs we are just beginning to see the early signs of coppicing and cutting back in the woods.

On a colder day the little log fire burning away the old branches would have provided an ideal  warm place to stop and have a little break, except the weather is still very mild and we are still wandering around in shorts, although Kev did start the day off in full trousers before deciding it really was too warm and converted them back to shorts - causing the lady riding past on her horse to question whether it really was warm enough for shorts?

England was experiencing one of the warmest Autumns since 1766 but all of that was about to change as November came to a stormy end. Luckily, the severe weather predicted, including hurricanes, did not fully materialize although the wind was strong enough to blow down an old tree, right across the path.

With the trees finally succumbing to the wind and dropping most of their leaves the landscape takes on a more wintry appearance, the small group of trees that we had passed a few weeks ago in a little  clearing when they had been dressed in reds yellows and gold's a few weeks earlier were now almost bare.

The thinning tree canopy is now letting in a lot more rain, most of the paths are beginning to get a little bit muddy. Not enough  though to deter members of the local Long Distance Walkers Association who came dashing past, just as we were beginning to think we were the only people out.

They were taking part in a 50km ( 30 mile ) event to be completed within 12 hours, certainly putting our 12 mile afternoon ramble to shame.

Kev is still bravely wearing shorts, scaring passers by with his blue knees but as we close the gate on another fine month along the trail we are hoping for some nice dry, brisk, crisp, frosty, winter walks to keep us warm in the months ahead.

 

Kevanliz@aol.com