During the past week, my husband John and I have been going for a walk around Coldfall Wood after dinner every night. We can both sense that the darkness comes a little earlier with every passing day, and soon, it will be night time before he gets home.
When I open the gate to the wood, it’s as if I’ve entered another world. The branches of the oak and hornbeam meet overhead, so the area underneath is still and dark, the only sounds the chippy calls of robins sorting out their territories. These are ancient, twisted trees that look as if they’ve been caught out in the middle of a dance, and will start to gyrate again once we’ve moved on.
The wood is only a few hundred metres deep at this point. As we follow the path, we can see the sun setting, the space between the trees glowing copper-red, an abstract painting of molten light and matt black. As the path turns right, we are right up against the fence that separates the wood from the allotments. And there, in the fork of a small tree, I see something that makes me catch my breath.
It looks as if someone has woven a delicate cup out of strands of caramel. In fact, it’s a spider’s web, layer on layer of threads twisted around and around the twigs. Beautiful in itself, it’s now backlit by the sunset. And to complete the illusion of something supernatural, every individual silken hair is moving gently in the whispering breeze.
Such moments, when we see something as if we’ve never seen it before, feel sacred to me, as if for a few moments we’ve been granted a view of the innate beauty and perfection of everything on this earth. It makes me wonder what I miss every day as I go about my business, oblivious.
In a few minutes, the sun has disappeared and the web returns to invisibility. We walk on, loop up onto the playing fields. There are dozens of crows here, digging at the turf, chatting away, walking around with their feet turned inwards and what looks like their hands behind their backs. They always remind me a little of Prince Charles – it must be that slightly self-conscious gait. Crows have such a variety of cackles and coughs and giggles and caws, and as they fly backwards and forwards from the trees to the football field, they use them all. This is a big crow community, and I wonder what they talk about.
We turn back into the darkness of the wood, turn right over a tiny muddy brook, one of several that criss-cross between the trees. Towards the road, a big bed of reeds is growing, planted deliberately to try to reduce the polluted water that comes from the road above. There is a small scuffling noise in the brambles, and a rat appears. I’ve seen one here everytime I’ve taken this walk, but I have no way of knowing if it’s the same one, or if there’s a family. They seem to be especially common this year – maybe the warm weather has meant more picnics, and hence more food-waste, although the wood is normally very unlittered. The rat sits up on his haunches, gnawing at something that he holds between his little pink hands. He is surprisingly tame, and lets us approach to within ten feet before he scuttles off into the undergrowth.
We turn the final corner to head home. A young man wearing a beret and glasses is there with a small hairy dog. We say good evening, pass him by, go on a little further, and stop. There, amongst the dead leaves, is one of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen.
‘Hello!’ I say. The cat looks a little unnerved, but comes forward all the same. It has a mass of long hair, in cream and tabby and swirls of grey. Its ears have little tufts on them, as if were a lynx.
‘He looks like a Norwegian Forest Cat’, I say to John. ‘What a beautiful cat’.
The young man turns.
‘Yes’, he says, “He is a Norwegian Forest Cat. He sometimes comes for a walk with us when I bring the dog out’.
The little dog rushes up to us, jumps up for a sniff and a lick and a scratch on the head
‘Careful’, says the young man, ‘He’ll cover you in mud’.
But it’s a dry evening, and so the damage is minimal.
‘It’s a bit of a pain when the cat comes out, actually’, says the young man. ‘I have to watch out for all the other dogs in case they chase him. He might be big, but he’s really soft’.
The dog runs up to the cat, who head butts him. They are obviously good friends.
And so, that finishes off a fairy-tale evening. We’ve had cups of gold, talking crows, tame rats and cats that go out for a walk with their dog and human friends. Coldfall Wood really is a magical place.