September in Plaxtol

The robins have begun to try out their quiet song, wistful and meditative, quite unlike their bright carolling in spring. Early mornings are softer now, and chillier. The sun’s light is mirrored in the sky before it rises, mist lies along the Bourne valley like woodsmoke and everything is damp with dew. On fine afternoons the light is paler gold, gentle, casting long shadows and longer thoughts.

Trees remain heavy with leaf, although their colours have slowly started to vary from the uniform dark green of late summer and haws are already red along hedgerows and wood-edges. Hop bines, the feral offspring of the old hop gardens (a lost cornerstone of Plaxtol’s farm economy) scramble over tall hedges, their papery, pungent flowers as yellow as the sulphur once used in the oasthouse drying process. It is practically impossible to resist plucking a blackberry or two from the roadside hedge whenever one walks, often surprised by the different flavour that each bramble bears. After rain they are bruised, bloated and dull, but a run of fine days brings on the next flush of fruit: that is the time to go blackberrying in earnest. Wild hazelnuts in woods and hedges and cultivated Kentish cobs in the plantations are milk-sweet in their green husks, and the air is cider-rich with the perfume of ripe and fallen orchard fruit. Small, scabby windfall apples from knobbly, half-forgotten trees litter the lanes and byways, unwanted. In the orchards there are big fruit bins stacked on the headlands, often with the farm name stencilled on their side. In these places of work the piquant apple-scent mingles with that of tractor exhaust and the blackbird’s ‘pink pink’ alarm call competes with snatches of talk and laughter from pickers as lively as characters in a John Moore vignette. Soon the orchards will be stripped, with only the fruit of the crab apples, the pollinator trees, clinging to their branches in wasp-yellow clusters. Yet garden roses continue to bloom, swallows still skim the pastures in search of winged insects and the ivy flowers are reaching their peak, honey-perfumed and busy with wasps and bees which might easily believe, as Keats had it, that ‘warm days will never cease.’

The progress of autumn, the narrowing of the year, makes birds more competitive. At night, the soft brown tawny owls call loudly and clearly, establishing their territories for the winter ahead by voice alone. By day, a kestrel which has hunted peacefully all summer may suddenly find itself mobbed by angry crows, jealous of its success. The indignant ‘kick kick kick’ of the lighter kestrel, more mobile but outnumbered, alerts us to the conflict and if we are lucky we catch a glimpse of the falcon, russet and blue-grey, dodging for cover with the crows in ragged pursuit. Glossy rooks and steely-feathered wood pigeons continue to gorge themselves on stubble and freshly cultivated fields, dapper jackdaws and magpies (the latter harmless at last, now that the nesting season is well and truly over) strutting among them. On windy days the black corvids are restless, now and again rising in a raucous, tattered mass and often carrying out the display known as ‘whiffling’ – the name for those quick plunges through the air with uneven wings half-spread – before settling back to earth once more.

Throughout the month we are likely to hear and see skeins of Canada geese passing up and down the valley on their way to glean the fields. Their calls travel over quite a distance, carried like the belling of foxhounds on the damp air and advertising their approach.

September 1st is the feast day of St Giles, the name saint of the church at Shipbourne, Plaxtol’s neighbour parish. In this little corner of Kent, from medieval times, the month used to begin with a three-day fair, on ‘the eve, the feast and the morrow’ of the saint’s day, and in many ways it is a shame that the fair is no longer kept. The end of the month brings the Quarter Day of Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael the Archangel. This was the traditional date to move home, to take up a new position in agricultural or domestic service, and to eat roast goose for luck in the coming year. There is also well-known Michaelmas lore which says that blackberries will not be palatable after that date. This reaches back to the legend that when Lucifer was thrown out of heaven by the Archangel’s army, he fell into a bramble bush and vengefully fouled its fruit, either by spitting on them or – in some versions – by more scatological means. The introduction of the new calendar in England in 1752 culled eleven days from the year; October 11th now equates to September 29th before that change was made. The later date is sometimes called ‘Old Michaelmas,’ so there is still another week or so’s foraging left to us as September ends, but it is certainly true that blackberries will become unpleasant to eat as October unfolds.

© New Moons For Old, 2015

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