Usually, I like to go solo, but for this month’s trip to Kingcombe I had two for company: Juhi, a friend who had just arrived from India, and Ali, a storm which had just arrived from the North Atlantic. Ali, to be fair, was just passing by – the uprooted trees and overturned caravans, chaos and destruction all happened well to the north of us – but even here, in the relatively calm south west, the effects were dramatic as the clouds raced and roiled across the wide stage of the sky.
It was mid-September and autumn was just getting started. The shiny fat rosehips that had lined the bushes next to the teashop at Kingcombe were now withered and pitted, and the last blackberries of the year tasted musty and dull. The slender branches of sloe hung heavy with dark purple fruit. Pears and apples lay strewn in the grass beneath the trees, a banquet for lazy wasps. Even in this strenuous wind, most of the leaves were still on the trees, and green: one or two, a handful at most, careening along in the brisk air.
In all the years of being in India, this was the season I pined for most. The whole mists-and-mellow-fruitfulness schtick: the scent of wood smoke, the fungi popping up all over, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the squirrels squirrelling… There’s something about autumn’s inescapable sweet melancholy, the pas de deux of death and life, the decay that presages seedburst, the nourishing of the earth by the leaf-fall from the sky: I just love it.
For Juhi, coming from Delhi (as I had myself three years back), being out in the fresh air and away from the smog, noise, traffic and pollution was thrill enough. The proximity of such a profusion of trees, cheering on the change of season in a ticker-tape parade of bright yellow leaves sent us both skipping along the woodland path.
We headed to Powerstock to walk along the nature trail that follows the disused railway track along its northern edge. At one point, there’s a gateway leading out of the woods and into a field that rises in a vast smooth dome up to the racing sky. Heads down against the wind, we climbed like Lilliputians up the belly of a sleeping giant and sat down on top to eat our sandwiches. All around us the wooded hills flickered with sunburst and shadowplay as Storm Ali blew on the green embers. We were alternately warmed and chilled as the sun played tag with the earth and the clouds raced overhead. The roar of the wind in our ears and the flicker of the fast-changing light all around us, made hearts beat faster, blood rush to the skin, eyes brighten. The world was alive, rushing and swooping along with the last three swifts of summer like skipping stones across a green and storm-tossed sea.
One of the things I most love about this time of year is the sudden efflorescence of mushrooms and fungi. Sure enough, down among the leaf mould on the forest floor we came upon cluster of beautiful little pale beige mushrooms cascading down a moss-upholstered stump. It’s possible they were Velvet pionppinos (Agrocybe aegerita) although I wouldn’t swear on it. Back at the wildlife centre we came upon an even bigger crop where the recently completed and very smart wooden pavilion and boardwalk was positively bristling with rich chestnut-coloured fungi. These were almost certainly some species of honey fungus – a name that suggests they are good eating – but again, I’m not sure. As far as wild mushroom gathering goes, I stick by the old Croatian proverb, “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.”
With several hours of daylight left and not having had our fill of being blown about, we got in the car and drove the eight or nine miles to the sea. As we wound through oak-tree lined country lanes, past low thatched cottages and charming old church after charming old church, Juhi issued a low warning. If things got any prettier, she declared, she would “lose it completely – what little there is left of ‘it’ to lose and whatever ‘it’ might be.”
Ali having a blast at Burton Bradstock, the stormy sea far surpassing the grassy knoll version at Powerstock. Within a minute of stepping out of the car, we were glazed head to foot with salty spray as the waves surged, heaved and smashed on to the sand. Each wave was like the final resounding chord of an orchestral piece – the final flourish, a grand resolution, the concluding ‘ta-daaa’ – only to gather itself up and deliver another, even more final than the last – and then again and again. It was like listening to a symphony made up entirely of the last two bars: mesmerizing, exhilarating, exhausting. Dazzled and delighted, there was nothing for it but to round off this most perfect of days with a perfect cream tea, so clutching each other against the wind, we made our way up the shingle to the café in search of bliss, Dorset-style.