I can never decide whether I prefer beech or oak. Both are beautiful at any time of the year, and I suppose my preference changes with the seasons. In autumn, majestic beeches seems to give me the best of both worlds. Pale green leaves are still to fall, whilst last year’s mast lies hard, brittle, and golden on the woodland floor. In Penrice Estate some of the beech trees are hundreds of years old, and their leaves are turning quickly now. Last week mostly green, now lovely shades of yellows and brown, almost rivalling New England colours, and as the nights get cooler, and the first frosts arrive, they’ll fall quickly. Beech is the dominant native tree on the estate, which, together with a variety of exotics, makes a display of autumn colours rivalling any found in these islands. Horse chestnut trees are common on the peninsular, but the estate holds a few sweet chestnuts, one or two of which are a great age. By the side of the path a carpet of light brown pointed leaves gives one away. Scattered amongst the leaves are a few nuts, and by the trunk, remains of many where squirrels have been at work. On another path, squashed spinning jennys, some joined together in pairs, litter the ground under a sycamore tree, bringing back memories of childhood days.
The great yew by Garden Lane Cottage has only a few berries this year, but has attracted the attention of a noisy flock of rattling mistle thrushes. There are redwings in the canopy, my first of the autumn, but they’ll move on westwards, probably heading for the extreme west of Wales, or even Ireland. On cool still nights in late October, their thin calls are easily heard as they pass overhead. I find another group of beech trees. A slight breeze releases leaves falling silently to the ground like brown snowflakes. The ancient pond, now restored to its former serpentine-shaped glory, is covered with fading water lily leaves. There will soon be open water, in time for the winter ducks.
There’s little sound, save for the ever-present robins, moorhens, and an occasional chorus of pheasants. A distant water rail squeals, and a buzzard calls overhead. I rest on an old tree stump under a huge beech, and the longer I sit, the more I hear. It’s quiet enough to pick out the sound of falling leaves; they fall like dried paper, touching branches on their way to the ground.
In the damper parts of the estate by the marsh, alders have mostly lost their leaves, and many have cones. Some are still green, but for the most part, they’re turning brown. Redpolls and siskins fed on these years ago, but I haven’t heard of any here in recent years.
A tunnel of overgrown willows and alders covers Garden Lane, the old back entrance to the estate. Years-old willows have fallen into the marsh exposing roots, now invaded by fungi and other life forms. Moss covers most of the damp trees, ideal for epiphytic ferns, which sprout from the lower branches. Lichens, ranging in colour from pure white through greens to golden brown are everywhere, creating an atmosphere of age and history.
Hidden up from the path, and beneath a great expanse of beech trees, the orangery has a Victorian feel to it, but was constructed at the same time as the Georgian estate. Inside, lemons and oranges flourish in pots, alongside exotic scented flowers, succulents and cacti. On a rockery outside, my usual lunch spot is a bench overlooking the valley and lake. It’s sheltered up here, and warm enough for a late common darter to catch the sun’s rays breaking through the overcast sky.
The old kitchen garden is a marvel. Surrounded by a high Georgian brick wall, it’s being lovingly restored by the estate, providing fruit and vegetables worthy of any age. The old greenhouses too are slowly being rebuilt, and this year there’s been a bumper crop of grapes. As the sun finally breaks though, lizards creep out from between the bricks in a south-facing wall to take advantage of what could be the last of the autumnal sunshine.