Why Nick Acheson loves this leafy season
WHEN I was a child my mother would tell us in autumn that we had to catch 12 falling leaves, one for good luck in each month of the coming year. I now see that this was a ruse to keep her small herd of children haring happily around the damp garden for an hour or two, minded as often as not by a beaming golden retriever. In those days we chased leaves in October, by which time they were coppered and spent. Today’s trees often keep their leaves, and continue to photosynthesise, even later, dropping them in November or December.
Several generations of golden retrievers later, I hope to see our family dogs minding my wild swarm of nephews and nieces this November, as they catch leaves and make their wishes for 2018. I shall probably catch leaves with them. For myself, I would like to do more: I would like catch leaves this November as they tumble from twelve species of Norfolk tree.
This will undoubtedly take dedication. Even on a wild, wind-worn autumn day it can be hard to catch leaves before they hit the ground. Catching twelve leaves of twelve species will require concentration, strategy and — more than likely, 40 years after I began chasing leaves — the odd evening with a bag of frozen peas on my ankle. This will be no mean feat.
I am lucky, where I live by a north Norfolk river, to nestle among trees. Five minutes’ walk from my door is a lovely riverside green where catching an alder leaf will require only time. Downstream four native species of willow grow along a riverside path. It is muddy and slippery here, and my running will be linear, as to one side is the river and the other a reedbed, but I fancy my chances of catching white willow and crack willow leaves. Sallow and goat willow will be harder. Occupying the no-plant’s-land between bushes and trees, these smaller willows drop their leaves from just three or four metres above ground. It will take a day of heroic gusts to lift their leaves high enough for me to catch them before they fall to the mud, as I too shall no doubt fall in the mud. A short way upstream there are osiers, but these suffer the same squat shrubbiness that will confound my task.
My nearest ancient wood is Thursford. By November all traces of bluebells have gone and the bracken is tousled and tired, so I can freely chase the falling leaves of pedunculate oak. An oak is an oak is an oak, we may think, but, in addition to Turkey and holm oaks which are introduced and
widely naturalised, Norfolk is home to two native oaks. Pedunculate, also known as English oak, is common. Indeed it is our commonest widespread hardwood. Sessile oak is treacherously similar at a casual glance and, being more a tree of wooded uplands, it is rare in Norfolk. I shall be hunting the leaves of pedunculate oak and have high hopes of catching one.
For scarcer woodland trees I shall rove to Foxley Wood. This is the largest ancient wood in Norfolk and it is rich in native trees. For my purpose Foxley is ideal, both because of its open rides, perfect for leaf-chasing, and because, having taught tree identification workshops here, I know where each species grows. I can readily lurk in a wide ride where I have befriended trees of wild service, hawthorn, midland thorn, field maple and aspen, waiting for the right gust to strip them of their leaves. If I lend enough hours to the task I am sure to catch a few.
For other trees I will head to the Brecks. On Thompson Common I know an old field boundary where a line of hornbeams grows. Hornbeam is my favourite of all trees. I love the steak-knife serrations of its leaves and its seaweed seedheads. Most of all I love its tall, sinewy trunks, their bark rippling like muscle in an athlete’s thigh. As these old trees grow by the edge of a grassy field, with the wind in the right direction I can run the length of the line and be sure to catch a leaf, risking only collision with one of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Shetland sheep. Not far away at Weeting Heath there are buckthorns. Though stone curlews are unenthusiastic migrants, staying until early winter and sometimes never leaving Norfolk at all, by now they will have left the heath, and the birdwatchers with them, so I can hurtle under the pines in peace as I endeavour to catch a little buckthorn leaf.
And ash. Most elegant of our trees, with flawless, slender trunks and swooping arms, it is still common across Norfolk. Yet almost every ash I see has the signs — the bald patches, the browning, brittle twigs — that it has been touched by fungal ash dieback. It is likely that across Norfolk, across Britain, they will die in their millions; and the look and shape of our landscape will change as it did when the elms died in their turn. The old ash which stands in the hedge around my mother’s garden has the fungus. Slowly it is dying. This November I will run round the garden where I played as a child, two boisterous golden retrievers at my feet. And if I catch an ash leaf, I will wish for resistance to prevail in our beautiful ashes. I will wish for this lovely tree to grace our county for decades and centuries to come and for generations of Norfolk children to catch their leaves with grins on their faces, the wagging of tails at their heels.
Below left: Beech tree
Below: Oak tree
Above: Autumn colour, Thursford Wood Norfolk Wildlife Trust Reserve North Norfolk. Thursford is an ancient woodland with some oaks thought to be more than 500 years old