Country diary: A night-time woodland walk, and the silence is broken
Arthog, Gwynedd: We are well into autumn, but the sounds of foxes and owls promise the new life of spring
At twilight, by silvered illumination of a gibbous moon, I ease stiff limbs along Y Ffordd Ddu – the black road that contours round under the northern slopes of Cadair Idris. A flickering moon-shadow leads me to the stony, sunken track that descends past Cyfannedd to Cors Arthog and the rail and footbridge across to Abermaw.
All is silent as I enter the woods. Gnarled and writhing branches of sessile oak are latticed across the hunchbacked moon. I glimpse the light of Ynys Enlli (Bardsey island), flashing from far across the bay at the end of the northern peninsula of Wales.
One by one on this clear night the stars are coming out, as though switched on, Venus brightest among them. At this time of day four months before, the air would have been alive with the scolding and disputation of birds returning to nest or roost. Now all is still. Screams of swifts that scoured air in summer are now amplified within the walls of Pyrenean or Anti Atlas gorges, redstarts and flycatchers providing soft accompaniment there. Here the rhythm section is a susurrus of sere leaves shifting against each other, the slightest of onshore breezes rattling and riffing among them. Mice scutter through fallen leaves.
These subtleties of wood silence are counterpointed, accentuated, by two startling paired sounds which are characteristic of this quiet season. From somewhere among the boulders of Craig Cwm Llwyd a vixen’s demonic high scream raised echoes from the mountain wall, is repeated, and from far away on the Tir Stent comes the dog fox’s answering bark. There will be cubs in the spring. Owlets too – for, as I make my way down towards the estuary, the yearning quaver of a tawny owl stretches out across the silence to be end-stopped by his mate.
Foxes and owls in the silence of an autumn wood, telling of life’s coming renewal. On Morfa Mawddach, the sound of my steps across the bridge is drowned out by the hiss of ebbing water round wooden piles. I imagine shipworms gnawing them, unheard. A solitary curlew call choruses me into the pub-and-chip-shop hubbub of dear old Barmouth.