Country diary: A wood mouse makes it a day to remember
Crook, County Durham: An unexpected encounter with a twilight-loving rodent is the bright spot in an otherwise dull day
The worst kind of November dawn: leaden clouds, lashing rain, rivulets meandering down windows. Cabin fever, lethargy by lunchtime.
Late afternoon: still raining, but a blue ribbon was widening along the south-western horizon. On with our coats, hats, gloves and boots, across the footpath, past sheep with soggy fleeces sheltering under hedges, through arable fields striped with green corduroy patterns of autumn-drilled barley.
By the time we reached the lane, known locally as the Mile Lonnen, the rain has stopped. Just the sound of water trickling into ditches filled with autumn leaves and floating crab apples. A flock of lapwings drops into a saturated pasture, looking for worms forced to the surface of waterlogged ground.
Then the clouds part and a tide of sunshine floods across fields and hedgerows, energising the landscape with dazzling intensity, spotlighting bare-limbed ashes and berry-laden hawthorns against distant hills still swathed in cloud shadow. For a few minutes, every rain-glossed autumn leaf, scarlet rosehip and crimson haw hangs bejewelled with raindrops, until a breeze – drawn in by convection currents rising from sun-warmed asphalt – shakes them free.
There has been a bumper crop of hawthorn berries hereabouts this autumn but, so far, few redwings and no fieldfares to strip the branches bare. Blackbirds have had the feast almost to themselves, but the intensity of the passing storm leaves windfalls in the road for another beneficiary: a very young wood mouse.
It’s unusual to see one of these little rodents abroad in bright sunlight; they are crepuscular creatures. Perhaps this one has been taken unawares by the sudden transformation of a day that, until now, had hardly seemed to dawn. Oblivious to our presence, just a yard from our feet, it is preoccupied with gnawing soft flesh from fallen haws, then extracting seed kernels with sharp incisors. We hurry on to the end of the lane, casting giant shadows as the sun sinks lower over Weardale’s distant fell tops, just in time to watch it set.
A day that might have been forgettable, made memorable by a mouse and a late break in the clouds.