Occasionally, at this time of year, we are blessed in this part of England with fine days of biting clarity that reveal the tiniest details of the landscape.
We're off on a circular tour of the woods and fields around Ardeley in Hertfordshire and the first detail made obvious by the piercing morning light was that most of the trees are now stripped of their summer foliage and displaying the intricacies of their twiggy branches. The novelty of this sight, after our lengthy autumn, is almost as welcome as the green leaves of spring or the first golden shades of autumn.
Not that the battered denizen of the hedgerows seen above has changed much over recent seasons.
We soon found ourselves in an even more ancient feature of the landscape as we travelled along a hidden lane between the trees. It's actually an old Roman road, so has been trodden by pedestrians for almost two thousand years. Roman soldiers once marched where my brother and I were sauntering with much less urgency on this fine but chilly morn.
Oak trees are as tardy as ever in getting on with the business of autumn and still hang on to their golden leaves. Would we find more of these beauties on our walk?
Yes, and this time photographed looking almost straight into the harsh sun which is lighting up the remaining leaves.
In December the height of the sun at these latitudes, even at midday, is no more than 15° above the horizon. This can make photography difficult, but looked at another way, it means that the "golden hour", that time just before sunset which photographers love, lasts nearly all day!
♪ ♫ Always look on the bright side of life ♪ ♫
This is the kind of scene I always envisage, perhaps with a few more clouds in the sky, when thinking about winter walks
A birdwatching interlude: As we made our way beside the fields we came to an area of sunflowers, their seedheads bowed down and providing what amounted to a huge feeding station for any birds who found it, and many did. At first we saw Blue Tits and Chaffinches, but slowly we became aware of more and more species among them, including Bramblings. In normal years I may see one or two of these northern finches, but so far this winter I must have seen in excess of a hundred - and all associated with sunflower fields like this one.
I think this area had been sown to provide cover and feed for gamebirds, though obviously all wildlife was benefitting from this sunflower seed bonanza. Bizarrely there were two old trampolines standing beside the field, too far from any road to have been dumped and clearly carried here for a purpose. Even more oddly, neatly positioned in the corner of the field, was a wickerwork sofa of the kind usually seen in conservatories or on patios. Then there were two men wearing hats and gloves drinking hot chocolate from a flask - ah, I can explain that one.
Back to the walk. Apart from one or two dog-walkers there were few people about on this fine morning.
We passed through a section of private woodland, but on a public path. Again the low sun was angling in and lighting the leaves from behind.
As we completed our circle back to Ardeley we met some of the animals from Church Farm. The farm sums itself up on its website thus:
"We are a not-for-profit farming, food, care and education farm. Our aim is to enhance the countryside, provide people with special needs the opportunity to learn and grow, conserve wildlife and farm ecologically".
Noble aims indeed.
I suppose you'll be wanting to see a little of the village. Its church was, surprisingly, not open; probably the result of the Covid pandemic which has left many churchwardens uncertain of exactly what to do for the best.
There is a traditional village green with thatched cottages grouped around the old well. It's so picture-perfect that it attracts many visitors from far and wide. But all is not as it seems: this entire scene was contrived by the lord of the manor who had the whole lot built just over a hundred years ago. Though it's no less pretty for that.
And there's a pub too, the Jolly Waggoner, which gets its name from there once being a blacksmith's forge nearby, so presumably by the time the horse was reshod the waggoner had refreshed himself in the pub and was suitably jolly.