This year The Clearing invited the author Anita Roy to chart and mark the passing of the seasons at the Kingcombe Centre in Dorset. This is the final instalment in the series, as the year draws to a close.
Christmas is coming, and it’s feeding time inside and outside the Kingcombe Centre. The main hall is filled with festive diners in tissue-paper hats, polishing off their turkey and tucking into chocolate mousse. Outside, the large, circular bird-feeder hanging on a branch of the bare hawthorn tree is aflitter with birds: blue tits, great tits, dunnock, sparrows, robins, wrens, even a great spotted woodpecker zooms in for a spell. I count eleven blue tits at once all feeding on the central column of peanuts. Backlit by the low sun, their little bursts of flight register as brief, soft halos as they dash from twig to feeder and back again. Twinkling fairy lights in the chill air.
The resident pair of guineafowl peck around the ground underneath. With their ungainly balloon bodies, they look like they’ve been fattened up specially for the Christmas season – but no, they’re always like this, and there’s no chance of the ‘gin-gins’, as Debbie calls them, ending up in Andy the chef’s Turbofan oven. ‘They’re apparently delicious,’ she goes on, ‘but we’ve never eaten them, funnily enough. We just like having them around – they’re part of the place now.’
All around, the hedgerows are busy with birds. Starlings dither and dash from one side of the reed bed to the other. A blackbird hurries along, scuffing up the leaf litter like a curate late for evensong. A grey heron hunches its shoulders and lifts itself clear of the ground in a series of resigned Gallic shrugs. It sails off, paying no mind to the four cormorants that briefly hold a playing-card pattern in the air and then vanish over the horizon.
It’s too cold to be outside for long, and I retreat to the welcome warmth of the tea room. The diners have taken off their hats, and let out their belts a notch to make room for a final mince pie. The clatter of glass and crockery as the staff clear away provides a cheerful soundtrack. Around the edges of the room, the window sills are laid with skeins of ivy and dotted with pine cones. There are jars of local honey on sale, and slabs of ‘Kingcombe Meadows’ chocolate made specially for the Dorset Wildlife Trust. The programme of courses and events for the coming year is ready and waiting – chocolate making and beekeeping among the workshops on offer.
The tits are now just silhouettes in the black branches of the tree. A nuthatch has joined the throng, hopping up the trunk in staccato jerks like a wooden toy. A lone, male robin arranges himself on top of the wooden fencepost and poses for his Hallmark moment. Presumably standing in for French hens, there are now three woodpeckers. And although there’s no partridge, there is a fat pheasant, heading – and I promise I’m not making this up – for the pear tree.
It’s impossible to avoid the end-of-year feel. This is my twelfth visit to Kingcombe, and I have only just begun to fit together the pieces of this extraordinary, complex jigsaw of meadows and people, flowers and insects, birds and deer, dogs and livestock and wildlife. There is an invitation here to stillness and silence, and the slow unfolding that happens when you stop long enough for it to register. In two days time, the visitors’ centre will close down for a few weeks, a sort of human hibernation period to rest and recuperate, and get ready for the spring. The birdfeeder will still be replenished from time to time, no doubt. Left to their own devices, the tits will busy themselves in the hedges, feeding on berries and seeds, and the heron will settle by the still, black water and resume his silent watch.
ANITA ROY is a writer and editor based in Wellington, Somerset. She holds an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University and is a columnist for The Hindu Business Line newspaper in India.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND SKETCH both by Anita Roy.