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Exploring the sights, sounds and tastes of autumn




After a somewhat cool and cloudy August, at least in our region, the hot sun returned early this month, if just for a few days, lending a glow to the berries and other fruits in gardens and hedgerows.

Robin on hawthorn. Picture: Jonathan Heath
Robin on hawthorn. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Some other clear signs of autumn are here too - I saw my last swifts on September 2, the rooks and jackdaws have started evening and morning flights to and from their autumn and winter roosts, robins are trilling their autumn song, and spiders are ever busier building their webs.

Robins sing in most months, but are quiet during the summer moult, so we notice them when they start again, and now they are very vocal again. The autumn song is softer than the spring song and has been described as more melancholy.

Britain has around 650 species of spider, but many are very small and inconspicuous.

The garden spider (Araneus diadematus) is relatively large, and this is the species most likely to be spotted, especially now as they work tirelessly to create and repair their intricate circular webs.

Garden spider. Picture: Martin Walters (51107172)
Garden spider. Picture: Martin Walters (51107172)

The body of the garden spider is striped and flecked in shades of brown with a central line of spots that form a cross shape towards the front. The female spider frequently sits still at the centre of the web, hanging vertically downwards held by her long back legs, her front legs touching strands of silk, waiting to sense any vibration that might indicate entangled prey, usually an insect struggling to break free from the adhesive silk threads.

Blackberries. Picture: Martin Walters (51107164)
Blackberries. Picture: Martin Walters (51107164)

As autumn proceeds, blackberries, rose hips and elderberries have long been ripe, and feathery clusters of traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba) drape the hedges.

Rose hips. Picture: Martin Walters (51107178)
Rose hips. Picture: Martin Walters (51107178)

Here and there wild hops (Humulus lupulus) can be found, the female plants of this rough-stemmed climber with their characteristic papery clusters of ‘cones’.

Hops. Picture: Martin Walters (51107174)
Hops. Picture: Martin Walters (51107174)

Native to much of Europe and Asia, hop belongs to the same family as hemp (Cannabis sativa) and both species have active compounds and a long history of utilisation by people, hops being best known for their use in the brewing industry.

From the original wild hop, many varieties have been bred and cultivated, each offering different flavours and levels of bitterness to offset the sweetness provided by malted barley. Around 150 such varieties are in use today, producing subtle flavours across a spectrum of bitterness and aromas. The recent surge in so-called craft beers highlights such differences, with hop varietal names such as ‘chinook’, ‘citra’, ‘golding’, and ‘mosaic’ featuring on the labels of an increasing range of different styles, rather as grape varieties on wine.

FIgs. Picture: Martin Walters (51107170)
FIgs. Picture: Martin Walters (51107170)

This year, following a warm summer, many fig trees are heavy with ripening fruit, and luckily our local blackbirds haven’t spotted them yet. Botanically, the edible structure is a multiple fruit, or infructescence, consisting of a fleshy wall containing many tiny flowers that slowly ripen into small, single-seeded fruits. When the fig ripens, it gets softer and changes from green to pinkish brown, sometimes splitting when over-ripe. Commercially figs are often dried for ease of storage and transport but are juicy and delicious eaten straight from the tree.

Elderberries Picture: Martin Walters (51107168)
Elderberries Picture: Martin Walters (51107168)
  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist. Read his column in the Cambridge Independent every month.

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