Nature writer Matt Collins observes the minutiae of seasonal change from a remote cabin in Sussex. 

Mid-afternoon

Can the season appear both early and late? Beneath the still leafless oak and chestnut, and with the bracken still brown, brittle, not yet overtaken by new spring growth; and the effect of the two — the bare canopy above and the lignified undergrowth, bookended by uprights of frost-white birch bark — framing the view, the wood feels uncannily wintry for late March, and stepping into it a kind of rewinding of time. Then again, when I find the cabin, at the end of the black-soiled track and half hidden in the trees, I find it surrounded by drifts of wild daffodils well past their peak, each little yellow trumpet now quietened and crinkling. Meteorologists tell us that climate change is blurring the seasons (although were they ever that clear cut?); the ecologists, that Britain’s flowers now bloom a great deal earlier than they once did. This, sadly, is true. But the unpredictability is stimulating, at least: if it all ran like clockwork, the joy of discovery might be lessened, as might the impulse to go looking for spring. An initial orbit around the cabin reveals only the earliest greens: stubby shoots on the bramble, broken buds on the ash, enlivened moss spread over the feet of great beech trees. I see my breath hanging on the cool air.

Inside the cabin, I familiarise and unpack, and then disperse my things into neat corners. I make tea on the stove and survey the firewood for the evening, tempering an urge to light the burner right away — I should explore first. Drawn to the wide windows, and to the light they reveal intermittently dimming and engulfing the trees close by, I climb over the bed, binoculars in hand, and scan for signs of movement. Entirely by accident I notice the crimson crown of a great spotted woodpecker perched preening on the forked branches of a tall chestnut. Distracting my eye, another figure lands spritely on a twig of oak, but I struggle to identify it — a small, lichen-yellow and concrete-grey bird, plumage plumped, the size of a fist. I cannot be seen, so take my time: the cabin is a residential bird hide, an extremely comfortable one. A warbler? No, a migrant chiffchaff, when I look it up. Its song is subtle and repeated. ‘Nothing so convinces me’, wrote the poet Edward Thomas over a century ago, ‘that Spring has come and cannot be repulsed’. Each note of the chiffchaff, he proclaimed, was like the hammering of a nail into winter’s coffin.

In my twenties I learned a bird a day for a year, memorising its summer and winter feathers, its latin name — but so much of that knowledge has since lapsed. The chiffchaff is a reminder to regain it.

Dusk

Outside again, wandering a wider circuit and now listening more intently to what on the way in had rang as a single chorus. I attempt to separate the voices and decipher their source. The blackbird is obvious, sonorous and infectious; the robin a companionable babble. From somewhere higher in the canopy resounds the familiar whistle of a nuthatch — an old favourite. Nuthatches seem to make their presence known only in the spring months; like the cuckooflower of the meadow or the woodland coralroot, they vanish without trace by summer, despite being non-migratory. Right now the nuthatch’s repeated pitch carries sharply across the woods. From further afield comes the long, neigh-like, laugh-like call of a green woodpecker. Perhaps the bird is down in the grassy glade below the cabin, drumming out ants. Overhead, an enormous red kite is making its silent rounds.

Here, on the edge of the South Downs National Park, on a narrow and quiet woodland rise, the hardwood trees are spectacularly diverse. There is oak, ash, beech, birch, and wild cherry, and great mature stands of multi-trunked sweet chestnut. The chestnut is coppiced in areas, too, as I suppose all of it once was — a tree introduced from mainland Europe by the Romans and stocked in large swathes as a renewable supply of robust timber. Also occupying the understory I find hazel, holly and blackthorn. Above and overhanging the cabin, a large cherry, conspicuously bark-ringed, is coming into white blossom, with creamy buds beginning to fluff like popcorn. Cherries love a hill, their flowers seek the sunlight.

I return inside, open wine and make up a fire in the burner; within minutes the wood-panelled interior has drawn in its warmth, and the little room heats up gloriously. It’s 7 degrees outside but I go out to sit with my back against the cabin for a moment to hear the birds retire for the night — the blackbirds, and a lone robin, are last to turn in, their utterances yielding in the twilight to those of territorial tawny owls. The foreground dims, the birch limbs glow snow-white, a gathering breeze lifts and stirs the crate paper remains of long-fallen chestnut leaves.

Night

Frittata for dinner, and Henry Beston and his Cape Cod cabin — The Outermost House (1928) — for company. Beston is only a few paragraphs into describing the ‘majestic and mutilated’ landscape of the Cape’s solitary outer beach — ‘the end or the beginning of the world’ — before the heaviest of sleep descends.

Day two

Late morning

The light is giving magic again, once illuminating, next dulling the bracken. The trees are wind-flustered this morning, straining at the tips. Inside, I am warm beneath the covers yet the room is cool, the fire out. Coffee made, I sit and look again for the birds, though find that the wind has wholly dispersed them. But the light is mesmerising in its dance over the trunks, stumps and fallen branches, and over the bright carpets of creeping moss.

After breakfast I drive off to collect my son, four, who has been talking all week of the woods. Between West Sussex and Hampshire the winding, undulating, wooded lanes are puddle-smudged and twig-splintered and at intervals I have to stop and clear branches. My phone screen lights up with a Met Office warning of strong winds in the south, and the rain resumes. Mild, wet Marches are breaking records annually; this one feels the dampest.

Afternoon

My son is ready at the door with the armful of toy diggers he deems essential to any excursion. Retracing the route we make a stop at Gilbert White’s House and Gardens in the Hampshire village of Selborne, a few miles out from the woods — in part because the museum is so close, but also because White, a clergyman and prominent naturalist, was the original wildlife observer of these parts. His Natural History of Selborne (first published in 1789) has proved so enduringly popular it has never once been out of print. It is in fact considered the fourth most published work in the English language after that of Shakespeare, Bunyan and the King James Bible. Evidently, alongside drama and religion, Nature continues to enrapture readers.

White’s garden is closed due to the increasing winds, but we investigate the restored rooms of his 16th century country residence: his sunken kitchen and elevated study, his taxidermy birds and the cabinets that encase the many editions of his Natural History, which number close to 300.

I had promised my son marshmallows on a fire, but when we re-enter the woods the trees are swaying all the more — precariously so. Delighted by the cabin, however, and oblivious to the rising roar in the canopy above, he races his diggers through the mud and the mulch of sodden leaves, and we play a game of extracting them, until, increasingly uneasy with the bending beech boughs around us, I call time and we head inside. What happened to our spring?

Evening

The cabin once again wraps around its comfort — perhaps all the more comfortable for the audible bluster in the trees outside. We light a new fire which, for the swirling air above, draws too fast and the flame is quickly sucked out. I add more twigs and we have another go, keeping the door ajar while the heat takes hold. I put on a story and make dinner as the light drains from the woods. I feel the contentment of John Clare’s poem To My Cottage: ‘…dearer still, the happy winter-night, When the storm pelted down with all his might, And roared and bellowed in the chimney-top’. The heat now radiating from within the bones of the cabin, I ‘Heard the storm rage and hugged my happy spot’. We melt marshmallows on flared embers in the burner, sitting crosslegged on the cabin floor. And when my son sleeps — mid conversation — I return to Beston, remembering there is mention somewhere of a storm on Cape Cod, and a description of his cabin besieged. I land instead on his assertion that, ‘the three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach’. Two out of three, and they are great indeed.

Day three

Dawn

We wake to stillness regained and, as is a child’s habit, we wake a good hour or so earlier than yesterday. Out before breakfast — to work up to breakfast — walking in the brightening morning, kicking up the fallen sticks, making a wider circuit. We’re going on a flower hunt: there must be more than moss and spent daffodils. We descend from the rise to the boggy woodland floor, where the Sussex black mud lies yet more thickly churned and yet more inviting to the four year old. According to Wilding author Isabella Tree, here in West Sussex there are 30 local dialect words for mud; this must be ‘gubber’ — blackened earth rich with rotting organic matter. Soon enough, we find the puddled gubber bordered by a drift of flourishing wild garlic leaves; beyond these, the distinct leaves of bluebell. The latter flows as an unbroken current out into an open glade where, dotted here and there, protrude the emerging azure arcs of bluebell flowers — May’s signature bloom arrived a month early.

And more flowers follow: sulphurous primrose along a low bank; purple violets in the leaf litter — we both sniff their earthy sylvan scent. A pool of presumably ancient dog’s mercury, and the leaf rosettes of surfacing foxgloves. New fronds unfurl from hart’s-tongue ferns clasping the perpendicular soil of a long-toppled beech. And, smallest of all, the tiny spherical heads of acid-green moschatel, so minute they insist that you crouch, and, when you do, reward you with fresh perspective. They are little wonders, full of vernal encouragement, though blink and you’ll miss them. Spring, it seems, has been going on regardless in the flora of the Sussex woodland, the flowers keeping their own time irrespective of volatile weather.

We trace back up the path, talking happy nonsense, and pull each other up the steep bank — back to the rise, to the chestnut copse and to the cabin; to scrambled eggs beneath the cherry blossom.

A partnership between TOAST & Unyoked, three nature writers stay in remote cabins across the UK to reconnect with nature and observe the changing seasons. 

Words and photography by Matt Colins. 

Matt stayed at Unyoked’s Maynard cabin.

The TOAST Triangle Patchwork Check Cotton Quilt is featured.

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7 comments

Beautiful and intimately rendered journalling… about paying attention and ‘coming home’, to the here and now. Thank you.

Jeremy 12 days ago

Very moving. Accurate, unsentimental observation and love, of nature, and son. Thank you.

Carol 20 days ago

Beautiful! I need to go and stay in a cabin in the woods!

Lynne 20 days ago

As the rain pelts across my bedroom window this Sunday morning, I think how much lovelier and more tolerable it would be from the window of a tucked-away woodland cabin. To be a part of nature instead of part of a suburb today would be heaven.

ELIZABETH 20 days ago

A delightful, unpretentious, heart-warming piece. The British weather … so often an opportunity for character growth.

Di 20 days ago

A lovely and very imaginative read; thank you for this.

Ainee 26 days ago

beautiful writing and so evocative of time spent away with a small one. have bought the book and note there are only two copies left- think you’ve caused a run on Mr Beston x

clare 1 month ago