A quest for quietness in the autumn hush hour

While other animals are preparing to hibernate, the rest of us can find it more difficult to switch off
© Sarah Hanson

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The newts have slunk away for the winter. Even when they are not in slink mode they are not the most entertaining creatures but there is something about their speckled bodies and antediluvian habits which appeals. The toad has vanished from his throne of mind-your-own-business beside a wall. Mice, ladybirds, lacewings, butterflies and other creatures in need of winter quarters are heading indoors mostly to the bedroom as far as I can make out from the ladybirds lodged in the corners and the lacewings clinging to the curtains. Well, after all, they are intending to sleep.

House mice do not hibernate. They fall into a torpor. Winter has a similar effect on friends even when they are not especially drunk. And yet those same friends complain that they do not sleep well. This chimes with a recent survey which ranks the UK top in the global not-enough-sleep stakes. Shame we can’t flick the hibernation/torpor switch.

My insomnia solution is old-fashioned: exercise, fresh air and, above all, peace and quiet. The garden is so-so as peacefulness goes. A neighbouring yappy dog regularly shatters the peace. Even the riotous sparrows can be a pain. And the garden is demanding of attention. Birds keep trampling duckweed into the pond. This has to be picked out, speck by tiny speck, or it will grow exponentially and smother just about every living thing. The terrace needs weeding. Plants need repotting. The first fallen leaves need gathering. Bulbs need planting. Clematis needs to be slashed back before it lifts the tiles on the shed.

Time to walk away from the domestic clamour to find some rural peace. We stroll up into the high ground where fields of cabbage, ponies and winter wheat give way to woodland. Overhead there is the high-pitched cry of red kites and, beside us, chattering chaffinches who are our outriders for a few miles until we head down a brambly woodland footpath to a backwater once used by the Romans. We lie in the woods listening to the rustling leaves, or susurration, as my over-educated partner calls it. Keep it Anglo-Saxon, I mutter. But it’s so onomatopoeic he says, smugly.

The quietness quest is not going well. It is becoming all the more hopeless because I am trying to identify each tree by its sound. Is that a sighing poplar or a rustling alder? A slight breeze triggers a distant clacking sound: Magnolia grandiflora’s leathery leaves or someone hitting some lederhosen? I used to be able to hear the difference between tree varieties never mind lederhosen beaters. Maybe it’s just more difficult because trees sound different as their leaves dry out in autumn. Maybe I’m going deaf. Either way this is not restful.

And yet the whole point of this outing is to surround ourselves with gentle rural sounds to create a peaceful, happy somnolent mood. Sound is powerful. Sound can make or break a mood as easily as it makes or breaks a landscape.

In Rainow, Cheshire, a 19th-century mill owner called James Mellor built an allegorical garden representing John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In it he installed an aeolian harp. When visitors explored his garden he would light a sulphurous fire in a small stone hut and, as they walked past Mount Error along the byway to Hell, they would smell the sulphur stench of Hades and hear the eerie screams of the harp. A hellish foil to our heavenly Eden, an unexpected aural dimension to the landscape.

On the other hand, in Rousham near Oxford the landscape in which Horace Walpole observed that the designer William Kent “leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden” now has its culturally important acres disturbed by occasional aircraft noise.

Out here, on our woodland quest for quietness, a chill is beginning to persuade us that it is time to say goodbye to the health-giving fresh air and the woods of sleeping creatures. It is time to head home as a low sun and an early trace of the moon predicts the dusk.

We light the fire, realising that we are nearly out of logs. Another non-restful thought. But the warmth after the chilly walk is already making me sleepy. My partner reads to me. I love being read to. The heat. The fire. The drone of his voice. I think I hear his voice saying “you’re asleep, aren’t you?”, but I am dreaming of torpid house mice.

Jane Owen is the editor of House & Home and deputy editor of FT Weekend

Next week: Alexander Gilmour’s London life

Illustration by Sarah Hanson

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