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The autumn sunshine on our faces felt glorious as we set off, but far off in the distance an ominous Halloween storm was brewing. The wind had picked up, making the treetops roar, filling the air with ghosts and ghouls. The children were giddy with excitement, running up and down the steep sides of the path, landing with a satisfying splat in the middle of each muddy puddle. Arms outstretched, they walked along fallen tree trunks, leaping off at the end with joyful abandon. A majestic beech tree, recently downed in a storm, lay across the woodland floor. The roots had been ripped up, leaving bare chalk exposed, which proved too much of a temptation for the little treasure hunters, who dived into the gaping hole, hopeful of finding a prize.
My children are fascinated by fungi, particularly the macabre, poisonous and downright bizarre, revelling in the stories and folklore associated with them. Like truffle hounds, they spread out from the path, rummaging through fallen leaves, peeking around tree trunks and under rotting logs, letting out a triumphant yell when they make an unusual discovery.
Horn of plenty, said to look like black trumpets being played by the dead, poked eerily out through the leaf litter. Aptly named dead man’s fingers clawed their way out of the ground and black globs of witches butter clung to the branches of dead trees. A deathcap, one of our most poisonous mushrooms, skulked under the overhanging branches of a beech tree.
The children know never to touch any fungi they find (some could make you very ill, or even kill you if you ate them), but there is one unmistakable toadstool, the saffrondrop bonnet, which they are allowed to pick. It’s a delicate little thing, with a long, slender stem bursting with bright orange juice. We each picked one and wrote with it on the back of our hands. Then we found a clump of old puffballs and used a stick to poke one, standing back as clouds of spores puffed out of the top of the spiky ball.
Spider webs adorned every branch, slugs feasted on fungi and beetles scuttled away as we turned over logs. The rumble of thunder echoed around the hills as the wind whipped up further and the storm clouds were upon us.
The spell was cast.
We headed for home and the promise of hot chocolate in front of the fire, making it back just as the rain started.