Several days of deep hoar frost had left every branch and every blade of grass coated in a thick layer of rime and the paths weaving through the Cotswolds were now hard and solid underfoot. The River Windrush flowed swiftly through icy reeds and rushes and the few remaining hawthorn berries shone like bright red baubles. It was just a week before Christmas and the landscape was putting on a special seasonal show.
The sharp kirrup of a moorhen broke the silence and several ducks quietly dabbled beneath a clump of pollarded willows. One brave mole had made a fresh mound of crumbled soil, but on breaking the surface it had probably shot straight back into its cosy tunnel. We dropped past the historic Little Aston Mill, frozen in time and now frozen in temperature, and turned right through a rambling farmyard. Long rows of long solar panels had been newly installed behind the barns and resembled the angled wings of an old biplane.
Clusters of frosted hazel catkins looked like festive decorations and a tumbledown brick bothy, covered in ivy, might have been home to a few of Santa’s little helpers. Mist crept through the wood and a fallen larch tree revealed twenty large roots that looked like a pack of small stealthy dinosaurs. Beyond the plantations we descended back down to the Windrush and followed its secret meanders and weed filled backwaters.
The valley was one long sweeping frost pocket and every tree could have starred in a school nativity play. An undulating woodpecker caught our eye and a sly fox crept along the riverside before crossing a slippery log to sniffle around on the far bank. Longhorn cattle assessed their waterside meadows, recently flooded and now shallow skating rinks. The farmer’s quad bike had woven tracks like spaghetti through the icy ground and by the next lane we allowed ourselves ten minutes to slide across the extensive frozen puddles.
A stone slab crossed a babbling tributary and from an elevated position we took a last look down the valley. Sheep were on the move and it was easy to imagine that a shepherd, dressed in a biblical cloak and clutching a well worn staff, might be sheltering somewhere nearby. The famous old dovecote on the edge of Naunton was padlocked for the winter, but no doubt plenty of birds were tucked up in the hundreds of holes inside its inner walls.
A snipe shot out from the side of a stream and another fox warily picked its way through a field of old turnips. Dusk was drawing close as we arrived in Lower Slaughter, where we were greeted by the sweet scent of wood smoke and damp autumn leaves. The mallards were shivering, but I told them not to worry: “It’s warming up – rain is on the way tomorrow. And it will soon be Christmas!”