A full-moon meander

Feel the lunar magic on a starlit wander, Suffolk

A full moon, shining in a clear night sky. How often have you craned your neck for a glimpse when this celestial body is at its peak? The moon is undeniably compelling and magical. Since ancient times it’s been the stuff of myth, the setting of tales and the inspiration for worship. Man has even stood upon it.

Yet rarely do even the most ardent of nature lovers among us set out on a walk at nightfall with the light of the moon to guide us. More’s the pity. For nature is different at night. We are different.

In the witching hours our perspective on the world changes. A familiar landscape becomes terra incognita, full of shadows, bumps, textures and unfamiliar sounds and smells. At night, we experience both a velvety tranquillity and an unsettling strangeness than can crystallise into fear at the faintest of noises.

Wildlife behaves differently too. Daytime creatures turn in; mysterious nocturnal ones start their shift. And you get the best beauty spots all to yourself. The night, unquestionably, is a realm ripe for exploration; a journey into the unknown. And there is no surely no better way to experience its poetry than on a full-moon hike.

To do this in style, head to Suffolk. About 16km west of the beaches of Southwold and Walberswick, on the edge of the village of Westhall, you’ll find Ivy Grange Farm. Tranquil, eco-friendly and full of charm, this rural hideaway is the perfect retreat for low-impact glamping. Kim and Nick Hoare, the friendly couple who own and run the farm are refugees from London. And they lead full-moon walks every month of the year.

‘When we moved up from London, we were really struck by the amazing night skies in Suffolk: inky black with great views of the Milky Way and amazing shadows by the light of the full moon,’ says Kim, when I arrive in the county one chilly November afternoon. ‘The idea emerged and, for the first three years, my brother Dixe led the walks for people staying in the yurts.’

She means travel writer Dixe Wills, author of At Night: A Journey Round Britain from Dusk till Dawn and a natural ambassador for nocturnal adventures. The full-moon hikes proved so enjoyable that the couple decided to make them a regular attraction and to widen the net. ‘We invited local people to join us and we started to lead the walks ourselves each month,’ says my hostess, as we drive to the farm, the lift a courtesy extended to all guests.

“A familiar landscape becomes terra incognita, full of shadows, bumps, textures and unfamiliar sounds and smells.”

The route differs from month to month, although all hikes start within a 16km radius of the farm. Gentle meanders rather than puff-inducing route marches, they last anything from two to three hours and are as good an excuse as any for a farm stay. But here’s the thing: in a reflection of their generous spirit, Ivy Grange’s owners offer the hikes free to anyone who wants to join.

Whether you’re a guest, a local or happen to be in that neck of the woods, you’ll be warmly welcomed. The idea has taken off. In season guests are clamouring to come along, as are others who hear about the hikes through word of mouth. Depending on the time of the year – and the mood of your hosts – you could find yourself on a river, coastal, estuary, forest or heath walk. You could find yourself tramping over fields and farmland or walking stretches of a long-distance route, like the Angles Way. Sometimes the walk kicks off with a pub visit. Of course, whatever the route, you hope the moon will brighten the night sky – as I had been hoping all afternoon.

Rain battered the train carriages on my way down here but, miraculously, the skies have cleared by the time I get off at the tiny station at Brampton. (So tiny, indeed, that it’s a request stop and approaching it is a nail-biter: will the conductor remember to alert the train driver or won’t he?) Suffolk is one of the driest parts of the British Isles. Kim says she’s heard that the county receives less rainfall than does Israel. And thanks to the flat landscape, these big, rolling skies – beloved of Constable and generations of other artists – make the county the perfect place for moon-gazing.

The yurts had come down the week before my visit: the glamping season lasts from March to October. I’m staying in a cosy room in the 17th-century farmhouse instead (out of season, guests on full-moon hikes can book a room). I meet Nick and after a warming vegetarian chilli in the airy dining room cum kitchen, we drive to our starting point: a dimly lit car park behind a pub in Halesworth, a market town.

Once upon a time, this was the site of a flourishing commercial waterway and wherries, old sailing boats with dark red sails, would sail from here to the sea at Southwold and on to the capital, laden with cargo. Were this London, it’d feel a little edgy. Here all is calm. But still, the street lights detract from the moon’s lustre. I have an urge to commit an act of vandalism and knock them out. Hm. Maybe it’s the lunar effect. After all, the gravitational pull of the moon is at its strongest when it is full, influencing the tides, plants and, some believe, our moods.

I’m soon distracted by the arrival of our group, however, who appear out of the night in ones and twos. There’s a couple who have recently moved up from London and are eager to explore. With Suffolk’s miles of coastline, cycle tracks, footpaths, bridleways and country lanes, they’ve chosen the right place. A local farm estate worker says he adores these moonlight hikes: ‘It’s a chance to see an area I know very, very well in a completely different light.’ An amateur dowser and a farming couple also join us: we’re nothing if not an eclectic crew of night owls.

“Depending on the time of the year – and the mood of your hosts – you could find yourself on a river, coastal, estuary, forest or heath walk.”

The hike is a sociable one. I confess that I’m not mad keen on chatty hikes. Ordinarily I tend to position myself at the front or trail behind so that I can remain in my cocoon of silence. One of the downsides of chit-chat, of course, is that you’re less likely to hear nocturnal rustlings. But these locals are pretty tuned into nature. They take part in owl projects – Suffolk, Kim tells me, is the best county in Britain for barn owl sightings – tend community orchards, go on bird walks and picnic by the coast. They know the pheasants, hares, badgers and muntjac deer that roam their fields. Collectively, their intimate knowledge of the area is a great source of local tips.

Tonight’s hike is to be an 8km circular loop. We set off across the road and head into Halesworth’s Millennium Green, 20 hectares of green space, teeming with wildlife and created for the locals to enjoy nature. Kim explains that it is the largest one in the country, and is made up of meadows, old sand and gravel quarries, a community orchard and a skate park.

The River Blyth and the Town River run through the Green, as does the New Reach canal. Water voles and otters can be seen on its waterways in daylight. Barn owls glide over the meadows at dusk, in summer cattle graze beside the bank and in May you can hear the liquid song of nightingales among the trees. And on an autumn night? So far, no visible wildlife, though there is a stirring. We pass under a railway tunnel, a mysterious hollow, through which the moon, big, bald and pearlescent white, is framed.

Emerging on the other side, we pause as a patch of cloud passes over it, creating a corona that illuminates our path ahead. The street lamps are now far behind. In the field, it’s muddy underfoot. Leaves squelch. Are there cows about? I sniff the air. A hint of manure, hmm, maybe. A cool breeze ripples across my face. We walk hesitantly, eyes alternately straining skyward and checking the ground ahead. Kim tells me how in early summer nightjars can occasionally be heard churring or glimpsed on heathland walks. ‘They look and sound spectacular,’ she whispers.

We pass through a gate and into another field. Is it a meadow? Grazing pasture? Hard to say. Our path follows a tree line. Is that an oak up ahead? Against the night sky, there’s a silhouette of frilly leaves. Yes, it’s an oak. Trees at night are watchful, shadowy presences. They brush up against you and trip you up if you’re not careful. Their branches are shape-shifters: one moment you see gnarled hands, the next a spider’s web, or a canopy of veins and arteries. I jump as a pheasant, spooked, bursts into flight, its staccato squawk and flapping wings magnified in the inky black.

Emerging on the other side, we pause as a patch of cloud passes over it, creating a corona that illuminates our path ahead. The street lamps are now far behind. In the field, it’s muddy underfoot. Leaves squelch. Are there cows about? I sniff the air. A hint of manure, hmm, maybe. A cool breeze ripples across my face. We walk hesitantly, eyes alternately straining skyward and checking the ground ahead. Kim tells me how in early summer nightjars can occasionally be heard churring or glimpsed on heathland walks. ‘They look and sound spectacular,’ she whispers.

We pass through a gate and into another field. Is it a meadow? Grazing pasture? Hard to say. Our path follows a tree line. Is that an oak up ahead? Against the night sky, there’s a silhouette of frilly leaves. Yes, it’s an oak. Trees at night are watchful, shadowy presences. They brush up against you and trip you up if you’re not careful. Their branches are shape-shifters: one moment you see gnarled hands, the next a spider’s web, or a canopy of veins and arteries. I jump as a pheasant, spooked, bursts into flight, its staccato squawk and flapping wings magnified in the inky black.

We cross a footbridge and edge along a river. Its waters are barely audible but the moon’s reflection undulates in it. At a ridge over an old quarry someone has heard a tawny owl: a male with his haunting ‘hoohoo hoohoo’. We stand stock still, waiting and listening in the night. The silence is as thick as molasses. Is the owl listening too? I have an uncanny feeling he is. Waiting for us humans to emit our telltale gabble or thump of footstep.

“We stand stock still, waiting and listening in the night. The silence is as thick as molasses. Is the owl listening too?”

We leave the Green behind and cross a road. Our head torches, briefly switched on for safety, make us blink: it hasn’t taken us long to acquire night vision, with the friendly moon to guide us. Back on a footpath, we pass by a church. The tombstones in St Peter’s graveyard send a frisson up my spine and the tall Norman round tower looms mysteriously. I half expect Rapunzel to appear. A kilometre on we find a US war memorial. ‘We’re walking through what were airfields during World War II,’ says Nick.

All the while, the moon, so extraordinarily bright, keeps apace, flitting through trees and over the fields. As we walk, the night wraps herself round us and conversation peters out. I feel more sure-footed and take the lead, feeling my way through the landscape. For a few moments, I have an exhilarating, out-of-body sensation, as if I have become a phantom and merged with the night. My senses have heightened too. Suddenly, there’s a terrible stink. ‘Silage,’ says the farm estate worker softly, explaining the aroma of fermented fodder. We’re all whispering now, hushed by the night.

In the final stretch, we walk through a loke – a narrow lane bordered by spindle trees, their vivid pink winter berries unseen. On either side of the path the branches bow towards each other and create the illusion of a swirling hollow, with the moon playing peek-a-boo. On this gentlest of walks, it is a thunderbolt moment.

Walking under the cape of darkness yields another unexpected surprise: our small group of strangers, drawn like a magnet by the moon, has been touchingly solicitous of each other, more I daresay than we would have been in daylight. The night has bound us together.

Nuts and bolts

The owners of Ivy Grange Farm (ivygrangefarm.co.uk) lead informal monthly full-moon walks around the suffolk countryside, whether or not the skies are clear. these last from two to three hours. the pace is slow and the route changes every month. check the website for details. in season you can glamp in one of five comfortable yurts in the 1.2-hectare meadow, go on bike rides and take seaside jaunts. ivy grange has solid green credentials and, in a wonderful perk, offers ‘dig your own’ vegetable and fruit beds.

Between November and march, two rooms, including an en suite, are available in the farmhouse to those joining the walk. this includes a light evening meal and breakfast, as well as lifts to and from the train station. the closest station to the farm is Brampton. this is on the Lowestoft line from Ipswich served by Abellio east Anglia (abelliogreateranglia.co.uk). If travelling from London, you can connect to Ipswich at London Liverpool street. ivy grange is also on the Sustrans national cycle route 1.

More wild times

Wile Adventures under Suffolk Skies q 07766 388005 wasuffolk.co.uk. offers guided bespoke night-time forays on the Suffolk coast, including night-time photography and evening walks.

Once a year at the RSPB’s Havergate island on the Suffolk coast, they host a big wild sleepout, which includes the boat trip there and back, a dusk guided walk, wildlife spotting, a campfire meal, a night sleeping under the stars, a sunrise over the sea and a day exploring the island.

Secret Adventures 020 3287 7986 www.secretadventures.org. try night-time walks and kayak trips to mystery locations in and around london.

The Bat Conservation Trust q 0345 1300 228 www.bats.org.uk. nocturnal bat-watching events across britain.

Takeaway tips

  • Before a night walk, recce the route in daylight. check the moon phases for the whole year online (moonconnection.com/moon_phases_calendar.phtml).
  • Take a torch but don’t use it unless essential. use the red light (if available) so as not to impede your night vision. bring spare batteries!
  • After nightfall, hike in a small group or with at least one other person.
  • Take it slow and pause to drink in the moonlight.
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