From the middle of August there are the first indications – the merest suspicions – of autumn: a whiff of wood smoke; the gathering of the swallows; the silence of the birds; summer is passing. If it has been a hot summer with stuffy airless nights and parched and withered gardens, I long for autumn’s cool evenings and fresh, brisk days; if it has been a miserable summer, cold and wet, then let us be done with the pretence and move on to the glory of autumn. Summer is fickle: it promises and then reneges. It offers and then withdraws. Here, among the Cotswold Hills, instead of sadness at the passing of summer I am exhilarated by the approach of autumn.
Autumn is the start of the year for village life. Autumn is the time to plan supper parties and convivial get-togethers; the time to read the books unread in the busyness of summer gardening, summer visitors, summer holidays, summer heat. When the children have gone back to school there are the returning village pleasures, neglected through the summer: Gardening Clubs (less grand than Horticultural Societies), Play Reading Groups, Book Clubs, Evening Lectures: all offer interest, amusement and friendship.
But first things first. The church year, unfolding with the seasons. Harvest Supper, companionable and timeless. The Harvest Festival Service in Church – still an occasion when country churches will be full – as we give thanks for crops from fields and gardens and around the world. Nowadays the failure of the coffee crop in Columbia, or the rice harvest in Malaya affects us here in the English countryside. Sometimes newspapers report celebrations not of the earth’s bounty, but the nearby engineering works or papermaking factory, for providing local employment. Celebrations of these are fine, but all the jobs and all the money in the world will not buy food if there is none to buy.
Autumn is the time for looking backwards and forwards, the time for tidying up the garden in the comfortable knowledge that the year’s battle against bindweed and couch-grass and dandelions is over, but even in this closing down, it is time to look at beds and borders, to decide what is successful and what is not, to plan changes, and luxuriate in the glowing riots of permanent colour suggested by ever optimistic gardening catalogues, where descriptions of plants are so enticing that we want to rush out at once and buy them all. Later, more realistically, we settle for the hope of borders with some colour, some of the time.
Now the heat haze of summer has gone, there are autumnal morning mists with crispness and clarity in the air and renewed energy to go out and walk. It is time to look at the surrounding countryside, appreciating the framework hidden all summer. All around is spread the story of the countryside: curious dog-legs in hedges; individual trees in a row across a field; gates set not in the corner of a field to help when moving stock, but in the middle of a long hedge to allow today’s vast agricultural machinery ease of access; classic ridge and furrow marks; fields with curving corners; fields with long straight boundaries.
In this part of the Cotswolds whichever way you walk it seems to be uphill. The last part of my outward journey is up a steep incline to the crossroads, and on a crisp early autumn morning as I approach them I see on a distant roadside verge something dark. A little nearer and I recognise a dead fox – stretched out, stiff, on its back, its legs stuck out, but strangely stunted. My heart sinks. This is the third in as many days. Much better surely a quick clean death, than a long slow lingering one after being hit by a car and left to die in pain; or through a gangrenous bullet wound; or from starvation when the ability to hunt food is lost to age or injury. I go on towards the corpse as it lies in cold death, its head on the verge, its body in the road. I can see its brush, long and luxurious. I draw nearer still. It is a log of wood. Good eyesight is a great blessing. So is a vivid imagination.
A flurry of golden leaves blows across my path as I turn for home, exhilarated by my walk. Autumn makes no false promises; it shares its glory generously.