It had been a full twenty years by my reckoning, since my travels had brought me back. Graunching and echoing through the tunnels, on metal flanged wheels to Highgate, and a meeting nearby. The Tube track is deep underground here, a forgotten ruckus buried under the hill. Here in fact, the Northern line lies buried beneath a deep gully, hiding the station further, masking sight and sound. The ascent then is a long one from the platform to the road. The escalators assist the first pitch, before steel edged steps, their criss-cross treads polished almost to nothing from the daily sole erosion. Here, us troglodytes emerge from our cave mouth, eyes greedy for focus in the deep shadow-shafted light. The leaf mould and mulch lies heavy too; banked up behind iron railings and discarded coffee cups with their Tommy-Tippee lids. Scrunching and dry either side of the steps, the leaves whisper conspiratorially to one another as the final climb to the road, the peak. The topping out reward: a wall of wrestling sounds. The hacking smoker’s cough of a bus exhaust; the gasping whine of the release of pressure brakes. Up Archway Road and across to The Park, the noise gurgles away, only metres from the road, suppressed by elevation, pretty terraces and lines of London Planes. They lean into the road, craning for a better view. And what a view, out over the city. Endless: here, the red light on top of Canary Wharf; there, a distant tower block mirror glinting the sun; this way, a line of smearing red tail lights in the snail-slow jam up the hill, that way a meandering brook of houses undulates away down a hill, following the lie of the land. A fine place to build a city. A fine place to put a hill.
An early start to Herefordshire, and the first sense that Summer ebbs as Autumn flows. From the broad valley with the Cotswolds on one side, and the Malverns the other, the M50 is the apple route. It becomes immediately more rural, and grassy. Rather than illuminated signs telling you to “use hard shoulder when busy” here they just say “Soft Verges”, a polite warning not to break down as the hedgerows will swallow you up. Then, outside Ledbury, the apple trees begin, defiant, proud, spiky despite huge stands that map the rolling lie of the land. They are heavy with fruit.
With a strange circularity today, I meet an old colleague Giles. He worked for an advertising agency in Edinburgh who my old company used, and in 2001, we were up in the Scottish capital in a ‘pre production’ meeting, a critical stage in making an advert where everything about the forthcoming shoot gets agreed. During the meeting we heard the whispers. ‘Have you heard what’s going on in New York?’. Diverting the focus of the meeting, we watched transfixed. When the towers fell, it was impossible to comprehend what was going on. The setting was so familiar, so much like a movie set, watching it felt like one. But it was only in the taxi on the way to the airport and the flight home, that what had happened sunk in. We flew home.
The Plane trees in London are beginning to hunker down in preparation for winter. Leaf edges are curling up and turning cello brown. Some fall early; walking between parallel rows, the gravity of expectation is almost palpable. I don’t know why Planes are so named; but I have a soft spot for their versatility and constitution. Their fruit hanging like posh Christmas decorations, bulbous, glittering and furry; unlike conkers they don’t seem to fall. The Planes have adapted to thrive, like urban foxes.
I wait for my train at the British Library. To work at the library café it seems you must have an Apple computer, but they seem to sell very few apples at the counter, only cakes and excessively crusty sandwiches. It is though, to paraphrase ‘the restoration man’, George Clarke, ‘a great space’ and time passes quickly.
I ride 62 miles on my bike, but feel unwell throughout. The land however is bursting with health and vibrancy. Climbing over the Chase under trees, I glance up at the canopies overhead. With the strong light behind, the canopies form patterns like fancy pants wallpaper, Laura Ashley, Farrow & Ball.
With the passing of the Autumn Equinox the daily stride towards darkness begins. And so too the bustle of Autumn, everywhere activity. As the sap in the tree falls as the days shorten, so the wind can starts its ironic late Spring clean, loosening the leaves’ attachment to their home.
The light lingers long now, backlit, iridescent. A short walk against brooding dark skies sees the hills lit up with spotlights. Greens are greener; the autumn colours commence, duns, browns, burgundies, reds. And the puffs of falling leaves have started. The horse chestnuts are letting go all around, a leafy mulch on the pavements. Other are less forthcoming, the oaks are still green, the little coins of the beech are preparing.
This morning, low mist hangs over the fields and in places hill tops jut through, floating on the clouds. The sun is low. Bright reflections and long shadows of a leggy man striding across the fields. Squinting. And in the distance a swan, wing up, preens, preparing to hunker down.