The capricious nature of British climate is obviously why in Britain weather talk is a staple part of everyday conversation. Even foreign visitors – and residents, like myself – will pick up the habit. You can’t help it. It rules your life. But it also makes us tell each other stories.
This one is about the sensual beauty of the British Autumn. I have often thought October can be one of best months to visit Britain. The leaves are changing colour, and the coppery and rusty palette is even more striking against the crisp blue sky we have seen over the last few weeks. The air has a particular scent, too, of ripening berries and sweet grapes.
John Keats paints a vividly evocative picture of the season’s generous produce, in his Ode to Autumn:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.
You may be satisfied with crunching the mulching/soggy leaves on the pavement, but if you venture to the countryside, you will be rewarded with many more seasonal gifts. If you live in London, Kent is only a short drive away, and yet you will feel as if you have entered a different world.
On two separate trips we took a couple of medium-length walks in the Isle of Harty and Maidstone areas. Both times we were blessed with the perfect weather for a Sunday walk. Mostly sunny, mild enough for comfortable walking. In Harty we came across St Thomas the Apostle, a charming countryside church, built around 1089, following the destruction brought to the area by the Danes’ incursions.
We thought the church might be locked, but were pleasantly surprised by the church warden, who asked us where we came from and then invited us in – ‘Welcome to Harty’, he said. Inside, the small ambient of the church was made even cosier by the warmth of the wood panelling covering the stone walls. The warden told us that at Christmas, service is candle-lit and the church always reaches its full capacity.
We couldn’t help but notice baskets with fruit, lying around the church vestibule. ‘Harvest Festival’, the church warden explained. It looked like we had just missed a good feast of autumnal flavours. We made up for that on our following trip.
Our walk in Harty ended up on the Gothic-looking beach.
The sun had set and the sky was heavily overcast. But it was the dark wooden stumps – the remains of old wave-breakers, I guess – that were scattered around the light-coloured sand that gave the place a somewhat post-apocalyptic aura. Ironically enough, on a hot summer’s day the place would be teeming with naked bodies basking in the sun – the beach is a naturist resort.
The weather was consistently good on our second walk, which started in Sutton Valance. To me, it was a quintessentially English walk, although the architecture of the villages – and, in particular the red roofs of some of the houses – also give this part of Kent a kind of French je ne se quois. Still, as we walked past East Sutton Church, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy written in a countryside churchyard’, the most Romantic tribute to the haunting beauty of English countryside cemeteries. This one was particularly striking because of the most unusual style of this graveyard’s tombs: mummy-like sculptures rest above ground as suggestive reminders of those buried six feet under.
Our walk was punctuated by regular stops to gather copious amounts of blackberries and, occasionally, some fallen apples and cobnuts, left behind after the harvest.
There is nothing that tastes sweeter than fruit that has just been picked from it source. It’s not just the novelty of foraging, although I’m also surprised that wild berries and mushrooms are often left untouched in Britain. It is also the realisation that we hardly ever consume 0-miles food, and when we do, we appreciate the fact that supermarket ‘freshness’ is an oxymoron.
We took home the berries we couldn’t eat, but they didn’t travel well in our sandwich bag. And so they became jam. Less healthy than fresh fruit, for sure, but a good way to preserve the sweetness of Autumnal fruit for the cold months ahead.