Autumn leaves are beginning to fall in Devon, a clear demarcation of the seasonal change taking place. The once green leaves, that we watched unfurl in the long-awaited spring, turn red and orange and shine like stars in the damp morning light before falling to the ground where they shrivel. Slowly they rot and decay eventually replacing the nutrients that once fed them. The new growth suddenly burst open last springtime, forcing us to crane our necks to see the utter beauty of another approaching summer uncurling in front of our eyes, translucent and fresh. Now they fall, marking the slow onset of winter, diminishing daylight and long periods of dark, damp weather. The cycle of life continues.
Summer seemed so short with all its crammed in activity and rush to escape the house. But it doesn’t often linger long and we are left wondering how many months before it comes around again. It may be the warmest season, but it’s rarely the season when we experience our best weather, not here on the western fringes of the UK. Spring, late autumn and winter seem to be the times when high pressure systems bless our shores, blocking the path of Atlantic lows that instead bounce northwards to Iceland and Northern Norway, leaving us to bask in calmer climes. In 2015 we had an early spring, thrown upon us in April when we weren’t quite ready and then we waited, shivering in cold winds, until September before we had any weather I am tempted to describe as good.
Why do we wait when we should seize the day regardless of season. Shorter days can bring just as much joy as the longer summer versions. We know from experience that waiting and waiting only leads to disappointment and that here in the UK you plan what you want to do and then go and do it, regardless of the weather. I’ve learned the hard way. For a long time I felt as though all my days had been stolen by a time thief. I lived in a dark corner of my mind and hardly ever looked out. Once I found enough energy to instigate change I realised that it was up to me, nobody else, to make things happen, to live my life as best I could.
As I age, the boundaries in which I can operate comfortably begin to shrink. Where I used to camp in all seasons, including Scottish winters, I now find that idea abhorrent. Camping is becoming a thing I can only do with any comfort from late spring, through summer to early autumn, regardless of what equipment I use. This is mostly because at other times I get forced into the shelter of my tent quite early and I don’t seem to fit quite as well as I used to. I fidget and squirm, creak and groan in the small space I am forced to occupy finding only a little comfort where a youth once luxuriated and laughed with only a thin, closed-cell mat to place his even thinner sleeping bag upon.
This is one of life’s great ironies. As we age we seem to need more equipment to be comfortable but our ability to ferry around heavy loads diminishes. Even so, it still surprises me just how little we actually need in order to get by in comfort when travelling in those hazy summer months of our memories.
Autumn see me hanging by a thread, trying desperately to cling on to summer, not wanting to let go of something that felt too fleeting to remember for long. The warmth of the sun on my skin isn’t just something I desire, it’s something I need, providing me with vital vitamin D. Of course it lifts me mentally and spiritually giving me permission to remove a few layers and indulge myself. Sitting and absorbing its heat it feels as good as any hot bath, especially after a long and arduous day in the saddle. If you add another layer, of clothes and imagination, autumn feels much the same, as does spring, but it never quite matches up to full-on summer warmth that just soaks into you like a good moisturiser should.
Winter is another beast and it takes some determination to keep on riding through. But if you try, a wonderland can open up. A place of frost and ice, clear skies, intricate patterns and views that reach to the far horizon. The light of brighter days brings great mental benefit after being shut away, hoping that you might wake to sunshine. When it happens you want to be ready to pounce because the days run short and dark is always just around the corner. It takes some well-chosen layers and a positive attitude to fight off the cold, along with overshoes and decent gloves. I tend to work harder in winter in an attempt to keep warm. But I also get a thrill from tiptoeing between icy puddles or edging my way slowly along tracks where hoar frost crystals grow large on the grass stems, something I find quite magical. My favourite part is to return to my home, its cosy warmth, a bowl full of hot soup and a head of warm thoughts.
Some fly south for winter, or cycle. In that way they extend their summer by following the good weather and only returning as seasons change again. A life of eternal summer sometimes appeals to me, but only fleetingly in reality. The last few years have blurred our seasons: autumn, winter and spring all feeling the same with just the trees, plants and animals marking the changes.
An Australian cyclist stayed with me a couple of summers back. We had met on the Outer Hebrides in 2012 while he was disembarking from a Sunday ferry and travelling in the opposite direction to me. He said hi and then asked, “Is there a shop around here mate?” to which I laughed before answering “not one that’s open on Sunday,” adding that he would be welcome to some of my food if he was short. From Scotland he gradually cycled his way south through the UK and Europe, ever onwards toward Turkey where he stopped for a while to explore and wait until spring began to appear again further north. In doing this he basked in perpetual warmth, cleverly avoiding the hottest parts of the year in all the areas he visited other than the UK where our hottest time is colder than anything he experiences back home.
Leaving in summer and returning in summer means missing spring and autumn, its colours and displays that to me shine like diamonds. I would also miss the frosty cold of morning when the world moves beneath your tyres with a crunching noise that nothing else can emulate except perhaps the sound made when walking on shingle beaches. On those bitterly cold days, the sky sometimes appears cobalt, framed with a thin outline of fiery orange as the low sun does its best to bring cheer. You see my breath as I breathe and children play dragons while chuckling out loud.
I would miss the rebirth: buds that begat tiny leaves that slowly uncoil, translucent in the warming sun and showing every shade of green as they fulfil their early promise. Once empty trees are suddenly all in bloom, the miracle complete. Lambs that bounce because they can and boxing hares amongst the grass fields, all this is missed once I leave. Spring is the moment that sees me take a deep breath at the raw beauty on display. It makes my eyes pop with unbridled joy whilst at the same time leaving me with a sense of relief at having survived another winter.
My sister lived most of her adult life in Perth, Western Australia (W.A), a place of almost continuously hot sunshine and equally void of seasons as we know them. From week to week, month to month and year to year she hoped for rain, frost and seasons.She craved something beyond perpetual sunshine with a drop in temperature as the only variation. She missed the seasonal changes that her biological clock once knew and whatever she did there wasn’t a way to change it without climbing aboard a large airliner and heading home or somewhere at a similar latitude.
The last time I saw her she told me that she craved frosty mornings and snow, presumably for the small relief they would provide from the astronomical heat of summer in W.A. Before she flew back to Australia that last time we had a small fall of snow and several nights of frost. It made me smile to think of that as one of her last memories of her birth home before she passed away.
Autumn for me is a time of quiet work. Whatever adventures I had been contemplating and planning are complete. The time allocated to riding my trike gets less and I turn my hand to other, equally creative things like writing, music, planning and relaxing. I like my home. I like its manageable size, its warmth and comfort and I like what it represents to me: a safe, secure place to live. I enjoy cooking good food and relaxing in the peace and quiet that reigns here as I slowly snuggle down and cocoon myself in readiness for the winter like a dormouse making its nest.
I used to feel trapped in my house, unable to escape its confines. Over time I learned that it wasn’t home that trapped me but my mind. Mental distress goes wherever I do and despite the fact that I can pedal for a while without it being so strongly present, it will eventually make itself felt and that is when I need a safe place, a home and the normality it represents. Yin and Yang, you cannot have it all and given the things I’ve experienced in recent years I wouldn’t change it if it meant losing so many precious memories.
So my autumn becomes a time of quiet, a time when I look forward to sitting back a little, recharging my batteries and dreaming of another years adventuring. It’s a time when I potter around the lanes with no purpose other than to enjoy my locale and what nature has to offer as seasons flow from one to the next. It becomes a period of reflection and a time to enjoy what I’ve already done without charging forwards with no thought from the summer that’s just passed us by to the next.