Autumn rushes past and I’ve found myself retreating, the fallen leaves suggestive of a warm duvet to bury myself under. I’ve retreated away from the computer and into times past. I’ve been solving murders with Miss Marple in St. Mary Mead and visiting the Old Curiosity Shop. I’ve been writing a short story about lost time. Neil Gaiman said that books are the way we communicate with the dead. They are that, but they are also a way to experience a time I was born too late for. Although I know intellectually that I would have found the conventions and prejudices of earlier times restrictive, I often think I was meant for an earlier age, a time when there was less of everything and awe was more possible.
In the wake of storm Callum, I walk the old waggonway. I walk under tarnished clouds scudding quickly across the sky. The air is hollowed by wind, the hedgerows rustle like old paper. Rain falls, augmenting the vibrant colours. Not all of the trees have begun to turn. On the edge of a dark copse, hooded by the canopy and overgrown with bracken, in a place where pink campion blooms in spring, there is a beech that is always spectacular in autumn. It is a bright quilt of vivid colour in the gloom. The horse chestnuts are already half-naked, clinging to crisped bronze leaves like curling fingers. Here and there, the hedgerows are lit by a fiery maple or a golden hawthorn.
The hawthorns are strung with garnet beads. Rosehips are like tiny crimson lanterns. The track groans with seed: hogweed starbursts, knapweed pokers, spiky clocks of ragwort. Rosebay Willowherb is also known as fireweed, because of its penchant for growing in the wake of destruction, but it might just as well be because of its autumn finery: columns of burning red, orange and brown with whiskers where its seeds have flown. A few flowers remain – solitary thistles and clover, purple vetch and clusters of viper’s bugloss. Monstrous butterbur leaves, some green, some rotted and black, cloak the banks. The hawthorns sing with goldfinches – it must be a time of plenty for them.
To walk in nature is both to engage and to retreat. I engage with the earth and its turning, but I retreat from the clamour of the world. These waggonways are layered in time. Haunted by the ghosts of horse drawn carts and the shades of steam locomotives carrying coal from the great northern coalfield to the river. Listen closely and you might still hear the clatter of hooves or the wheeze of an engine. Look closely and perhaps you’ll see a mirage of rails. The past speaks, if we know how to hear it. It speaks in the words of dead writers and in the song of the landscape.
A flock of long-tailed tits loops suddenly across the path ahead, to take refuge in a tall tree at the side of the track. I listen to the commotion of their twitterings, watch the graceful dip of their tails. In winter they group together for warmth and safety, and perhaps also for company, to share stories of their own ancestors. My own journey for the moment is away from company; there is always an element of withdrawal at this time of year, preparation for the journey inwards. But the time for company will come soon enough. A time to set another space at the table or to pull another chair up to the fire. To remember those who have come before and to know them through their stories. The past speaks, if we only listen.