|There is a sense of sad beauty about the approach of autumn. The harvest is gathered. The fields are broad expanses of mellow stubble. Farm-teams plod across plough-land. Water-meadows are wreathed in grey mists. The fleeting glory of summer is slipping away.|
THE leaves are perishing, but in their dying attain a brilliance that was denied in spring. Against the glow of autumnal tints the plumage of birds stands out in vivid contrast. Their song is eager, as if sharpened by the keen air. Nature is restless. The woods echo to the deep bark of the fallow buck and the cry of the brown owl. The black-and-white of the magpie darts everywhere. A touch of frost besparkles the gossamer webs of spiders into geometrical lines of rippling silk. The elms, the larches, the maples ... all are resplendent in russet richness. The night air smells of frost, but before the trees are naked, our thoughts return to the months that are gone, to the pleasures that went with the London Season.
We try to recapture moments of happiness under an English sun, moments that passed all too quickly. The cricketer has a sadness peculiar to himself. Cricket and an English summer go hand-in-hand. They depart when the leaves begin to fall like burnished petals of gold. The end of the season comes on a quiet note. Outwardly there is no difference to the over that is about to be bowled, but the silent circle of spectators know. They lean forward so as not to miss any incident. The shadows are lengthening as the last ball is bowled, the last run made. The players melt away into the obscurity of the pavilion. The stumps are drawn. The ground lies deserted. The season has ended.
Or perhaps we recall the leisured hours at Henley. The punts, the lawns, Old Blues, graceful poplars, and the movement of excitement that ripples along the floating line of colour as straining eights cleave the waters. When wind and rain have reduced the leaves to mould, the memory of this luscious festival of the Thames will be as faint as the vision of strawberries and cream. The recollection of the wave of tension that swept across the Epsom Downs is more vivid. The canvas is bolder. The Derby is so essentially English. The clamour in Tattersall's before the race starts... the hunchback tipster... the sweep of Tattenham Corner... the sound of hoofs... the gipsy who crossed our palms with silver... the mixed emotions of thousands as the favourite failed... the woman with the beggar... the silken colours of crouching jockeys. The scene belongs to Frith, Rowlandson and Lavengro. Should thoughts turn to sun-baked golf links, many familiar sounds return to our ears. The dull thudding of hundreds of feet on fairways. The outpoured song of a skylark soaring heavenwards. The swish of steel carving an arc through the air. The vision of a golf ball outlined against wisps of cloud. St. Andrews... the Old Course... Old Tom Morris's shop. The stone bridge over the Swilcan... elderly caddies leaning over the white rails. Excited galleries. Silent fairways in the evening. A tranquil bay and birds running on the greens.
But many other memories are treasured. The foam of colour at Ascot... the night-sky illuminated with flashing fireworks at Eton... glimpses of London with the Season at its height... the tranquillity of Goodwood. The clicking of polo sticks, the vivid white ball, ponies with glistening withers, the bell, and the end of the first chukker. Such might be our musings on the eve of autumn, memories that mingle with a whiff of new-mown hay and the spontaneous outburst of the Dawn Chorus at sunrise. All are gone. The leaves are falling fast, but fresh pleasures and activities come with the change of season. Those who long for hunting feel the blood tingling in their veins as the acorns slip from their cups and the larches stand sere under an autumn sky. Soon the fences will be flying beneath the horses' hoofs, the music of hounds, and the wind rushing in our ears. But there are those who prefer the milder recreation of hacking. The hunting-man is inclined to be contemptuous. Such taunts are unjustified, for Masters of Hounds rarely encroach upon the best hacking country. Winter hacking has a charm of its own. The solitary rider. The squelching suck of the hoof on turf. The ploughman leading a mud-stained team. The warm pungency of a farmyard. The empty fields. All form part of an undisturbed countryside dyed in russet.
Partridge shooting begins on the First of September, the Vale pheasant season on the First of October. Here indeed are hours of pleasure, similar in anticipation, distinctive in execution. The pheasant has greater speed than the partridge, but is easier to take, for he swings on a wider arc. The partridge, on the other hand, is a bundle of unpredictable contradictions. His swerves are sharp and sudden. The erratic behaviour of a partridge can never be fathomed standing in a line of guns. Walking them up is the only satisfactory way. Early October is too early for enjoyable pheasant shooting. The birds are too callow. It is better to wait for a few weeks. By then the moult will have ended and cock pheasants will fly strongly in a splash of bronze and scarlet. Those days will soon be here. Beaters in fields of stubble. Birches almost bare. A low wintry sun, long shadows, and a cold sheen on wet earth.
Or perhaps the approach of winter holds promise of tense hours when "Thirty fighting devils, ten thousand throats, Thundering joy at each pass and tackle and punt."
Memories of the rush of feet on earth. The gasps of the players and the thud of bodies being hurled to the ground. The unmistakable impact of leather coming into contact with leather. Steam and breath rising from sweating bodies. Desperation matching determination in heaving scrums. The fierce nationalism of Murrayfield, Tier upon tier of concrete terraces packed with humanity. The kilts of the pipers before the match starts. The ever-deepening roar of seventy thousand spectators. The friendly compactness of Lansdowne Road. The rowdy enthusiasm of an Irish crowd. Jaunting-cars. The oval shape of Cardiff Arms Park. The stirring moment before the kick-off when the fiery Celtic spirit of Wales is given expression by thousands of throats in Land of My Fathers. Twickenham with towering stands disappearing into greyness. The promenade where all who are famous walk. Military bands. The gloom as the light of a wintry afternoon fades and we are "... held by the brightening orange lights of the matches perpetually pricking the haze across the ground."
In a few minutes the players will revel in the luxury of hot baths and steaming drinks. We will go home and celebrate a victory by opening a bottle of port.
Autumn can also be the season for anglers. Not those who dream only of trout. They, poor souls, must put away fly-rods and rest content with memories until the season reopens and the may-flies dance with gauze-like wings. We have visions of striding through the meadow grass, the very air tremulous with their number. Birds were in excited pursuit and moorhens made frequent forays from behind the sedges as the flies sailed down. Then, all at once, the mayflies tired of dancing, and, as if by some signal, they settled on the grass. Looking up the stream we noticed that all the countless thousands had done the same. After a few minutes the mad dance began again. Many locked together in mid-air, fell into the river, for a second sailed upright, then the wings would collapse on the water, a dim shape would appear, a flash of silver, and the victim was sucked down by a fat roach.
All that has gone, but since the days of St. Ambrose the angler's autumn has been brightened by the grayling. A gold witch or a small Wickham may bring a brisk piece of sport . . but the grayling is canny and cautious. As Izaak Walton wrote: "He lives in such rivers as the trout does, and is usually taken with the same bait as the trout is, and after the same manner; The fact that both species are to be found in the same water is of considerable advantage for one succeeds the other in timely season ... and grayling can be an agreeable dish... as the monks of old knew.
There may come back memories of an early morning walk in May. A brooding silence and feeling of suspended activity told that the night had not yet gone. The air of intent watchfulness was broken by the distant crowing of a cock, a sound unchallenged apart from the far-away screech of an owl. Then, gradually a quiver seemed to pass through the fields, drowsily at first, but slowly gathering volume until like an ever-swelling wave of molten gold, a symphony of bird-song flowed from every bush and tree until the air shivered with tremulous music. There is nothing to equal this rapturous chorus in the whole year and only those who walk for that short half-hour before a May sunrise can hear these shimmering sounds that gradually subside and fade away into a silent pool.
But there are those for whom the herald of winter brings strange and wild music. The canvas on which memory lingers is sombre grey. Perhaps a lonely village on the coast of East Anglia... mud flat... desolate marshes... the shrill cry of curlews. Then dawns that most important day in late October... the coming of the wild geese. I think of a creek and salt marshes beyond, the greyish-green haunt of snipe and redshank, curlew and wild duck; the sand dunes flanked by the desolate pine-fringed shore; the mud flats, ochre-shaded; wind-scalloped sand, and the cold sea. You never know how knife-like can be the cut of the wind until you crouch in rough marram grass by the dunes waiting for dawn to break... waiting for the grey-lags to come from the inaccessible mud flats beyond the marshes. I can still hear their high-pitched nasal voices as, like wisps of cloud, they came in a wedge-shaped phalanx. With the aid of glasses I could pick out the long outstretched necks and widespread pointed wings. Equally as impressive was a glimpse of grey-lags at their feeding-ground in the failing light of a wintry afternoon the low, sociable gabble of a comfortable browse in luscious grass. The dark plumage of the ganders stood out as they paused frequently to survey the marsh, supplementing the alertness of the sentry. I moved suddenly, and a guttural warning caused every head to look up. To those who think only of the kill, such moments are so much wasted time, but I am always thrilled when the silence is broken by strident cries and the heavy flapping of huge wings. The noise rouses the entire marsh. Gulls and lapwings rise. Rooks clamour in sympathy. All along the marsh droves of greylag are rising. They sail out in the fading light in long irregular wedges, heading for the mud flats that fringe the sea where they can paddle, cackle and sleep undisturbed save for the piping of waders, the cry of gulls and noise of the waves.
There is purpose behind the unearthly swish of the greylag flight, and prophecy in their direction. Those who would learn must recall the Fool's wisdom in Lear: "Winter's not gone yet, if the wild geese fly that way."
Now, your shooting-stick, a stout pair of shoes, and a mackintosh The London Season is but a memory, and another season is about to begin.