I love this time of year. The nights are drawing in, there’s the faint smell of bonfires in the air, trees are starting to flame and the pavements are littered with golden brown leaves and spiky conker shells. There is still plenty of warm sunshine around, and there’s no need for a coat just yet; it’s the perfect time to enjoy the great outdoors, with nature putting on its final glorious show before the barrenness of winter arrives. Despite the joy Autumn brings me, I have been feeling a bit hemmed in of late; I don’t go out after school much because I have lots of work to do, and due to not growing up here, I don’t really have any local friends. I miss London dreadfully, I can’t deny; even though it’s only half an hour away on a train, it’s not the same as being in the middle of it every day, with everything on my doorstep. This weekend, thanks to a slight lull in my workload, I was able to get sucked back into the maelstrom of London life, and off I went to visit my old flatmate in her new digs in West London.
I don’t know West London at all; I’ve never lived there or known anyone who has lived there, and I haven’t needed to go for work or any other reason, so it’s a region that has remained largely unexplored. Having spent some time there this weekend, I have now fallen in love with it, and can’t wait to discover more. Verity, my old flatmate, loved getting to be tour guide for once (she grew up in Scotland, so guess who used to be the annoying London know-it-all in our relationship?!) and took me to her favourite spot in London – Hammersmith Bridge. A beautiful cast iron construction going over a narrow stretch of the river between Hammersmith and chi-chi, rural, villagey Barnes (basically West London’s Hampstead), it’s a gorgeous bridge to cross as it makes you feel like you’re in the Wind of the Willows or some other idealised vision of British countryside life. The river is lined on one side by trees and woodland, and on the other, by lovely Victorian houses with second floor balconies overlooking the water and pretty little pubs and restaurants where you can sit outside and watch the boats go by. I could hardly believe that I was in London at all. Arriving on the other side, we took the riverside path, which wound through a lovely section of park with overhanging trees in their blaze of autumnal glory, to Putney, where Verity now lives. As we walked, we passed Harrods’ old furniture warehouse (now flats), a street full of wonderful boathouses where local people keep their boats to go out rowing on the river, and so much lovely architecture that I didn’t know where to look after a while. The peace and quiet was astounding, and it was so relaxing to always be in sight of water. It never ceases to amaze me how diverse London is; just a few tube stops away from the thunderous, hectic crowds of Oxford Street is a lifestyle more akin to that I saw when on holiday in Norfolk this summer than that of the typical Londoner. If I had a spare few million pounds to buy a nice flat with a river view at Putney, I’d be there with bells on!
Today, back in the countryside, I was feeling the familiar pang of not being in London; normally, on a London Sunday, I’d take the chance to go and see an exhibition without the usual crowds, or have a potter around the shops. I miss being able to do that. However, I’m not one to wallow in self pity, and after a cup of tea and a read of my excellent book (Guard Your Daughters is just as good as Simon promised) in bed this morning, I got up raring to go and have a day out in the fresh air, exploiting what the local area does have in abundance – namely stunning views across the Downs, lovely country walks and National Trust properties galore. As it was sunny with blue skies, Mum and I decided on Emmett’s Garden, which is just down the road and has six acres of formal gardens, woodland and lawns, all set on a hill with gorgeous views across the surrounding countryside. We had a lovely two hour stroll, wandering off into some neighbouring woodland as well as exploring the gardens, which are just starting to display their autumnal raiments and are glinting with all sorts of shades of red, gold and amber. The woods are carpeted with crunchy leaves already, and we found lots of conkers and pine cones that never fail to take me back to my school days and the joys of the nature table, as well as the anxious rounds of vinegar soaking and freezing and nail varnishing that we went through to ensure conker fight victory in the playground!
We enjoyed our walk so much that we’ve made plans to come back in a couple of weeks with better shoes (ballet pumps aren’t great for walking in muddy lanes, I have discovered) and a map so that we can find our way from Emmett’s over to Toy’s Hill, which is a fantastic vantage point from which to view the Kent countryside, and is also, funnily enough, where my mum went into labour with my sister back in the summer of 1979! The National Trust website says that there is a lovely walk you can do across Toy’s Hill, which celebrates the life of Octavia Hill, Founder of the National Trust, taking in the church where she was buried and the countryside she worked hard to save, and you pass by Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s former home, on your way. So that will be our next adventure. Having such a lovely time locally today made me think that maybe living out in the sticks isn’t as bad as all that. There might not be all the cultural life and retail therapy I had come to take for granted, but there is more to life than museums and shops and restaurants, and I am actually enormously lucky to have acres of beautiful countryside and historical villages and other places of interest all here to enjoy, largely for free, right on my doorstep. If I’m not careful, I may even grow to love it enough to never want to leave…