I love this time of year. Autumn is my absolute favourite season, and living in the countryside as I have for the past couple of years now, I have gained an even greater appreciation for it. I have watched the landscape grow increasingly more muted in hue over the past few weeks, with the greens of the trees, fields and hedgerows slowly turning golden, the sky taking on a milky pearlescence in the weakening sunlight, and the lavishness of fields filled to bursting with bright, over-ripened crops being shorn back to their earthy roots. It is cold here in the evenings, and the mornings are misty. I crunch through thick layers of leaves as I scuttle between buildings at school, and my nephews scramble over themselves to show me their hordes of pine cones, acorns and conkers gathered from the fields and woods that surround their house. The air is scented with woodsmoke and the nights draw in ever more quickly. I have rooted my wellington boots out from their cobwebbed hiding place. Autumn in the country is telling me to withdraw from the world and spend my evenings by the fire, but London in the Autumn is aflame with things to do, and I am not quite ready to hibernate just yet.
Lately, I have been taking every opportunity to walk my way from place to place in London, taking detours that enable me to see how the different neighbourhoods of central London connect with one another. I look up and down, spotting little things I have never really noticed before, like the Blue Plaque for Edith Cavell on the Royal London Hospital, the amazing 17th century golden weathervane perched atop a building in Aldgate that was surrounded by brand new glass and steel skyscrapers, or the blue-painted police call box that had an air of WWII about it, still affixed to a wall by St Paul’s Cathedral. It never ceases to amaze me what survives from the past, especially when you consider what the 20th and 21st centuries have thrown at London. Whole swathes of London are forever being remodelled and updated, their history being erased with each new office or luxury apartment block. It heartens me to see the glimpses of 17th, 18th and 19th century London that appear down hidden lanes or behind forgotten hoardings, making me think that a resident of that time could be transported back and still find their way to their old haunts. A fantastic example of this is the haunting Tower Hamlets Cemetery in East London; surrounded by 1960s high rise council estates, it is filled with overgrown plants that are strangling the thousands of crumbling Victorian gravestones, that tell of a population quite removed from the current demographic. It is the closest to Highgate Cemetery that I have found in central London, and I wonder why more people do not come here, especially at this time of year when the trees are ablaze with colour and the decay of nature adds to the atmosphere of romantic neglect.
On my walks, I have been particularly exploring the city, where there are so many fantastic buildings, statues and monuments that I have had quite the education over the past few weeks. Walking alone gives me the opportunity to linger as long as I like, reading inscriptions and plaques, making connections between people and places, and checking facts on my phone to enrich my understanding of what I am seeing. I love how the architecture changes from street to street, and I particularly enjoy seeing where bomb damage has left its mark, signalled by an abrupt installation of a post-war building amidst a street of otherwise perfectly uniform Georgian terraces. One of the best sights to see in the centre of town at the moment is the marvellous and thought-provoking installation of fibreglass poppies spilling out of the walls of the Tower of London and forming a sea of red around its base, representing the millions of victims of WWI. It is a remarkable sight and one I could not get enough of exploring.
My wanders have also seen me photographing the many plaques of Bloomsbury, a project that made me realise for the first time just how many of the great and good of London’s intellectual elite lived here at the same time. I cannot imagine how amazing it must have been to have stepped out of your front door and bump into the likes of Virginia Woolf and Millicent Fawcett; how much I would give to have been able to listen in to one of the many conversations that must have happened in the leafy squares at the heart of each of the terraces! The dark bricks of the terraces here look even more beautiful when framed by the golden leaves in the gardens, and they also set off the grey monoliths of the Art Deco architecture of the many University of London buildings that sit alongside their Georgian predecessors. I was delighted to find the University of London branch of Waterstone’s, which is housed inside a gloriously original Art Deco building, complete with fantastic period fixtures and fittings, and is given almost entirely over to selling cheap remainder copies of current books.
As always, however, the river has been my favourite haunt. I never tire of seeing the boats sailing up and down, and of viewing the skyline from different angles as I make my way over bridges that cross the Thames at varying points. I love watching people down on the mud with their metal detectors and spades, looking for ancient treasure, and wishing I was down there amongst them to dig up clay pipes and Roman coins. I love seeing the sun hit the dome of St Paul’s as I stroll over to the Southbank, which is always full of people and art and stalls and music. I love the neo-Gothic spires of the Houses of Parliament and the glowing letters on the OXO tower. In the pale glow of the Autumn sunlight, it all looks so much more beautiful, and Southbank and the Embankment between Westminster and Pimlico become carpeted in golden leaves.
London really does look its best at this time of year, and nobody could persuade me otherwise. The museums of London also bring out their best for the Autumn, with so many new exhibitions to see that I will be seeing something new every weekend until Christmas. The Gothic exhibition at the British Library, the Turner exhibition at the Tate, the Constable exhibition at the V&A, the WWI exhibition at the London Transport Museum and the very exciting William Morris exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery…I shall certainly have no time to hibernate out in the countryside. I just hope that our lovely clear and crisp golden days last, as I have much leaf crunching to do in London yet.