Rain. We give it a bad rap. Wet and splodgy, irritating with its inescapable shroud of damp. An unwanted present from a dreary sky, sent to make boots muddy and ruin plans best laid. A shocking contrast from the sun in Spain that was 20 degrees warmer. But then surely rain is what puts the Great in Britain, our reassuring companion, along with tea and cake.
It is fair to assume that Basingstoke and rain are hardly the most riveting bedfellows, but shops are shops and people are still wearing shorts to go to Tesco. It is hard to let go of the summer and, just for a moment, it returns on a Sunday afternoon at The Vyne. Here, amongst the moist muddy tracks are the autumnal fruits of summer – fungi cascading down mossy brown trunks, spiky green pods spilling out with chestnuts, leaves wafting down onto the ground, coating the forest floor in a layer of browns and yellows. All helped by that cursed rain.
Rain is no stranger to the southwest of England, as Atlantic fronts begin to form; waiting in the wings to blow in on winds, some strong enough to bring down trees. This is the season where a night can be dramatic, and the next day as placid as a hippy doing yoga on a fluffy white marshmallow. Air blows in clean and fresh and the lowering sun in the southern sky illuminates the greens-turning-brown on magical days.
Magical days are easy to come by in St Agnes, sitting tucked in on the north coast of Cornwall; a prized position to make most of the sun, and the rain, and that wind when it blows on in. Like so many Cornish towns it totters down through a maze of narrow streets to a beach; there are a few pokey shops and – it turns out – a blessed bakery serving the type of sausage rolls I have craved in my mind since seeing one snatched away for someone else’s consumption last year in Hobart. Proper good sausage rolls that are hard to come by in Greggs and Warrens and anywhere in Australia other than one place in Hobart. Possibly.
Unlike more genteel parts of Cornwall, the landscape here has a raggedy rugged edge to it, peppered with tin mining relics, tinged with a faded glory scoured by eternal weather. The coast path is solid and spectacular, as it always is, heading along to St Agnes Head with views north to Trevose and south along a wave pounded coast towards St Ives. Higher up – atop St Agnes Beacon – an even mightier panorama unfolds, with most of West Cornwall on view, and St Agnes nestled down below, reached by muddy field to complete a memorable circular.
Magical days are harder to come by holed up in Plymouth library trying to make something up that is of a work-related nature and popping out for mediocre coffee in the hope that just for once it may not be mediocre. Even mediocre coffee can be a welcome distraction though, so when the cloud clears and a sunny afternoon pops up out of the blue the allure to escape is palpable. Luckily there is a very quick escape from the varied charms of Plymouth, by taking a bobbling boat across the Tamar to Mount Edgcumbe.
Here, the meander of autumnal woodlands and fading gardens give way to exposed hilltops, looming high over the Tamar with views spreading out to encompass a Cornish and Devonian sea. Inland the wide river flows into a border landscape of patchwork fields and secret inlets, punctuated by towns and villages and giving out to rising moorland hills. Herds of deer scarper into nearby woods, aware of your presence and no doubt cognisant of the fact that you would quite like to see some good old fashioned autumnal rutting. Instead, the view will suffice.
Plonked amongst this idyll is the city of Plymouth, with rows of houses running like dominoes over the lumpy contours of the suburbs, meeting cranes and boats toppling into the river. Its waterfront welcome mat is striking with the Where’s Wally striped beacon of Smeaton’s Tower and a wheel that looks even bigger from afar. Illuminated is a background of moorland, sweeping over the horizon. It is here that you can appreciate the quite blessed setting in which Plymouth sits. Yeah, the city might be a bit crummy and tatty in places, but a turnip growing in a field of flowers is better than a turnip growing in a pile of shit, right?
Another philosophical conclusion I have come to over the last few weeks is, when situated in this part of the world, even when the day is crap, you are having a stinker, work sucks, and other such things, there is the consolation of easy access to clotted cream, jam, scones and tea. This can make a bad day amazing. At Mount Edgcumbe it made a good afternoon sublime.
The hills behind Plymouth spread afar into Dartmoor National Park and this represented what was to become my final outing into the virtual field of flowers surrounding the city. A circular walk from Yelverton offered a perfectly balanced English country composition of riverside woodlands, sheep and cow fields, tumbledown cottages and exposed tors. This amble on the fringe of Plymouth was a pretty decent way to bid it all farewell.
Spending time here, intermittently from August to November, has obviously allowed me to observe the changing seasons take effect. What once was an uninterrupted blanket of flourishing green is now softening, holes are appearing, and things are shrivelling. A golden brown is slowly but inevitably creeping into the landscape and soon even this will become more spartan and altogether less comforting.
And as the leaves disappear from the trees my southward migration kicks in. It has become a customary route over the last seven years, this time a little later after a little longer than normal. It leaves me with mixed feelings; sad to be leaving one place and excited to be heading to the other. It’s a feeling that comes to life when marvelling in the grand autumnal splendour of Mount Edgcumbe only to come across a couple of Eucalyptus trees shooting up into clear blue sky, aliens in a foreign land. For a moment I am transported, wrapped up against a southwest autumn and looking up at the promise of Australia. The best of both worlds, where leaves do not fall and a cream tea is just around the corner.