Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Artillery Row

An Ode to Autumn

Here is to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

John Keats called it the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. We are in the midst of that time of year that we associate with clotted leaves and woodsmoke, the scent of pine tree and fox, Wellington boots and Barbour jackets, and dogs racing through dripping forests. Assaulting our senses, a glut of sights, sounds and fecund smells reminds us that Nature has been hard at work. Vividly-stained fungi and a variety of wildlife compete to occupy fallen tree trunks. Fruit not taken by bird or squirrel, ripened, fallen and crushed, provokes instant fragrant memories of earlier autumns.

The frenzied effort of harvest is over, and the season now with us communicates its paradox of stasis and activity. Yellow leaves, silent woods and boggy meadows betray, on closer examination, a hive of activity. Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, composed in Venice at the height of the Baroque era in 1723, captures this contradiction. The three movements of the concerto, fast-slow-fast, reflect the different rhythms of this most pastoral of seasons. First there is an energetic country dance at a harvest festival. Next, his haunting Adagio announces the cooler air and gusts of autumn arriving. Finally comes a hunt, where you can hear the crackle of leaves underneath the hooves of the horses and dogs as they dart over field and hedge. One of the most charming pieces of classical music, it is another reason to welcome the season.

Autumn, a Latino-French word, was not always autumn. Until the 1600s the English used the Anglo-Saxon term hærfest for the period between August and November, from the Germanic Herbst, with only an implied reference to the industrious gathering of crops. Perhaps the American fall or Lithuanian ruduo (referring to its reddish leaves) captures the mood music better. In Old Irish this was fogamar, literally “under-winter”.

When Keats wrote his Ode to Autumn in 1819, he had emerged from several unfulfilling years as a surgeon’s apprentice. Yet he kept his forensic eye when abandoning a medical career for his love of Shakespeare, Grecian urns and museum artefacts. His lines remind us that his world was much closer to their agricultural roots than we are today. For us, autumn is a time of central heating and increased electricity bills, car heaters, dressing gowns and woollen slippers. For Keats, it meant raiding the woodstore, earlier bedtimes, nightsocks and more candles. He just witnessed the arrival of street lighting with gas (after 1813 in London) but not indoor illumination from electricity (courtesy of Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison in the 1870s). Now we are aware of autumn through putting the clocks back, as street lamps snap on earlier. It is a season we drift into; with winter, spring and summer, we wake up suddenly and know it has arrived.

Autumn is an outdoors time. If I were back in Croatia, with my beloved Bor, a Croatian-born English Setter, we would be striding through dwarf oaks and wizened olive groves, he hunting lizards, pheasant and truffles (in that order), whilst I kept an eye open for unimpressed wild boar. Overhead, we’d hear an angry chatter of birdlife, squabbling over the last of summer’s bounty. It is the same here in Blighty on those gum-booted woodland walks that define this time of year, captured so well by Keats and Vivaldi. For these, we have the Great Norman to thank.

Anglo-Saxon England was strewn with scrappy copse and covert, until William successfully gambled his way from Norman duke to English king and established the concept of the royal forest. These were managed areas, reserved exclusively for his personal hunting. They included not just woods, but large areas of heath, grassland and wetland, anywhere that supported deer and other game. The Domesday Book lists them: Dartmoor and Exmoor in the South West, and the Peak Forest of Derbyshire. Of nearly 150 created by Royal decree in the Norman era, the best-known remnants are those of Dean, Epping, Sherwood and Hampshire’s New Forest. At one stage in the 12th century, all of Essex was afforested. On his accession in 1154, Henry II declared Huntingdonshire in its entirety to be royal forest.

With their own justice system and courts, dwellers were exempted from common law and subject only to the authority of the king. They fostered the “others” — outlaws, hermits and poachers, who are as deeply ingrained into our DNA as their transatlantic equivalents, the native Indians, cowboys and cattle rustlers who populated American history. Each dark woodland harboured a Robin Hood, Little John and Will Scarlett, generic figures dating from the 1370s, who are as necessary to the story of England as Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James are to the taming of the Wild West of America.

Ancient trees were guardians of sacred sites in the pre-Christian era

There, the earliest settlers had already manicured the woodlands of the East Coast into submission, bringing them their season of fall. The fast-approaching American Thanksgiving, for me always a jolly Pickwickian affair, is a sort of late Harvest Festival, the latter a time when farmers gave thanks on the Sunday closest to the autumn equinox, typically early October. The ceremony both looked back to the post-summer yield and forward to its storage, enabling survival through the coming winter months. The original Thanksgiving was actually in England, decreed in 1606 following the failure of the previous year’s Gunpowder Plot. It would evolve into Guy Fawkes Day each 5 November. Traditional American lore has the first Thanksgiving prayers offered up by English settlers on their safe landing in America in 1619–23. Purists in New England and Virginia have deeply entrenched views as to who held the first celebration, and whether it was a holiday or a religious service. It now falls each fourth Thursday, replacing the earlier holiday of Evacuation Day, commemorating the moment the British finally departed after the Revolutionary War.

If there is a common autumnal thread here, it is trees. Their longevity fascinates us. When a sycamore by Hadrian’s Wall was cut down, the nation fumed. It did the same when contractors felled much-loved specimens along the streets of Sheffield during 2012–18, referred to locally as the “chainsaw massacre”. An official enquiry reported this year that “deluded councillors behaved dishonestly and destroyed public trust by unnecessarily felling thousands of healthy trees in the city”. Nick Clegg, former Sheffield Hallam MP, observed the episode was “something you’d expect to see in Putin’s Russia”. This laceration of the city’s greenery was opposed by ordinary folk who held great affection for their timber. The same happened in March this year, when Plymouth City Council chopped down 110 trees, a small coppice, in their city centre. The act was committed without consultation and at night, in the knowledge that it would be deemed “ecological vandalism”, which surely it was.

There is something reassuring about these ancient sentinels, and we mourn their passing. They are part of our inheritance. How many other objects can we touch, safe in the knowledge that some have witnessed Hastings, the Spanish Armada or Trafalgar? We give the oldest names. On Crete, I have always delighted in visiting the olive tree of Vouves, near Chania. With a 40-foot girth, tree ring analysis suggests an age of at least 2,000 years. It still produces olives, as it was doing before the time of the first Christmas. The most ancient in the British Isles is reckoned to be the Fortingall yew in Perthshire, already mature when the Romans arrived. It still thrives; last time I saw it, new shoots were curling skywards. Other yews in St Cynog’s churchyard; Defynnog in the Brecon Beacons; St Digain’s Church in Llangernyw, North Wales; and Tisbury in Wiltshire and at Crowhurst, Surrey are of similarly vague but venerable vintage. In 1820, the Crowhurst specimen was found to harbour an errant Civil War-era cannonball. These and others lurk in churchyards, and they were clearly guardians of sacred sites in the pre-Christian era. In old age, they are huge. This summer I visited the Saxon church of St Nicholas in Boarhunt, Hampshire. The 1064 structure is overshadowed by a much older yew, 27 feet in girth, in which an impoverished family once lived.

Then there are the oaks. The Marton Oak in Cheshire, with a girth of 46 feet, is probably 1,000 years old. Smaller, but dating to a similar era, the Bowthorpe Oak of Lincolnshire and the Big Belly Oak are easily glimpsed as one drives along the A346 through the old royal forest of Savernake in Wiltshire. On the run after losing the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the future Charles II hid in an old oak on the Shropshire estate of Boscobel whilst Cromwell’s men searched the undergrowth below. This episode gave rise to over 500 pubs and the odd warship named the Royal Oak. Today the autumnal badge of the National Trust, guardian of the nation’s acres and houses since 1895, comprises a distinctive wavy-edged oakleaf with an acorn.

These old trees have always had utility beyond their ages. Hard, close-grained yew wood was used in furniture-making. It formed the main spar of longbows, the machine-gun of mediaeval England, so devastating during the Hundred Years War against the French, and a weapon the Scots turned on their English foes with great success at Bannockburn in 1314. You can reach out and touch Britain’s oldest wooden door. It’s in Westminster Abbey, in the passage leading to the Chapter House. Its five oaken planks were dated by dendrochronology as felled in 1032 during the reign of Canute, likely planted in Essex 600 years earlier, as the last Roman legions left their province of Britannia.

Nelson’s Victory is 90 per cent is oak, some of her timbers nearly two-feet thick

The survival of these ancient arboreal warriors is a footnote in the nation’s military past. The badge of the old Cheshire Regiment featured an oak and acorn, derived from that regiment’s service in saving King George II from being captured at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. Oak was equally vital to the expansion of the Royal Navy. The old royal forests initiated but ultimately were unable to keep pace with the needs of the fleet, as suitable oaks were stripped from the landscape more quickly than they could reproduce, altering the appearance of 17th and 18th century England. It took about 4,000 oaks, or 40 hectares of forest, to build a single 100-gun ship of the line. We know that Nelson’s Victory, laid down in July 1759, consumed over 6,000 mature oaks, mostly felled after 400 autumns. Measuring her today reveals Victory is 90 per cent is oak, some of her timbers nearly two-feet thick. Not for nothing is the official march of the Royal Navy titled Heart of Oak, with its refrain, “Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men”, written in 1759 after a string of victories against the French on land and sea.

The mature woodlands through which we stroll each autumn were in danger of failing the nation. In 1810 responsibility for them passed to a new Commissioner of Woods, Forests, and Land Revenues. A century later in 1919, the Forestry Commission was established to guard and expand Britain’s forests and woodland, which had been severely depleted during the First World War. Presciently, the Commission bought up huge tracts of cheap agricultural land on which they planted quick-growing pines in the inter-war years, becoming Britain’s largest landowner by 1939. These and the old royal forests are mostly where we potter with Max, Buster and Winston.

Then the nation again went to war. Despite the managed woodlands, 96 per cent of British timber needs were imported in the 1930s. Thereafter the country had to look inwards and raid its forestry stock again for shipping, airframes, pit-props and rebuilding blitzed houses and factories, much coming from the New Forest and the Forest of Dean. By 1945, a third of all available British timber had been cut down and used. It was when I was stationed in far-off British Honduras (today’s Belize, in Central America) in 1980 that I met Lester. He was the headman of a settlement deep in the jungle and proudly related how he had volunteered to sail to Scotland in 1941 and work in the Timber Corps, a body of which I’d never heard. Used to the tough life of chipping away at tropical rainforests, he found the northern climate was something else. “Why did you come?” I asked him. “We didn’t want the mother country to suffer,” he answered. But suffer he did. Their conditions were unimaginable, with no electricity, hot water or insulated huts, but he felled trees until the war’s end before repatriation.

Our forests bring us this microcosm of history, most accessible each autumn. Their tactile woods can transport us back as far as the Romans and earlier. In 1818, poor old John Keats had nursed his brother Tom through the final stages of tuberculosis, the disease that killed their mother. Then at his most creatively fecund, Keats was aware through his medical apprenticeship that he himself was beginning to display symptoms of the same affliction. In 1820 he left for the warmer climes of Italy, in the hope of improving his health. It didn’t work, and he died in Rome on 23 February 1821. His Ode to Autumn proved to be the poet’s own autumn.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover