The mud is heavy, claggy. A steady squelch underfoot. The three of us exploring a little woodland that my wife knows well. We are a running late and the light is fading a little already. The small glades off the main path are carpeted with bright red and orange leaves (and an amazing array of fungus).
Autumn colours in full force.
Back on the path we pick our way through the mud until we find a better path. Violet skipping along until we get back to the car just before dusk.
The house is over 100 years old, a simple working cottage that has been battered, fixed up and repaired throughout it’s life (with varying amounts of competence and success). And now it’s our turn, taking back the layers of one of the rooms to the horse hair plaster. A week in a room. Sanding, filling, fixing and painting. Hands cracked and sore with paint under my nails. It’s not finished. It never is, but it’s more finished than it was before. Incremental changes.
An increasingly digital world means that change is often accelerated and effort is mental, an ever more complex brain teaser of optimisation and Moore’s Law style improvements. The physical efforts and calluses from my week of ‘home work’ are difficult in a different way. The rewards slower.
Currently my favourite flowers in our little garden are a group of leeks that we planted last year, and then left to bolt, grow and flower. You don’t really see leeks looking like this, but they are beautiful, tall and elegant plants, with fantastic flowering globes. They are also loved by bees, wasps and all types of fly.
As summer comes to a close I’ve been watching the amazing array of buzzing, hovering and flying miniatures that flit in and out of the tiny flowers. There’s a strange beauty and amazing variety of colour. In a few more weeks all this will be gone and autumn will be here, but for now our overgrown leeks are attracting an amazing and often ignored group of intriguing little creatures.
Early morning on Thursday 9th August heading East towards Stratford. Excited. The Olympics are in full swing and this is our chance to get involved at the Olympic Park.
We have just 30 minutes to dash across the park towards the Riverbank Arena in time for push back, we make it, and take our seats as the game begins. Argentina against New Zealand playing off for ninth place doesn’t sound like much of an attraction, but this is the Olympics and the crowd are knowledgable, engrossed and enthusiastic.
The sun beats down and by the start of the second half most of the 15,000 seats are full. The game ebbs and flows, but New Zealand seem stronger and faster and in the end run out 3-1 winners. We break for ice-cream, sun screen and leg stretch before Pakistan and South Korea play off for 7th place. This game is more defensive but still exciting. Pakistan seem more skillful but have a game plan that involves taking minimal risk. In the end they win 3-2. The applause from the crowd is enthusiastic as the players take a lap of honour. Then we file out.
The 15,000 seats and pitch will be modified for the Paralympics and then dismantled and moved to a new location, with a much reduced capacity. The arena is described as temporary. But most sports facilities are in some sense temporary, even if the stands remain they change and evolve - the new Wembley seems to only share a location with the old twin towered stadium. The timeless nature of Lord’s cricket ground is perpetuated by the continuing existence of a single stand, the members only pavilion.
When the game finishes, the crowd leaves and the event is over. Even though the photos live on and the highlights remain on iPlayer, the race, the match, that goal, they only really exist in the moment. The past tense immediately applies.
Yet these events live on in the memory. That morning at the Olympics will live with me forever, the bright pink and blue pitch seared into my fallible cortex.
There’s a folk memory of these events that will also survive, like tales of seeing Bradman bat or queuing to watch Reg Harris win at Herne Hill that are passed down through generations.
The scarcity value of a visit to the Olympics and the esteem that the games are held (in spite of the relentless commercial exploitation), means that even when the Riverbank Arena is dismantled and relocated, the exploits of the athletes will live on. The impact of these Olympics, the imprint on my life of that bright morning in August will be permanent.
I haven’t climbed a tree in years, probably not since I was about 14, but at this point there doesn’t seem to be much choice. The crowd is 10, maybe 15 deep on Constitution Hill. The police are stopping anyone getting closer to the finish to avoid overcrowding so I’m stood by the flamme rouge assessing my options. From the PA system I know the riders are leaving Richmond Park, they’ll be here in a little more than 10 minutes. There’s nothing for it, if I want to see anything I’ll need to climb the tree.
I ask the woman in the Italian cycling top if she can step out of the way so I push up off the lampost. I grab one of the low branches and then I’m scrambling up, pushing a grasping until I’m sat high up in one the trees that stands on the run in to the finish.
The PA announces that Wiggins is on the front trying to pull back the breakaway - a huge cheer goes up and the tree shakes a little, but my arms are wrapped around the trunk, and I have a perfect view onto the road waiting for the riders to swing round the bend and on to the finish.
As the riders fly round the corner, an almighty roar leaps up from the crowd - it’s not the British on the front as most of the spectators would want, but the atmosphere is electric. Even from my tree I can see the steely confidence in Vinokurov’s eyes, there’s no way he’s going to let Uran win this one.
Two years on and we went back to one of my favourite wild places. Achiltibuie, Coigach. The effect of the weather on the landscape, and the landscape and weather on the history of the people of these small string like villages is clear.
But when the sun shines and you have time to sit, relax and observe it is a landscape with power and beauty that slowly reveals itself; the abundance of bird life and wild flowers, the way the light changes and plays on the hills of the nearby Torridon mountains, the persistent call of the cuckoo and the sudden appearance of a young deer.
From the top of Ivinghoe Beacon there’s a path that leads along the top of the ridge and into the woods on the Ashridge Estate. It’s a managed woodland, but part of the joy of walk though here is that it’s not overly managed. Clumps of fallen timber and rotting leaves sit under the broad leaf canopy, making it a haven for all kinds of plants, wildlife and hurtling children.
All over the rolling hills of our part of the world, the fields are a riot of bright yellow. The rapeseed is in full bloom, lighting up the horizon and providing a contrast to the dark browns and greens that are the wet mud and fields - the result of the recent wet weather.
It's beautiful, but it’s also a reminder that our countryside is the result of human intervention, and in the 21st century that often means monoculture on an industrial scale. What and who the countryside is for is an increasingly complex debate. This is clearly an effective crop for local agri-business and is tremendously uplifting to the soul - so perhaps in this case a win-win situation.