Posted on 16/09/2019
As summer folds into autumn and a touch of starchy sharpness lacerates the air each morning, it’s tempting to think it might be best to retire indoors and wait it out until Easter. But the changing colours, tastes, textures and smells of the season bring rich pleasures of their own, ones that are both more subtle and complex than the simple delights of summer and winter. So throw a scarf around your neck and slip on a jumper, making sure you pull the cuffs down over your fingers to guard against the cold, then head to your nearest towpath so you can enjoy the year as it eases into maturity.
Shelley once said of autumn that “the day becomes more solemn and serene; there is a harmony… and a lustre in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen.” Appropriately, autumn walks along the canal feel a little less raucous and celebratory than in the summer but also longer, slower, more exacting and exploratory. A seasonal sense of sober reflection allows you to more fully appreciate the changes in the world around you, watching leaves slowly turn to brown and noting the bracing chill that has abruptly entered the air. Yet in autumn there’s no longer any requirement to seek shade and shelter from the summer sun so walks can be longer and more vigorous without fear of raising a sweat, taking you further along the city centre towpath or deeper into the slowly mellowing countryside.
Early autumn is harvest time – indeed, the word ‘harvest’ comes from ‘haerfest’, the Anglo-Saxon word for autumn. Along the towpaths of our canals and rivers you’ll find a larder’s worth of autumn fruits: succulent blackberries, the crispest of apples, fat plums and the perennially underrated pear. Later in the season you might chance upon an unusual quince or hawthorn and sloe berries that can be used in jams and jellies. Grab a few as you walk past, but remember to only take as much as you need and leave some for the birds, small mammals and fellow walkers that follow on behind.
Summer is fun but there are times when it can all get a bit too much. A blazing sun will bear down on top of you, turning limbs to lead, making skin crimson, drawing streaks of sweat down back and brow while turning mouths into dried out deserts. For boat dwellers in particular, there’s no escape from this heat. A barge made of glass and steel is an oven, as stuffy and sweltering as a floating sauna. Autumn provides blessed relief. Once more and briefly, a boat becomes a place of cool sanctuary, a perfectly balanced refuge between the sweaty extremes of summer and the icy exercise of winter, when a fire must be lit anew each day to thaw out your floating igloo. No wonder boaters look so happy in autumn,
As any parent will confirm, Halloween has now become an event in the year to rival Easter and Christmas for eager children. And while it’s tempting to rail against commercialisation and Americanisation of the calendar, who can blame kids when the reward is a bucket full of sweets and chocolate, plus the chance to rampage around the streets dressed as something strange and creepy. As a result, there are several Halloween themed events taking place on and around the canals and rivers of England this autumn, including Halloween boat trips in Stoke Bruerne and Dudley.
Numerous small animals and birds can still be spotted around the canals at this time of year. Knot, short-eared owls, waxwings and light-bellied brent goose geese all travel through parts of the UK in autumn as part of their winter migration, but you are most likely to see flocks of the thrush-like fieldfare and redwing. It’s also a great time for fans of fungi and spiders, while kids will want to fill countless bags with conkers or kick their way through piles of satisfyingly crunchy leaves