Cauterets in the morning was blue skies and sunshine. The ‘Vignemale’ camp site was located amongst surrounding hills, which meant you waited until 9.30 for the rising sun to reach you but when it did, it was warm. Another lovely hot day but unfortunately, I was going home. As I said to the Brit neighbour sunning himself over breakfast outside his tent, “I bet it’s bloody raining”.
I thought I might miss the bus and made a rapid march for the station, then had fifteen minutes to spare. I removed the lower part of my zip off trousers, the socks I’d worn when it was initially chilly, and the jacket I’d thrown on seeking to save time. The journey to Lourdes takes about an hour, and I recalled doing this last year thinking it was good timing: autumn, it seemed, had arrived. The skies were grey, the air fresher, and there was a cool breeze different from relaxing heat; you felt the vague need to protect yourself from the elements, rather than abandon yourself luxuriously to them.
This time was different. Instead of leaving cool grey skies returning to leaden cold skies and rain, I was leaving beautiful sunshine and returning to cold skies and rain. It’s like a long distance relationship: it’s hard to do this, get separated from you for weeks or months, taking away only memories and photographs.
But this is what we do, fluctuating from freedom back to confinement, movement back to social stasis, sunshine back to British rain.
It was also a leap from summer into autumn, because the wheels had turned back in Blighty. There was a nip in the air, a hint of red and orange hanging seductively on the trees: I’m pretty, yes, but in a few weeks it will be cold, then dark, and I will be mush on the ground, bare branches above me.
I enjoyed autumn once, in Langdale. The russet colours were very fine, dazzling under blue skies with the necessary vivifying quality of sunshine. Now, the berries are on the trees and bushes everywhere you walk; all it takes to find them is a canal side stroll, park meander or – in my case – a ramble along the banks of the River Mersey, a semi protected wild area. No one builds there at the moment, on the wild fields and grasses, but that’s not to say they won’t. I will wager many are trying to just as the government tried – and inevitably succeeded – establishing lawful passage across England for the forthcoming high speed train route.
Shakespeare knew there was a dialectic between the rustic and the urban; that geographic fact coincides with psychological dimensions. The countryside and the woods are where lovers frolic, magic herbs grow, and spirits dance and play. Back in the city we have kings at war, courtiers scheming, and the conflicts of so called politics. A few centuries later, the dialectic also concerns ownership and capitalist interest. I want access to wild places to soothe my soul and counteract the tensions society pushes into me: other people want to build there and make money.
I’m not very interested in the autumnal winds, the freshening as the earth turns, because it’s blowing away the warmth to make place for the cold. It’s been another crappy summer. Again, we had two or three weeks of sunshine in the spring, and then only quiet peeps from the sun – when it felt like it, which was rarely. I did get to Scotland in the spring, and enjoyed remarkably good weather on Skye which a local described as “miraculous”. But it’s not enough; it’s not enough. That was in April. We’re now midway in September – wondering, for about the tenth time in successive years, where was the summer?
Part of the reason for going to the Pyrenees, or the Picos, the Dolomites, or wherever you go, is to escape British weather. Millions head for the Spanish beaches; in this respect, the search for sunshine, I do the same in big Pyrenean hills. Let’s call it The Great Escape – I am, as it were, Steve McQueen on his motorcycle, or a chap drinking tea while I dig a tunnel, gaining freedom from the dastardly Germans.
So yes it’s autumn. I was delivered into it across eight hundred miles or so, from summer and the Pyrenees to the next season already here in Britain, like the island couldn’t maintain its pretence any longer: look, I give up, it’s really not summer, I can’t deliver a summer, and can’t try to do so any longer.
I console myself that British suffering in this regard – we do have such crappy weather – crystallises in us a psychological stoicism. We make do, make the best of things, press on, chin up, say it’s turned out nice when all that means is it’s not raining again. It’s a useful characteristic to be like this but given the chance I’d prefer a life in a sunny climate I’d enjoy, rather than feeling in opposition to the weather. I spend many days at home not walking, after deciding I would walk if it were sunny – many, many days like that.