In the closing chapters of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein refers to the end of October as the ‘fag end of autumn’. I think we all know what he meant; that time when the trees have all but shed their leaves which lie mouldering underfoot, scenting the air with hint of stale socks. The bare branches are left slick and wet by a cold blanket of mist, twigs stark and black against leaden, featureless skies and there never seems to be any warmth or brightness left in the days. That may have been the case in Oxford in 1940 when LOTR was being written and of course it may have been an indictment of the state of the world as much as an individual October, but maybe it is also a yardstick for global climate change because it has only been in the last few days of October that autumn has really got a hold this year. The bonfire piles of leaves emitting their claggy pale smoke, so much a feature of November 5th in my own growing up are yet to be lit as the leaves have only just begun to fall from the trees.
We turn away from the bridge and follow the path along the bank heading downstream. The sky is dull but it has been dry and the leaves billow and rustle satisfyingly in front of the toes of my boots. A pheasant calls an alarm and dashes amongst the cracking stems of grass, his red face singling him out even though his feathers are otherwise masked by the undergrowth. Beside us the call of the river rises and fades, rises and fades but now ahead there is a deeper note.
The path clings to a muddy slope then ducks beneath oak trees which rise from the slabs of rock that make the cliff above the river. The falls angle obliquely away from us and upstream. Beneath our feet is a churning shoot of water and away beyond a weir of rocks another sluice in the flow.
I am just about to go in when walkers appear on the bank. They make small talk and then stand and watch me plunge into the water and push hard upstream against the flow. It is breathtakingly chill but survivable.
Using the flow to sweep across the river I hit a strong eddy which thrusts me up to the sluice of water against the far bank. Launching back into the foaming current I’m swept beneath an overhang of black rock which trails thin tresses of water. The current eddies me again until I push into the bigger flow carefully sliding amongst the barely submerged rocks. The current grabs hold once more and swooshes me out into the middle of the pool for the second time.
The pool is large but not so deep and in most places when I trail my feet my toes bump over the river bed pebbles, in places riding up over larger rocks.
A tree on the bank gives a windless shudder and a cloud of sleek yellow autumnal leaves fall in spirals directly onto the water below. It will be 6 long months before we see green again.