First published on Caught by the River as part of their Shadows and Reflections series.
This year I have lived a full half century. My children have grown up and left. For the first time in my life I’m living entirely on my own. It’s bloody lovely, this freedom, but I do find myself staring into space. A lot. Though I have rediscovered a teenager’s capacity to waste it, time has been on my mind. I’ve been banging on about it on CBTR and elsewhere this year (thank you for your patience) – not just the changing seasons but how many of them I might have left. And if I look back? Blimey, I’m thinking in decades, not in years.
There’s a deconsecrated cemetery in the middle of Twickenham, behind the de- Woolworthed Woollies and the de-mutualised mutuals. When I first moved here there were three gangly goldenrain trees (also called pride of India, though they come from China). They were producing dainty sprays of acid yellow flowers, and when the flowers turned to fruit – inflated papery capsules – I collected the seed and sowed it. A decade and a half on, the seedling I chose is itself a gangly tree. This summer it flowered for the first time, and the flowers gave way to a crop of little lanterns encasing big matt black seeds. Fifteen years from seed to flower. Makes you realise how much time is laid up in the trees around us. Tulip trees don’t flower until they are another decade older. And if I sow a tulip tree now? Yup, you get the picture.
And then think about the germplasm – the genetic baton that is handed on in the seed from generation to generation. This year the council planted maidenhair trees (also from China) as part of a massive and less than convincing programme of ‘town centre improvements.’ Maidenhair, or Ginkgo biloba, is thought to be extinct in the wild, but the species has been around in its current form since the dinosaurs. A sacred tree that has for millennia graced the temples of East Asia with its brilliant autumn colour and its stinking fruits (whose kernels are a delicacy in South Korea). And here it is, this incredible relic, growing modestly on an undistinguished suburban street outside the police station. Around the slender trunk of the maidenhair tree is paving cut from sandstone. It was a beautiful sight when it first got laid (much like myself, I like to think). It soon became filthy and pockmarked (don’t go there) with chewing gum but when it rains you can still see the layers of sediment, the colours sharpened by the wet, laid down in those shallow, warm deltas over 300 million years ago.
Years, decades, millenia, megaannii, aeons. And yet the ephemeral things, though they signify that the year is passing and passing fast, are the things that give me a kick.
One is extra special. Every working day I cycle from my house to the station along Heath Road, a route that has been in use for a very long time. There’s been a settlement at Twickenham since at least 704 AD and Heath Road connects what was once a huge expanse of common land on Hounslow Heath to the old village, where it lies on a curve of the Thames. It’s not a handsome street, Edwardian three or four storey redbrick buildings with the usual mash of shops at street level. It’s dead flat and it curves towards the town centre. For a couple of weeks a year, in the Spring and in the Autumn, dawn is breaking as I cycle along this stretch. And for those extraordinary few days, my commute coincides with the corvids’. They fly over me in squadrons, travelling purposefully about twice my speed, tracking the curve of the street that echoes the prevailing southwesterlies. They are rooks and jackdaws, headed from their roost in the woods along the river Crane, but the jackdaws are quiet, as if they’re still sleepy, as if it’s too early for their banter. In fact I may not I hear anything at all, but it seems like a series of dark rushes or a dent in the soundscape, as if my ears have been covered and uncovered again. We stream along in the wind, the birds and me and the occasional car. As they reach the centre of town they break formation and rise above a parade of shops, briefly silhouetted against the peachy sky, before tilting over the roof to spend their days on the flood meadows of Petersham and the hummocky savanna of Richmond Park.
Rooks can live up to twenty years and jackdaws up to fourteen. This year it struck me that I could have been sharing my commute with some of the same birdy individuals for the last decade and a half. That possibility lies tenderly on my heart, like a bruise.
This year I thought: when the kids go, I could go too. Nothing particular to keep me here. I could go back to Norfolk, where I was born, or Dorset, where my grandmother farmed on the downs. But there is no such thing as going back. The places I knew don’t exist now. Novelty is all very well, but there’s a value to staying put. You see the patterns and feel the rhythms, as well as all the changes. The skyline along the river seen from the train into Waterloo is unrecognisable, but I’m tracking the bracken invading the disused platform at Queenstown Road. I watch out for the cormorant standing sentinel on a pole in the Thames by Waterloo Bridge and I listen for the kestrels keening on Lasdun’s brutalist buildings up from Russell Square. The day I write this has seen two firsts: two goldcrest flittered through the garden and a blackcap sang on the hawthorn. In June, a few days after the local environmental charity put in eel passes, the first elvers for centuries were recorded in the river Crane. I saw a kingfisher up by the shot tower on a crisp day in January, and another under an inky September sky. You have to stay put to know these things are special.
This year I thought, when the kids go, I could go too. But I have been ambushed by suburbia. I think I might stay.