For around two weeks, somewhere between the middle of October and the beginning of November, Cumbria throws off its characteristic reserve and becomes a shameless showgirl. A walk around Grizedale Forest or Tarn Hows is never a hardship, but when the leaves turn, the heart soars. It is baffling that England is capable of such a spectacle; that all the crowds have gone before the big last number; that something so vivid should be a secret season.
A few are in the know. They organise their year around it. They are the quietly cheerful types who are always pleased just to be here. They are those who say grinningly – sometimes through horizontal rain – that ‘there is no bad weather only inappropriate clothing’. They are aware that nothing worth having is guaranteed – and they are rewarded for this. Not for the same duration every time and not on the very same days each year, but show me a sublime experience without an element of chance. If it were necessarily so, it would lack what the mindfulness gurus call the this-ness.
Death comes to autumn leaves eventually, but first, when the temperatures drop and the daylight hours reduce, their chlorophyll breaks down, the green pigment disappears and they show you what they have been hiding all year. In a sense the colours do not turn or change: they have been there all along. It is a kind of jazzy swansong. The reds and yellows and oranges stay for as long as severe rain and wind, or frost, hold off. Only when these come do the leaves turn brown. Only then do the trees let them go.
Speaking of secrets, it is not strictly stealing from the US for the British to talk of England in the fall. We invented the terms ‘fall’ and ‘autumn’ and then exported both to America. For a thousand years there were considered to be only two seasons: summer and winter, although there was harvest time. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries, people began to talk of ‘the spring of the leaf’ and ‘the fall of the leaf’ as a pair – soon shortened to spring and fall.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson was the first to put ‘fall’ in a dictionary. Then, according to Merriam Webster, the American dictionary, by the mid-1800s American lexicographers considered fall to be entirely American. To the disappointment of the poets, we were using autumn and letting the US have fall. Fifty years later, in The King’s English, the Fowler brothers were warning against Americanisms, but there was an exception:
Fall is better on the merits than autumn, in every way: it is short, Saxon, picturesque; it reveals its derivation to everyone who uses it, not to the scholar only, like autumn.
Then they threw in the towel. ‘We once had as good a right to it as the Americans,’ they said, ‘but we have chosen to let the right lapse, and to use the word now is no better than larceny.’ ‘Larceny’ instead of ‘theft’ the US can keep. But what if we were to reclaim our fall, if only in this hidden corner of England? An old word of simple beauty just for Cumbria in autumn. Perhaps it is the very least that she deserves.