Autumn is my favourite season of the year, or that part of it which runs from the beginning of September to mid-October. I put it like that, or offer this qualification, because we can never agree when autumn begins and ends. My wife thinks August is an autumn month, which indeed it often feels like in Scotland, but I cling to the idea formed in childhood that each season has three months and the autumn ones are September, October, November.
Be that as it may, there’s a benign quality about a good September which I love. On Saturday night, we had a beautiful near-full harvest moon, and yesterday morning the light was golden and the air soft when I led my wife’s thoroughbred mare from the stable to the field.
I rarely want to go away in September, but there’s nothing surprising about that – the Scottish Borders are at their best now, and in any case I seldom take any real holidays.
But lots of people do, and it seems that a holiday after the school term begins is now very popular. For parents, of course, this is possible only for those with children at boarding-school or who have obliging family members or friends willing and able to come and look after them. The attraction, however, is obvious. You may love your children – I hope you do – but their summer holidays from school are long and can be wearing. If teachers need a break after the summer term, parents equally may need one after the holidays.
For those whose children are off their hands, either grown-up or at university, a September holiday makes excellent sense. If you choose to go abroad, airports or the Channel Tunnel waiting-room are less crowded, or at least free of other people’s children charging around or wailing. And if you prefer to holiday here in Britain, you will enjoy the same child-free zone. Other people’s children may be a pleasure to see, they may be amusing, but only in small doses of short duration. Most of us can be doing quite happily without them most of the time. We may be ashamed to admit this, but it is true nevertheless.
There are other reasons for choosing to holiday in September or October. The Mediterranean is too hot in summer and there are too many tourists. (Yes, of course, you’re a tourist yourself, but assuming you travel independently, you can still, even at the height of the tourist season, manage to think of yourself as a traveller.) The light in Italy – especially in Tuscany and Umbria – is at its most beautiful in early autumn. Rome, intolerable in July and August, not only on account of the hordes, is wonderful when it is not too hot to walk for as long as you please in the historic centre, but still warm enough to sit for hours outside a bar in the Piazza Navona, Campo de’ Fiori or the piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere, still warm enough also to picnic on the Palatine or in the Borghese Gardens. It is in early autumn more than at any other time of the year that you appreciate the truth of the old Neapolitan saying, dolce far’ niente – it’s sweet to do nothing.
Here the beaches of Cornwall are, if not deserted, at least no longer thronged, and the sea is still warm enough to swim in. Autumn is the ideal season for a walking holiday – in the Welsh mountains, the Yorkshire Dales, the Scottish Borders or the Highlands (though you should be careful to steer clear of grouse moors). I was told the other day of a young couple who run a business in Cumbria, renting out horse-drawn gypsy caravans (vardos) and fields to park them in. It sounds like the ideal escapist holiday, slow-paced and perfect for winding-down. You can, I assume, take your dog or horses with you, and dogs and horses are better holiday companions than children.
On such holidays, you can pretend for a few days that the world isn’t what it is, and of course you should leave your computer and mobile phone and all its various apps at home and read no newspapers, not even this one. Detaching yourself from the bustle and concerns of work and duty is good for the health. Matthew Arnold caught the idea in that fine poem The Scholar Gypsy when he wrote nostalgically of the days before “this strange disease of modern life,/ With its sick hurry, its divided aims,/ Its heads o’ertaxed, its palsied hearts, was rife”. Freedom from all that is what you want from a holiday, what in all likelihood you need.
The countryside is at its best in early autumn – that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”; no wonder the Queen has the good sense to spend September on Deeside. So are the golf courses, if you are a golfer, and the rivers, if you are a fisherman. There is no better season – even the weather will sometimes hold for weeks. And if it doesn’t, well the charm of autumn is in part its brevity.
In early summer we may cheat ourselves with the hope that good weather may last for ever, the sun continue to shine. In autumn we can’t indulge in self-deceit. Winter will follow. Duty calls. We must return to work, parents to the care of their children. But a September holiday offers a wonderful interlude free of responsibility, a time when you can pretend that things are better than experience tells you they are.