My favourite seasons are always the ones in between the extremes – spring and autumn are the ones in which the changeover between winter and summer can be viewed almost daily in a natural slideshow of shifting colours and shapes. Spring offers the promise of balmy summer nights – I think I prefer the promise to the actual event – and autumn makes us feel nostalgic about the balminess just past.
Meteorologically speaking autumn starts on 1 September and this year, it delivered a blinder – warm temperatures and daily sunshine made us think summer hadn’t quite ended. But it had. On 31 August. But somehow September got rebranded into ‘the last days of summer’ and yesterday’s harsh drop in temperature became ‘the sudden onset of autumn’. I think autumn needs a little bit of help on the brand-management side, don’t you?
I don’t know why, but autumn seems to have become synonymous with rain, cold and misery. For me, those unexpectedly mild sunny days are the stuff of it. Walks on Hampstead Heath kicking leaves, sitting outside a cafe in the sunshine – these are autumnal pursuits that can be done without having to slather myself in Factor 50 to avoid sunburn. I can sit in the sunshine without feeling uncomfortably hot and having to go in the shade every ten minutes. Bliss. These aren’t ‘the last days of summer’, they’re ‘the best days of autumn’.
Often our positioning of summer as ‘the perfect’ season is based on complete myth. For many people my age, it’s based on that one summer in 1976 when the season did what we expected it to do, if we lived in California. Boiling hot temperatures, wall-to-wall sunshine – it was the driest, sunniest, warmest summer of the 20th century. I remember lying in the sun with my sister in our back garden – she got third-degree burns on her stomach that year because sun-factor wasn’t a thing back then. We also had a plague of ladybirds – I remember them flying about as my dad Flymo’d the lawn. The summer of 1976 also led to a severe nationwide drought. Joy!
Because that summer has become wedged so firmly in our childhood memories, we are addicted to its Hipstamatic golden glow with its ‘Phew What a Scorcher!’ headlines. The season has never delivered anything like it since, although we’ve had a few good ones, like last year, and this. That summer was the exception, and not the norm, but people still expect summer to deliver 1976-style levels every year, and are profoundly disappointed when it doesn’t.
It rains in summer, often for long periods. Then we get a week, or two if we’re lucky, of warmth and sunshine. Then back to rain again. I always laugh to myself when the inevitable ‘the summer’s over!!!’ cries are found all over my social-media feeds when we have one day of rain. I think of these desperate people as dogs whose owners have just nipped out to the corner shop, but they think they’ve left for good. It’ll be back, I find myself saying, trying to comfort them, and it always is. There are, admittedly, prolonged periods of rain during some summers that do make you feel like it’s all over, but I always keep the faith. It’s never let me down.
I often feel like a one-woman weather marketeer in charge of reminding everyone that Britain’s Got Weather. You get rain in summer, sunshine in the middle of winter, balmy days in autumn, freezing days in spring. It’s unexpected and that’s the joy of it. I also feel like I’m the only one who checks the weather each morning, and dresses accordingly. Actually, I only check the temperature – my mantra is ‘dress for the temperature, not the weather’, which means that I’m not uncomfortably wrapped up in too many layers on a warm but cloudy day in September. I’ve really chuckled to myself over the past month, seeing Londoners wearing winter coats because the sun’s gone in. It might still be 22 degrees, but the coats go on because the sun isn’t there to validate the shedding of them. Interesting.
This mantra of mine does lead to the annoying commentary I get in early summer when again, I dress for the temperature, and inevitably get accused of looking ‘summery’ a grillion times a day. Well yes, I say, I look summery because it’s summer, which starts on 1 June, according to the Met Office. Other people wait for the 1976 moments to get their summer wardrobes out – which of course, may never happen. I like to get a good wear out of my summer wardrobe at the earliest opportunity, otherwise it’s wasted.
I wonder if my attitude to weather comes from being Welsh. In North Wales, the skies are often a flat, dull grey. Sunny days were so rare that we’d all rush out with our corned-beef legs and moonwhite faces, in nothing short of a pagan ritual. I remember my mum shouting from my bedroom window as she saw me lying in the sun, as a teenager, determined to roast myself into a ‘normal’ colour. I used to get horribly burnt, but I didn’t care – I had a colour that wasn’t blue-white.
I got used to the sun being the exception and not the rule and learned to enjoy it when it did decide to make an appearance. And now I love holidaying in places where the weather is mercurial – I’ve been trapped in snow and rammed by horizontal hail in New Zealand, during early summer, then roasted on the Abel Tasman trail a few days later. I’ve hiked Lochnagar on Midsummer Day in driving rain, but been bathed in sunshine on the way down. I’ve been sunburned on the west coast of Ireland, as I’ve trekked through soft rain and found myself exposed on Slea Head peninsula as the sun suddenly blasts out. I’ve been unable to see two feet in front of me on Hebridean islands in the fog, and then the sun has shown me the all the treasures of the turquoise seas of Jura as it penetrates the shallow coastal water. Our coastline is nothing short of paradise at that moment.
If you are continually hankering for 1976 then you will always be disappointed. Unless you can move to California, then you need to deal with it. It’s October 5 today and the forecast is 15 degrees and wall-to-wall sunshine. Next week it’s going to rain every day until Sunday, with intermittent sunshine (a note to TV forecasters – this isn’t ‘miserable’ weather – it’s weather. You are responsible for a nation’s sense of wellbeing.)
Get out there now and enjoy lovely autumn.