October, Buxton

Primarily I can see leaves. There must have been this many here for months but they were less noticeable for being more or less all the same colour and more or less all in the same place. I was tempted to say ‘in the usual place’, but we see the leaves on the ground in their rich yellows and browns quite as regularly as we see them in shades of green on the branches of the trees; nevertheless their autumnal colours and their inevitable migration brings them more compellingly to our attention. Perhaps it’s because they’re dying. Are you satisfied now, Leontius? Take a real good look!

It’s Hallowe’en, so perhaps death is an appropriate theme. Or if not death then certainly the dead. I can’t in all honesty say that I have any real sense of any sort of veil being drawn aside, of other worlds drawing closer, or indeed of there being any other worlds, but I did consider going to visit the churchyard where my own most significant ancestors are buried. I didn’t make it there, or to any other graveyards: neither my local nor my favourite where I like to sit in the sun and read.

Instead I’m in Buxton, at the other end of the High Peak from home, where the gritstone begins to give way to the limestone of the dales. The landscape is on a larger scale than Glossop’s closely contained valley, the hills are more rolling and more heavily forested. I’m on a bench on the small hill called The Slopes—or St. Ann’s Cliff, Buxton being the site of a shrine and springs, a point of mediaeval pilgrimage—in between the Crescent and the High Street. It has its own serenity, as elevated places often do, and it also contains the war memorial, witness to those other fallen leaves. That, too, is there all year, but is coming to its annual prominence in the public imagination. Wreaths of poppies have already been laid at the foot of the ashlar gritstone cenotaph, overseen by winged victory.

Not everything dies in October, of course. A beauty of the autumn months, for the historically and globally fortunate minority of us not in poverty and hardship, is that we are able to dig in for the coming winter and survive to emerge rejuvenated in the spring with the snowdrops and crocuses. Leaf fall always puts me in mind of childhood, Dunham Park, mists and conkers. Timid but memorable deer in the park and, one time, a stag looming out of the dark. Then I’m reminded slightly less forcefully of potatoes baked in bonfires, which I may have had only once, but they stand as pretty much the ideal combination of food and atmosphere; I’ll concede they might not quite be worth the necessary effort.

The serenity here isn’t even spoiled by the hum of the traffic, the dog walkers or the man and his son playing in the leaves. Peace doesn’t always require quiet. The boy is climbing on the war memorial, which seems entirely appropriate rather than disrespectful, although I’m not sure his father is altogether aware of the depth of the drop on the other side of the apparently low wall. The dog walkers seem unfortunately uninterested in sharing any smiles of greeting, so I take to smiling at the dogs instead. They seem fairly contented with their lot, and none of them barks or makes any move to savage me; I’ll take that as evidence of a series of cheery hellos rather than as evidence that the dogs have all succumbed to depression and given up all hope of escape.

There’s an Octobral dampness in the air; it feels misty but it’s thin enough that it doesn’t interfere with the view for quite some distance. This small hill in the centre of town is almost surrounded by a dip, but on the other side of that, larger hills rise in all directions. The Tideslow telecommunications mast, near Little Hucklow, is away off to my left. Between me and the war memorial is Buxton Climatological Station. The sign tells me we’re at an altitude of 305m, a latitude of 53° 15’ and a longitude of 1° 54’. Which is to say, North and West. Perhaps the information it’s delivering today will not be so surprising to the meteorological community, given that presumably they keep an eye on these things, but after a week of grey, rainy, wintry bleakness, dark mornings, dark evenings, the weather today is a very pleasant surprise to me.

I came to Buxton particularly to visit its second-hand bookshop. The woman in charge, it transpires, used to live in Glossop, where she also ran the second-hand bookshop, and we must have met before about a decade ago. She starts to look familiar as we talk, but it’s easy to persuade ourselves of convenient fictions like that without meaning to. I bought a few books, including a first edition of Country Hoard by Alison Uttley. Uttley read physics at the University of Manchester and corresponded with the then professor of philosophy, the great Samuel Alexander. She was also born near here, at Castle Top Farm near Cromford, to the South East. The book ends with an essay on ‘Country Words’, which ends with some rather beautiful examples. ‘Birds and beasts and flowers, all had homely names, common names hallowed by tradition, names close to earth itself. Mummy-ruffins, moldy-warps, apricocks, gillivers, goldilocks, fairy cheeses, were our familiars. Unselfconsciously we used these old words, a language we had heard in the cradle, words sheltered in valleys and hamlets, a tongue that may some day be forgotten.’ Dialects are also mortal. Alison Uttley died less than a month after I was born, having lived for a time less than a mile away.

It’s been a mild day; shirt sleeves still at half past four. A tranquil spot on this mild, autumnal day of the dead. The scene deserves squirrels, but I can’t see any.

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