For lovers of classic autumnal days, last Wednesday was a real collector’s item.
The day began in the ethereal world of John Keats’s “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, and as I headed north to Swaledale the sun was, initially, little more than a muted white disc skulking behind the grey curtains. But that soon vanished, and all colour was removed from the landscape. Even boughs of ripened apples glimpsed in a roadside garden looked like something seen on an old monochrome TV set.
Beyond Harrogate the mist seemed particularly dense. This rendered hedgerows fuzzy and left the occasional blurred suggestion of a tree. People who were waiting at a village bus stop suddenly emerged from the murk like ghostlike apparitions.
North of Ripon I was startled by the phantom wraith of a barn owl alighting on a gate, but as I turned a corner and drove down the hill towards Jervaulx Abbey I experienced that gorgeous few moments when the mist becomes tinged with gold and the sun finally bursts through in a single concentrated ray, like a spotlight.
It picked out an enormous beech tree and transformed it into something resembling a David Hockney painting with over-saturated reds and yellows, and made the leaves of a nearby horse chestnut shine like orange neon.
A pale blue tint began to colour the sky, and when the last lace curtains were drawn back Wensleydale appeared in all its glory. There was still a bit of smokiness on the tops but that came from gamekeepers burning the heather. From there, the drive over Preston Moor might have been on an azure summer’s day.
Another Hockneyesque palette of colours awaited me in Swaledale. The leaves on hawthorns were bright cadmium and their berries pillarbox-red. Roadside ash trees had banana-yellow leaves and were draped with milk chocolate clusters of keys. In the now-sparkling October sun, no two rowans looked alike with their mosaics of lilacs, pinks, russets and ambers.
Strangely, though, there were corners of Swaledale still locked in late-summer, with many trees vibrant green and bracken only now starting to tint. Wandering along a walled track I found blackberries as plump and sweet as they had been during early September in West Yorkshire.
Another sign of summer was the number of rubbernecking coach parties still out in that part of the Yorkshire Dales, disgorging passengers from as far apart as Bradford and Teesside on Reeth village green. This did not surprise me, though, because there hardly seems to be an off-season in our national parks any more.
By early afternoon I had climbed onto the surrounding moorland and a heat haze was settling along the dale floor. I walked in shorts and tee shirt and felt as hot as any day during this year’s wonderful summer. But then came a reality check. A flock of fieldfares and redwings, newly arrived from Scandinavia, spread over a sheep pasture, a reminder that such days are deceptive and we are on the cusp of summer and winter.