At 8.30am this morning I was strolling along the edge of a lake with my dad, our boots slowly soaked through by wet grass. There were spiders-webs on the thistles – each strand perfectly picked out by dew and light. Dad had his camera with him, and kept stopping to catch this bird or that reflection in the water. Looking ahead, everything was soft and slightly blurred by mist. Looking behind, it was all blue sky and bright sun.
I scrabbled around by the trees looking for conkers. Those wonderful, prickly green shells have already begun falling. There’s a knack to cracking them open. You have to find a point on either side where you can grip without lacerating your fingertips on the spikes, then squeeze hard. Each shell divides perfectly into segments. Sometimes you only need one to come loose. Sometimes you’ll need to totally dissect the shell, pulling apart those spongy white wedges in turn. Either way, there’ll be treasure in the middle – a wonderfully smooth, shiny, lopsided blob of brown. A conker. Doesn’t matter how many years I’ve done this now. There’s still a fresh sense of magic in the way they fit in a palm like sea-washed pebbles.
Today I collected nine, clutching them together like treasure. They perfectly matched my suede sleeves. A handful of glossy, solid satisfaction. Maybe that’s what I marvel at most. There they are – hidden away in their funny big jacket of bristles, so small and so strong. They’re hardy little buggers though. No wonder plenty of playground games used to revolve around smashing them together. In fact, when I was at primary school, one of the songs that our music teacher rolled out every autumn (without fail) included a raucous chorus beginning: “conkers! I’m collecting conkers! I’m trying hard to find the biggest and the best!” Unsurprisingly, they’ve become part of that general set of images we associate with autumn, taking their place alongside orange leaves and warm firesides and hot mugs of tea. I like conkers in particular though because they’re seeds – nothing but burnished potential.
As you may be able to tell, this weekend I caught a last gasp of the countryside – returning home and throwing myself back among the trees and sharp air and sun-warmed paths for the last time before uni begins. I rarely miss it when I’m away, only realizing on return how much I’m still a countryside girl. I’ve had three days full of gold-stubble fields, woods dappled with late afternoon light, valleys dotted with hay-bales, and hill-top views that stretch for mile upon mile.
I also tend to forget how exhilarated it all makes me feel. It’s an intriguing mix of memory, familiarity, and possibility: all the resonances of past escapades (walks and den-building sessions and hours spent exploring), and a sense of what’s ahead to enjoy (a part of me still harbours a very fanciful, flighty urge to run away to a tumble-down cottage and just write poetry all day). There’s also a sense of being grounded and brought back down to the immediate: an in-the-moment-here-I-am-nothing-exists-but-this-sunny-afternoon kind of sensation. Maybe we all need a bit more of that.
This time last year, I had tea with a friend in Hyde Park – she’d brought along a flask in her bag. We sat outside and chatted and drank and ate dark chocolate. As we got up to leave, brushing grass seeds from our legs, she picked up a conker and said I should keep it, because it would always remind me of that afternoon. It’s now sitting in a martini glass (among my jewellery, obviously…) in my new room in Oxford. She was right. Every time I see it, I recall that day vividly. I have a feeling that the same thing may happen with those nine conkers I scavenged this morning. I left them scattered on my desk at home. They’ll stay there for a while. Mementoes of nothing particularly extraordinary - just a bright misty morning and a brief moment of calm.
My mum took these photos in one of our favourite spots. I've been dragged up this hill since I was tiny. Now I'm a little more willing to climb to the top... I'd planned a whole outfit around the dress (those images will come at another point), but there was something so magnificent about the simplicity of this. We just had to leave it as is, and soak up that magnificent light.