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Autumn In Spitalfields

September 26, 2019
by the gentle author

The rain is falling on Spitalfields, upon the church and the market, and on the streets, yards and gardens. Dripping off the roofs and splashing onto the pavements, filling the gutters and coursing down the pipes, it overflows the culverts and drains to restore the flow of the Black Ditch, the notorious lost river of Spitalfields that once flowed from here to Limehouse Dock. This was the watercourse that transmitted the cholera in 1832. An open sewer piped off in the nineteenth century, the Black Ditch has been co-opted into the drainage system today, but it is still running unknown beneath our feet in Spitalfields – the underground river with the bad reputation.

The shades of autumn encourage such dark thoughts, especially when the clouds hang over the City and the Indian Summer has unravelled to leave us with incessant rain bringing the first leaves down. In Spitalfields, curry touts shiver in the chill and office smokers gather in doorways, peering at the downpour. The balance of the season has shifted and sunny days have become exceptions, to be appreciated as the last vestiges of the long summer.

On such a day recently, I could not resist collecting these conkers that were lying neglected on the grass in the sunshine. And when I got home I photographed them in that same autumn sunlight to capture their perfect lustre for you. Let me confess, ever since I came to live in the city, it has always amazed me to see conkers scattered and ignored. I cannot understand why city children do not pick them up, when even as an adult I cannot resist the temptation to fill a bag. In Devon, we raced from the school gates and down the lane to be the first to collect the fresh specimens. Their glistening beauty declared their value even if, like gold, their use was limited. I did not bore holes in them with a meat skewer and string them, to fight with them as others do, because it meant spoiling their glossy perfection. Instead I filled a leather suitcase under my bed with conkers and felt secure in my wealth, until one day I opened the case to discover they had all dried out, shrivelled up and gone mouldy.

Let me admit, I feel the sense of darkness accumulating now and regret the tender loss of summer, just as I revel in the fruit of the season and the excuse to retreat to bed with a hot water bottle that autumn provides. I lie under the quilt I sewed and I feel protected like a child, though I know I am not a child. I cannot resist dark thoughts, I have a sense of dread at the winter to come and the nights closing in. Yet in the city, there is the drama of the new season escalating towards Christmas and coloured lights gleaming in wet streets. As the nights draw in, people put on the light earlier at home, creating my favourite spectacle of city life, that of the lit room viewed from the street. Every chamber becomes a lantern or a theatre to the lonely stranger on the gloomy street, glimpsing the commonplace ritual of domestic life. Even a mundane scene touches my heart when I hesitate to gaze upon it in passing, like an anonymous ghost in the shadow.

Here in Spitalfields, I have no opportunity to walk through beech woods to admire the copper leaves, instead I must do it in memory. I shall not search birch woods for chanterelles this year either, but I will seek them out to admire in the market, even if I do not buy any. Instead I shall get a box of cooking apples and look forward to eating baked apples by the fire. I am looking forward to lighting the fire. I am looking forward to Halloween. I am looking forward to Bonfire Night. I am looking forward to Christmas. And I always look forward to writing to you every day. The summer is over but there is so much to look forward to.

47 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Ah, the conker! I also can’t understand how anyone can resist grabbing them. My ex-wife went postal when I insisted on filling my shorts’ pockets with them between lido and hotel in Verona (despite the fact that the horse-chestnut in the churchyard abutting our home in Buckinghamshire provided for all my conker needs).

  2. September 26, 2019

    That was a beautiful essay.

  3. Su C. permalink
    September 26, 2019

    “Every chamber becomes a lantern or a theatre to the lonely stranger on the gloomy street,….”

    Oh yes! I love peeping into others’ lives at night as I pass by on the street.

    Happy Autumn Gentle Author. Enjoy your apples, fires, and snuggles with Schrodinger.

  4. Rebekah Bristow permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Bit of a leak in Liverpool Street!

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 26, 2019

    I actually love autumn and get a renewed sense of energy. And marvel every year at all the different coloured trees.

    And as for winter…bring it on!

  6. September 26, 2019

    My sentiments exactly, although I did collect a few conkers last week when visiting a friend in Cheam Surrey. They’re meant to repel spiders of which my house seems to have more than its fair share, so I scatter a few on windowcills and on the bend of my stairs hoping that this year, they will actually do what I hope them to do. They won’t of course, but I will enjoy seeing their glossy coats as I move around the house.

  7. Sue permalink
    September 26, 2019


  8. Eve McBride permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for another beautifully written article. Autumn can be a very wistful season but there is something comforting in the changing of the seasons. The joy of conkers and collecting sweet chestnuts and who hasn’t enjoyed jumping through heaps of dried leaves and hearing the wonderful rustling underneath their feet? I still do but when no-one is looking!

  9. Sally Milligan permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Warming and thoughtful article on ‘conkers’ this morning, thank you. I love conkers and collect them every year to put on the ledges of my greenhouse – and other accessible places. They are wonderful at preventing cobwebs, maybe they smell horrible to spiders! An annual event.

  10. Katherine permalink
    September 26, 2019

    What a beautiful crafted piece, thank you. Such a lovely thing to read this morning thank you so much, Katherine

  11. September 26, 2019

    Dear GA….I love your words here. A few weeks ago I suffered a heart attack. Part of my “recovery” will be writing about it. Sharing my thoughts and insecurities with anyone who cares to read it. It’s a gift that your words resonate so powerfully this wet morning in Surrey.
    I grew up in Cheam close to Nonsuch Park. There like so many large estates they planted a road of horse chestnuts. Dozens of them. It has always been known locally as “Conker Alley”.
    A magnet in my young days when we threw sticks up the trees to knock the conkers down and avoid the wrath of the park keeper. Thank you.

  12. John Campbell permalink
    September 26, 2019

    I read your Autumn tale on a lovely mild day in The Dandenongs about 50 kms just out of Melbourne, Australia.
    It is just wonderful & so atmospheric. Even as we get the first taste of Spring here, your tale makes me want to jump into bed & get warm.

  13. J Gibbs permalink
    September 26, 2019

    What a wonderful recollection of childhood GA and it reminds me of my own in the countryside, many years ago; the evenings draw in and the weather deteriorates. That is Nature taking its course and we all benefit from the rain (especially Gardeners) and the changing seasons bring us interest, challenges that have to be overcome, and anticipation of warmer times yet to return. Imagine living perhaps near the Equator where the season remains virtually unchanged throughout each year. Plenty of sun, but seasonal Interest is lacking. You are quite right GA: in Winter time dress up warmly, keep off the rain, move closer to the fire and down a few hot toddies. In fact get your own back on Winter and convert it to your advantage!

    We very much appreciate and are grateful for your daily missives GA which are a complete delight for so many of us.

  14. Sharon permalink
    September 26, 2019

    One after my own heart – I can’t resist popping them into my pockets!

  15. Miriam permalink
    September 26, 2019

    What an absolutely beautiful conker story. We had chestnut trees in the Cricket Field next to our house in Widford, Hertfordshire, and we too, used to collect those gorgeous shiny conkers. Autumn leaves and the crunch underfoot are also a special memory. Liverpool Station was a regular occurrence on our way to Boarding School in Sussex and back to Bishops Stortford to get to Widford. Memories become clearer the older one gets and its good to remember all those feelings from our childhood days. My father was born in Artillery Lane so I read all your entries online with great interest. Please don’t stop.

  16. Mar permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Thank you for this. Many years ago one of my favorite memories of being in the uk was my flat mates introducing me to the joys of the conkers.
    Only to be enthralled later on by the smell of woodsmoke and the community coming together for bonfire night

  17. Linda Pennell permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Thank you for such a calm, thoughtful essay. Very timely given the present state of public discourse

  18. September 26, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what lovely thoughts as the season changes. Love that pic of the chestnuts – I had to look up “conker” as in “may refer to horse chestnuts.” Beautiful image:

    “Every chamber becomes a lantern or a theatre to the lonely stranger on the gloomy street, glimpsing the commonplace ritual of domestic life. Even a mundane scene touches my heart when I hesitate to gaze upon it in passing, like an anonymous ghost in the shadow.”

    Thanks for writing every day….

  19. Sally Bernard permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Loved this little piece of writing. Conkers are special. I would collect them to place in wardrobes. It was an old folk remedy ( Somerset ) to keep the moths away!Love the shininess, still can never walk past a conker tree in Autumn without searching the ground!

  20. September 26, 2019

    Today’s post is exquisite dear GA…… thank you.

  21. Beverley permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Beautifully said, GA. Alas, on the other side of the world in Australia, I am not looking forward to summer. It is far too hot for me here, so I will look towards our winter, sadly a long way off. And a usually hot Christmas. And now we desperately need rains in many parts as drought threatens. However, I am thankful for the lovely trees and birds all around.

  22. September 26, 2019

    Ahhhhhh — “Conkers” you say. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and we referred to such things as “buckeyes”. My dear Dad, a lifelong athlete who loved regional slang and superstitions, would
    bestow buckeyes onto his fellow golfers, IF he liked them. He had the position of Starter at a Pennsylvania golf course, and the US Open eventually ended up there. Imagine the surprise of
    the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, as Dad casually flipped a buckeye into their golf
    bags “for luck”. I guess they also believed in such rituals, because no one ever complained.

    Thank you for this beautiful evocative essay on Fall. We are blessed to still have summer weather here in the Hudson Valley, and I am babying the geraniums until that inevitable overnight frost.
    Then! — Onto mums, pumpkins and gourds! “Marking” the seasons in ways, big and small.

  23. jennifer galton-fenzi permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Dear GA, thank you for a really beautiful piece of autumn writing.

  24. Micheal Pyner permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Thank you for this, a lovely reminder. I think it is less to do with “city children” and more generational. I was born in Whitechapel and conker competitions were huge! I would take two or three conkers with me to Mass at Saint Anne’s on a Sunday morning in the hope that the Blessed Virgin may impart some mystical robustness but to no avail.

    I would collect them with friends wherever we knew the trees grew, some venturing as far afield as Victoria Park to get larger nuts. “Cheats” would soak them in vinegar to make them harder and then to battle!

    I have no idea when children stopped collecting them and stopped playground conker competitions but it is sad to see yet another simple pleasure disappear.

  25. Barbara Salmon permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Oh such beautiful and moving words. Thank you for the care that you give and share with us.

  26. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Lovely, yet sorrowful, mood in a poignant piece. Thank you.

    Here in Toronto, it’s raining. The trees are just beginning to turn yellow, orange, and red.
    I love the autumn–apple-picking, the sound of the fallen leaves I swish through, the cider in the market stalls, the glorious, golden pumpkins.
    But, I dread the icy winter and dark days that come next.

    There is something wonderful in the description of a woman with ‘a chestnut mane’ as novels would say. Such colour and sheen.

    GA — I’ve always wondered about that beautiful needlepoint coverlet your cats have been photographed upon. Is there a story there? A collection of pieces, made your own?

  27. September 26, 2019

    so love your work, helps me see the life my ancestors knew

  28. September 26, 2019

    Love reading your beautiful letters, this took me back to my school days, years ago!!!! That time of the year when my friend and I used to collect those shiny conkers on our way home. Felt like treasure collecting. My kind regards to you. Mary

  29. Eric Forward permalink
    September 26, 2019

    And I look forward to your great writing, about this great city.

  30. September 26, 2019

    My home in Vancouver has the same weather as you do. I enjoyed your story and it makes me smile that we are so far away in our boots and brollies!!????????

  31. September 26, 2019

    What a beautifully written story! Memories, memories, memories. Thank you.

  32. September 26, 2019

    I very much enjoyed reading this earlier.
    Very evocative. Thanks GA.

  33. September 26, 2019

    Dear GA,

    This is one of my favorite pieces you’ve ever written. Thank you for pushing through the gloom to hope on the other side.

    I often meditate on conkers, how you cannot truly own and keep one, how the Chippendale gloss shrivels and hollows. Yet if you plant one it also dies but later abundantly multiplies, fruit, shelter, shade by growing. I often think that is like the writer’s life, a daily struggle, a small continual death that, when no one is looking, splits and grows to something potentially stupendous. That is how your blog has grown, daily splitting your self open, burying yourself in the soil of Spitalfields, grown slowly to a giant seed bearing shelter of thoughts and stories.

  34. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Just awakening here in the Okanagan. Enjoyed your post very much.

  35. September 26, 2019

    I don’t usually comment on social media…but I had to comment today. Your post was so very well written and so introspective that it tugged at my heart. I enjoy your blog immensely and look forward to reading it everyday. We were in London for the first time a few years ago and I must admit that the city did take my breath away. Did not reach Spitalfields unfortunately, but I am able to visit there through your blog.

    Thanks again.


  36. Greta Kelly permalink
    September 26, 2019

    A beautiful Autumnal golden read!
    Took me back to my childhood. We collected chestnuts, and we played conkers. Some children dried theirs in the range. I think those chestnuts were more vulnerable as they were brittle. When they tangled together we would shout out: Tanglers one two three! Who ever spat this out quickest, won.
    I also remember the smell of ripe apples, which we “organised” (from the nearby monastery. The code for this was, “Boxing the Fox” . Most of the children in the village had apple trees at home……..but they didn’t taste so good!
    Have a wonderful Autumn with your “Natural hot water bottle” …….Schroedinger!

  37. Annie S permalink
    September 26, 2019

    I picked one up this morning, they are irresistible when they are shiny and new, just to hold and turn around in the hand.
    Always sad when they dry up.

  38. lyn wills permalink
    September 26, 2019

    a beautiful piece of writing perfectly capturing the feelngs we have when the seasons change. i think the change from summer to autumn is the most poignant. i love the summer but now i am also looking forward to curling up with the cats and a good book in a warm cosy room. Baked apples sound good too!

  39. John permalink
    September 26, 2019

    and you must know that you too are a lantern in the darkness, even over here in heathen America ! -we must all do for each other, I suppose.These days we take what comfort we can, and I find some in your gentle authorship.

  40. Pauline Taylor permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Well, all that I would like to say has been expressed very eloquently already but I just have to say that I totally agree that this is one of your best pieces ever, thank you so much.

  41. Chris permalink
    September 26, 2019

    There must be a few woods In Kent and Essex where you could enjoy beautiful Autumn colours, why must you do it from memory? Thought provoking article as always. Cheers

  42. Donald M Thomasco permalink
    September 26, 2019

    I hate the thought of winter coming but I really loved this essay. Thanks for all your writing, gentle author, it always makes my day.

  43. September 27, 2019

    there are some good posts and there are some better than the good ones and this one is a marvel; there is a richness in the writing that surpasses many others… but how and why? I might have to reread it a few more times to try to suss out the secret

    also you might be pleased to know that we will be using The lives and times of Mr Pussy in our Read out loud group on Thursday afternoon at Bethnal Green Library… as suggested by the librarian. Looking forward to it very much. And if you fancy joining us one thursday between 2.30 and 3.30, it would be good to hear one of the text read aloud with your voice


  44. William Auld permalink
    September 27, 2019

    Very beautifully said.

  45. September 27, 2019

    So enjoyed today’s post, a beautiful piece of writing.

  46. September 27, 2019

    “…fresh fire coal chestnut falls…”

    I can never resist picking up newly fallen conkers, and putting them in my pocket – even though I know the delicious gloss will not last.

  47. Jill Altman permalink
    September 30, 2019

    I always wondered what conkers were in stories and never really followed through on investigating them. Thank you for a beautiful essay; it was too lovely not to comment. I read your blog in South Carolina and long to visit England.

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