I spent a lot of time alone last autumn, just me, my film camera and the acres of Regent’s Park stretching before me. These photographs, just developed, have transported me back in time to those misty, damp days of early November when I finally felt myself unspooling, returning to a self I had not seen for many months – or, if so, only for brief snatches, only in passing. Now that it is autumn again, the evenings slowly folding in upon themselves and my heart is full, these photographs are a poignant reminder that seasons – on Earth and in our own terrestrial lives – come and go. I’m no longer the same woman I was last autumn, but somewhere inside, if we peel back the layers like an onion, the girl who snapped these autumnal images is rattling away, looking forward to the damp November noons memorialised above on film again.
The best thing about my office is its proximity to the park – a hop, skip and a jump, a stone’s throw, a ten-minute walk and you’re in the heart of the city, but not. Far from the roaring din of the Euston Road, in spirit if not physical distance. In Regent’s Park, 410 acres of country in the centre of the city. The half hour I spend planting one booted foot in front of the other, stomping up small hills and through heaps of etiolated leaves, is almost always the happiest of any work day. It is where the thought of contentment leaps into my head, and where it begins to seep from the synapses of my unremarkable human brain into my arms and my legs, pouring through my veins and winding through the twisted arteries towards the contracting ventricles of my heart. I can’t explain it, this sensation that washes over me, the idea that I am fulfilling my purpose somehow – in this small envelope of time, on this small patch of land.
Moving my legs back and forth, and becoming part of the park’s landscape, acting flaneur for just thirty minutes in a very long day – somehow it completes me. I feel a part of something small and ordinary, at one with the daily dog strollers, the Nordic walkers, the schoolchildren racing across the green, the outfitted tree surgeons tending to bleeding canker and chestnut blight who make me wince as they teeter on spindly ladders up high. I become part of the everyday-scape of the place. A part of London – a small wheel turning in the sprawling cogs of the city.
Walking there is not an escape from the prosaic activities of the daily grind, nor from my desk and the work that awaits me there. In the same way that my writing, the texts I sharpen and shear away at throughout the day, fulfills me, so too does this daily constitutional. Something about this walk, any walk, about the peace and serenity restored in me as I tread purposefully along familiar paths restores me, brings me back to myself.
Sometimes my head is awash with thoughts unrelated to my surroundings – a growing to-do list, what I might cook for supper, the unposted letter impatient on my desk. The promise of the weekend, the anticipation of awaited plans, my phone ringing in my pocket announcing some forgotten administration or the wishes of a friend. Other days, my attention is focused on the walk itself and the way my body feels – the satisfaction of using my legs to carry me, the October air brisk and grating against my cheek, the increasing tangle of my hair churned by the wind, the ache in my calves and strength in my bones.
I have admired this land in every season, taken photos too in an effort to capture the beauty my words cannot recreate: the beat of a bird’s wing overhead, a murmuration of starlings blotting out the sun. In summer, the brilliant emerald of the grass, gradually becoming strewn with faded leaves as autumn saunters in. In spring, magnolia blooms the size of dinner plates and blousy tulips decorating the paths. In winter, the branches are bleak and bare – a tangle of darkness against milk white skies. The fields are punctuated by puddles and mud, striding through them feels a small rebellion against the cold and the grey, against the spidery traffic jams spun through the web of central London streets.
The wonder of finding a slice of countryside in the middle of Europe’s largest city is one I hope never leaves me. It satiates and restores me – two feet on the ground? Well, it grounds me.