Autumn: Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and monster movies

The last ball has been bowled, the last Pimms has been sipped and the swallows are starting to fly south. But there's plenty to look forward to, whether your tastes run to blackberries or ballet. By Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online

The yelps and squeals and cheers are echoing more faintly already. It will not be long before the excitement of England's great cricketing triumph merges into the memory of a long and glorious summer.

And what a memory. A Wimbledon with the first glimpse of a new potential men's champion from these shores. Balmy evenings like the one in Hyde Park for the Live8 concert where it remained warm until after midnight. The midsummer madness of London clinching the 2012 Olympic bid. And finally what everyone - including Richie Benaud, a man not given to hyperbole - is calling the most memorable Test series ever.

The holiday industry may be fond of telling us that that we have to go abroad for our sun - a fortnight in the Med giving the equivalent of a whole year of exposure to the weedy sunshine of the UK - but this year, things felt different. It was a golden time in which the sun shone more than before and the cricket seemed to extend the summer beyond its usual deadline. The holidays were over, the snaps developed, the children back to school, the morning rush-hour roads choking up again with traffic - and yet our summer seemed to be reprieved.

And now the autumn is upon us. We look around and notice that the flowers are fading and the first leaves are starting to fall. It will not be long before an ineffable autumnal sadness will be sensed in the soft air. The evenings have begun to shorten long before the clocks fall back in evidence of that. But the truth is that this year autumn has been sneaking up on us for some time, catching us unawares. At Wimbledon this year blackberries, whose ripening is among the first harbingers of the arrival of autumn, were on sale alongside the seasonal strawberries. Restaurants included them in summer puddings along with the raspberries and blackcurrants. The odd conker could be found in the streets in August. Autumn, it seems, is beginning ever earlier.

So much so that a study has been launched. In search of evidence for global warming, a lot of research has been done into the earlier signs of spring. But there has been little data on autumnal change.

This year the Woodland Trust, in conjunction with the BBC, has begun a project called Autumnwatch to monitor the changes and help experts plan for the protection of vulnerable species. Across the country people are being asked to record their sightings of six key events: the last swift wheeling in the skies, the first ripe blackberries, hawthorn berries and conkers, the first flowering of ivy, and the first "tint of oak" (which is when a tree is seen to have autumn colour in about 10 per cent of its leaves).

Meteorologists look for different signs. In the world of weather, autumn is the season of transition marked by a movement of the jet stream whose strong upper atmosphere winds keep depressions away from the British Isles in the summer but which then shifts south in winter, allowing wind and rain. The longer nights, and the waning warmth of the sun, encourage the formation of the mists and fog which are most characteristic of autumnal weather.

When the nights draw in, from times before history was written, the thoughts of men and women have turned to things of darkness. More than 2000 years ago the ancient Celts came up with the festival of Samhain whose name literally means "the end of summer" in which our celebration of Halloween is rooted. The end of the summer was the end of the year, the Celtic new years beginning on 1 November - a night on which the boundary between this world and the world of the dead dissolved, and the departed returned to earth causing trouble and damaging crops. They lit sacred bonfires to protect them, as well as keep their homes warm during the winter months.

In our modern world we have different techniques. The Welsh Premiership clubs are meeting next month to consider whether or not to introduce summer football, or at the very least bring forward the start to the season which itself was once an ambassador of autumn.

Officially autumn does not arrive until the equinox on 22 September. But global warming is putting paid to that. And it is not just that the signs of autumn seem to be appearing earlier; they are also stretching into a time that winter used to claim as its own. "Everything used to have its set place in the year," says a spokesman for the Woodland Trust. "Nature is responding to our change in climate, falling out of sync and getting messed up. It impacts upon everything." And everywhere, according to Bill Oddie, a birdwatcher who is among the sponsors of the Autumnwatch project: "Climate change is not something happening a million miles away - it is going on in our back gardens and parks, affecting common everyday species."

But the shift has a downside. When berries ripen early the birds and animals that rely on the fruits' stored energy to help them to hibernate could be in trouble. Birds that depend on them to see them through the winter will starve. Migrant species from other climes which come here will arrive and find nature's larder bare. More prosaically, gardeners are finding that, since grass grows at temperatures above 5C, they now have to cut their lawns all year round.

But there are upsides too. Experts are predicting that this year could be the most colourful autumn in living memory, since the warm dry weather of recent weeks has increased the sugar concentration in leaves which should boost the intensity of colour.

It also means we will be able to enjoy earlier, and possibly for longer, the fruits of the year: juicy blackberries, sweet figs, heady damsons, ripening pumpkins, moist cloying chestnuts, plump young geese and a new season of oysters and of game. And with them once again the dark nights that enfolded you in your childhood with their magic.

Fashion

In fashion-speak, of course, autumn isn't a single season but autumn-slash-winter, meaning that the clothes you buy now will last you all the way through to, ooh, January at least.

This autumn/winter, however, any efforts you make will be richly rewarded. After repeated seasons of undiluted retro and ladylike pastiche, this autumn's collections are some of the most sophisticated to be seen in a long time: proper tailoring (curvaceous pencil skirts, high-collared coats and jackets with big, Fifties-couture volumes), a good helping of realistic clothing propositions (sweater dresses, wide trousers, white shirts with pretty pin-tucking or other Victoriana details) and, best of all, acres of black.

Anything remotely bohemian and overly ornamented should be jettisoned from your wardrobe immediately - there are even whispers that minimalism is gearing up for a return sometime soon.

Autumn is the season that also gives girls carte blanche to climb back into their favourite footwear: the knee-high boot, which this season is as flat or high-heeled as you wish. In fact, for both boots and bags, anything goes, so long as it fits your overall more sophisticated, "put-together" look. This is serious fun.

Susie Rushton

Sport

Autumn means Wentworth and its World Matchplay Golf Championship, starting tomorrow. The tree-lined fairways of the Surrey course provide a perennial image of the season - dewy mornings, golden leaves, misty sunshine, and Colin Montgomerie's temper. England return to rugby union action in November, when the southern hemisphere powers tour Europe. England's coach, Andy Robinson, is seeking to rebuild confidence, with a new-look, post-World Cup team, but Australia and New Zealand are visiting Twickenham this year (12 and 19 November) so he's got a tough task. Football can also reassert seasonal authority. The Champions' League kicked off this week and Liverpool's league meeting with Manchester United on Sunday will help push the game back on to back pages. England's World Cup qualification hopes, and Sven Goran Eriksson's immediate future, will be settled next month when the final two games against Austria and Poland are played (8 and 12 October). Two wins and they will be playing in next summer's finals. Elsewhere, 50,000 runners will be up bright and early on Sunday for Newcastle's Great North Run. And rugby league wraps up its season on 15 October with the Super League Grand Final.

David Edwards

The arts

The kids are back at school, the tourists are back in Wisconsin and autumn is when theatres, galleries and music venues pull in the grown-ups with blockbuster art exhibitions and all-star casts.

The trick, of course, is to add your name now to the online mailing list of every happening venue from the Almeida to the Young Vic, and to become a "friend" at the Tates and the National, buying yourself that one-hour slot on a Tuesday morning when you can politely shuffle around, peering over several shoulders at Rubens' The Massacre of the Innocents.

At the cinema, you can look forward to Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist (7 October), the London Film Festival (19 October) and on 8 November, the fourth Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Movie buffs who prefer their blockbusters to come with critical acclaim will want to see The Constant Gardener, the film of the John le Carré book, which is already being tipped for Oscar glory.

But for some events the autumn leaves have already fallen: if you didn't buy tickets for Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years at the National Theatre during the half-hour in July when they were available, you will have to decline all invitations to dinner parties for the next three months.

Jackie Hunter

Nature

Seedheads look their best. Berries are everywhere vibrant in their reds, blacks and finger-staining purples. Leaves are beginning to change and scarlet, crimson and mauve azelias are at their most magnificent. Vines and creepers are turning. Apples - Russets, Pearmains, Bramleys, Discoveries, Early Windsors and Cox's Orange Pippins - are big and round, but still have about them the tartness of the tree. Ornamental grasses are turning the colour of straw, but their feathery plumes sway elegantly in the wind.

Gardeners are thinking about the chances of frost and bringing tender plants under cover. Spring bulbs and bedding plants are being planted. While the soil is still warm it is time to move or plant conifers. PV

Food

Autumn harvest first brings the fruits. Black-berries, eaten from the bush, the surplus made into pip-free jelly or partnered with apple in a crumble. Or stir them into a gravy for venison, pigeon or even lamb, which is tastier in autumn than in spring.

Sweet, spicy, heavy-stoned damsons make great pies, fools and sorbets - if you can keep them from the wine-maker (let them have the elderberries, keeping back a few to put in an apple pie or serve with wild duck). Figs are at their sweetest now. Bramleys make the best apple pie, or caramelise them with pork. Garden quinces can be turned into marmalade.

Next is game. Brown trout is a treat if you know a fly-fisher. Fry it in butter by the riverside, or cook in water with a dash of wine back home. Those sweet, salty quintessences of the sea, oysters, are at their best over the coming months. Wood pigeons have gorged themselves plump-breasted on corn and other cereals. Pan-fry them, young rich and gamey, with dark berries. (Later you have to casserole them, with juniper berries or prunes.)

Partridge is pale, delicate and tender now. Grouse are at their best. Try them with rosti. And make a game pie with all the legs and leftovers. Don't wait till Christmas for a goose, have one at Michaelmas (29 September), while they are young and not so fat, but don't invite too many friends.

Great seasonal vegetables: peppery watercress with the game (or as a vibrant soup), pumpkin to stuff ravioli, and roast parsnips which only get better after the frost has bitten. PV

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