Cycling the same route each day, Ruth Bradshaw maps changes in the trees of South London.
It’s the turning time of year, time to turn back the clocks and turn on the central heating. All around me, as I cycle to work, the leaves on the trees are turning from green to red, orange, yellow and brown. I’ve been cycling this route since the Quietway opened at the start of the summer but only now do I appreciate properly how many trees there are in this part of South London. Perhaps it’s the vibrant display that alerts me or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood.
Some of the trees I pass have been hard to ignore, particularly the weeping willow in Folkestone Gardens. Until it was given a trim a few weeks back its unkempt locks trailed across the cycle path forcing me to bend low over the handlebars to get under them. The tree’s new look is definitely neater and makes it much easier to cycle past but in some ways I’m sorry that the willow is no longer such a feature of the ride.
Then there’s the London plane tree I once waited under in an attempt to shelter from a sudden summer downpour so heavy it felt as though someone was throwing buckets of water from the sky. And further on where the new cycle path rises up and passes between Millwall’s football stadium and the railway line, a group of tall trees create a shady spot where I would sometimes pause for a drink of water on the hottest days.
So over the summer months I’ve valued the trees I cycle past mainly for their shade or shelter. Now as the background greenery gives way to the multicolours of autumn, I pay more attention to their form as well as function and am aware of trees everywhere. Close to home, the sycamore trees along the railway embankment have sent their seeds spinning far and wide on windy days. Just round the corner, the holly trees outside St Peter’s Church are covered in big red berries – a sign that a harsh winter is on the way if you believe the old tales or more likely because of all the wet, warm weather earlier in the year. The gardens of the conservation area flaunt half a rainbow of different colours as the various species of tree take it in turns to show off and even the stark greyness of a car park is transformed by red-leaved maple trees.
Often the bell is ringing as I pass Deptford Green School and I have to dodge students as they rush across the path without looking and are drawn like iron filings to a magnet through the school doors. But this week all is half-term quiet, the bell is silent, the students probably still in bed and we cyclists have Fordham Park to ourselves except for a line of gulls standing guard along the top of one of the goalposts, watching over the empty playing fields and a line of trees just appearing through the hazy sunshine. Later there are more flashes of bright red from the leaves on the creeping plant that covers much of the chain link fence on the approach to South Bermondsey station.
The fallen leaves transform the ground I cycle over too. In one well-sheltered section of the cycle track, the passage of numerous wheels over scattered leaves has created a kind of natural crazy paving. In other places, the wind has blown leaves together in small heaps. For now the dry leaves scrunch beneath my bicycle tyres but if it rains heavily they will become a thick wet slick with the potential to send my wheels skidding.
In a few weeks all the leaves will have fallen and most will be swept up and tidied away, but for now the trees are putting on a big showy display to remind us of how dramatic they can look before they settle down into elegant repose for the winter.
Having spent most of her career in a range of policy and research roles in the public sector, Ruth Bradshaw now works for an environmental charity and has recently begun studying part-time for the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex. She likes to spend as much time as possible outdoors, undertaking conservation volunteering in and around South London where she lives and walking and cycling in the surrounding countryside.