O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing
Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley — 1819
A new season in a new town. Autumn has come and gone here in Horsham, scattering her falling leaves behind new footsteps across the park.
September laid a blank canvas all around this pretty Sussex town, and running set me free to paint. It’s invigorating, exciting and refreshing to explore anew.
Horsham is over a thousand years old. Standing calm beside the River Arun, amid green fields atop the Wealden Clay, historically this town gave birth to bricks, and beer and Catherine Howard.
Two centuries ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley set forth upon his life from here — a journey cut short before his 30th birthday in a shipwreck off the Italian coast. One of the great lyric poets and an unconventional and uncompromising radical, Shelley was expelled from Oxford for his atheist and anti-monarchist views.
A lavish Victorian memorial in University College records his brief and turbulent stay in Oxford, but here in Horsham stands a much more suitably daring and dramatic monument — a rotating, splitting Earth of clay, floating not a hundred running paces from where I write.
The breath of Autumn’s being led me out from here on golden cooling lunchtimes and sodden evening dusks. The Causeway’s ancient cottages waved me past in sun and rain, the Arun’s waters rising to meet October’s storms.
The soil is filling now as the leaves are falling, the trees no longer drawing moisture from the earth. Soon, autumn’s veil of darkness will weep across this soggy ground, the dusty heat of summer fast forgotten by the miry clay.
The last warmth of November sun is in the air, and so I’ll chance the fields today. I run long, northwest from town and cross the river beside the mill.
The A24 road hides its coastbound stream of traffic behind the trees, whilst ahead the horizon rises towards fresh-ploughed fields and the blue-remembered hills of the North Downs far beyond.
Just past the farm, I brave five minutes of London traffic before I find the stile and hop a hundred yards of wilting nettles to reach open fields again. Hedgerows and sky and trees lead me to a shallow rise, and a view of Warnham up ahead.
St Margaret’s church, where Shelley was baptised, stands proud above the village, and an enticing pub, The Sussex Oak, lies just across the road. I make note of both and run back across the fields once more.
In the heavens above the graveyard gate, a westward stream of aircraft is climbing silently out of Gatwick Airport — their first few miles of transatlantic odyssey spent straining skywards from these Sussex fields.
The ploughed field ahead is broad, and wetter than it was last month. In its centre, a single oak tree stands almost bare, defiant in the sunshine. The sky is warm, yet November’s cruelty lurks waiting in the abandoned lane ahead. Chill air hugs the old London road, now a decayed and shaded sheet of leaf-strewn, moss-encrusted tarmac, damp and slippery beneath my feet.
Low sunlight filters through the winter branches, shading cobalt blue to yellow as the fading breath of autumn falls soft upon the hedgerows. November lies behind me as I set my course southwards across the Arun and back to town.
An hour immersed in landscape sets perspective to the seasons like no other way I know — since truly the runner’s gift is to live time by running through it.
Time passes, and yet our splitting, soggy Earth endures. Two hundred years ago, these Sussex lanes and fields gave autumn words to Shelley.
And today they spoke to me.
58. Running in the North Downs
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
151. Our secret space – Epsom and Ashtead Common
181. The Ophelia of Suburbia – Hogsmill River, Ewell
185. On the gallops – Epsom Downs and The Derby
176. Ashtead Common 2 – a winter’s trail to spring
153. The green monster – Ditchling Beacon and the London to Brighton bike ride