Walking with John Keats

Thursday, 23rd September 2021

• LATE September, and the heathland which John Keats often walked during the last three years of his life is where I walk now.

His ode To Autumn opens with the line, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” – there’s no mist this morning, but ripened acorns clatter to the ground as I cut through a copse beside Parliament Hill.

From here I head across sunlit South Meadow to a favourite glade in woods bordering the grounds of Kenwood House. Not many people find this tranquil spot; it offers a sense of solitude, rare in a crowded city.

I sit quietly for some minutes on my habitual log, until a robin chitters its alarm-call at a nearby walker’s beagle rustling its way through fallen leaves; the dog briefly sniffs my hand then is off at a scamper and I am returned to the silence of trees: beech, oak and birch.

In the south corner of this space reign a majestic oak and weathered silver birch.

They stand side by side, contrasting beauties enriching the eye, the birch wraith-like in its paleness and seeming insubstantiality, its companion solid, lasting, with a venerable air.

The topmost branches of the birch are slender, and sway, yellow-tipped leaves moved by breezes and time; the oak, branches thick and dark, leaves now tough and leathery, seems an immoveable force, keeping time in abeyance.

For me, time is pressing: I move on through nearby beech woods, past the Viaduct Pond, and on to open ground.

Maybe it’s the perfect weather and autumn’s yellows, oranges and browns, or my reflective mood, but past seems to meet present almost tangibly this morning – they encounter each other across this grassy slope and its adjacent meadow, beside the “rushy banks” of the ponds which grace Hampstead Heath, along “mossy paths” where a poet once walked with friends, discussing politics and verse.

In the autumn of 1820, Keats left Hampstead for Italy. A few months later, in 1821, at the age of 25, and 200 years ago, he died in Rome, far from Hampstead Heath and its consolations.

My consolation this morning lies in a cup of coffee from my Thermos flask, and a timeless view of the Heath pond nearest his lodgings that Keats might just have been able to see, its surface ruffled perhaps, as now, by a “winnowing wind”.

Courthope Road, NW3

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