When our corner of West London is mentioned in the news on TV it is often described as a “leafy suburb”. This time of year, that leafiness is very much in evidence. The local streets are covered with the leaves falling from two specific types of tree: London plane, and lime trees. My knowledge of botany is very limited, but I can recognize these two species easily.
Most of the streets round here are planted with either lime or London plane. The trees affect their environments in very different ways. During the summer the gum from lime trees makes the pavements and car windscreens very sticky. The plane trees provide shade without the stickiness. In the autumn, lime tree leaves clump together, and with a drop of rain they provide slippery patches that sometimes have to be negotiated very carefully. You can’t run on these pavements after a heavy downpour. The plane trees deposit larger leaves that quickly turn brown and crispy. There is no danger of slipping on them.
As a child I always enjoyed kicking my way through piles of plane tree leaves at this time of year. I learnt that it’s better to do this on the way home from school rather on the way there. Little bits of leaf would work their way into your shoes. You could take off your shoes and socks when you got home, but would never do it on the way to school.
By the age of 15, the simple pleasure of kicking up autumn leaves was no longer a daily part of my walk home, not just because I was a bit older. Two other factors played their part: hedgehogs, and the risk of kicking up a lump of dog mess. Nobody cleared up after their dogs in the 1970s. There was, simply, more dog poo on the streets. I stepped in it often enough to know how difficult it was to scrape off. I never stepped in it while kicking up leaves, but aged 15 I was more aware of the danger. Back then, you would occasionally see hedgehogs shuffling along the pavements, especially at nights. I was told that they enjoyed nestling in piles of leaves. There was a chance that if you went kicking your way through one of those large piles at the base of a tree you might end up disturbing a hedgehog, and damaging your foot. Over forty years later, there is less dog mess on the streets, and London’s hedgehog population has decreased dramatically. I haven’t seen one of those creatures since the 1980s.
This time last year I noticed that street cleaners were sweeping up leaves earlier in the year and more frequently than in my childhood. By early November, the pavements were as clear as they are in February. This year, nearly a week into November, the leaves remain in place. Under the lime trees you still have to watch your step, but under the plane trees, especially in the road I grew up in, there are deep piles of leaves that I have happily kicked my way through more than once during the last fortnight.
There is very little danger of disturbing either a hedgehog or clump of excrement these days, but the leaves are so thick that you can’t always tell where the pavement ends. While the autumn leaves are in place I hope to kick them up a few more times. If I end up with a twisted ankle or a bruised foot it will be, as my late parents might have said, my own stupid fault.