Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker’s Album IX - Rushmere and other pond-side tales

Rushmere is an iconic feature of the borough of SW19, a pond occupying some of the open space of on the South West end of the Common, adjacent to Wimbledon Village. Originally dug out in in medieval times (according to the Wimbledon Common website) it is a most ancient of ponds, there are certainly records dating back to the Tudors. Even in times of severe droughts it has not been known to dry out, providing one of the few constants in this ever changing patch of South London. Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter it sits placidly as a home for all sorts of migrating birds and a rugged feature of the landscape for locals and visitors to enjoy in turn. 

Gone are those heady days of the Empire when Victorian/Edwardian pleasure seekers would dip their toes in these waters on a rare day of blazing sunshine. In turn, the council’s stringent health and safety policy has now meant that it is no longer possible to ice skate on this body when has frozen over, as I was sometimes wont to do as a child. Now it is the reserve of Golden Retrievers and Weimaraners, those once great hunting dogs, now reduced to the angry shouts of their owners as they naughtily frolic in the bracing waters. 

I write this as I sit looking over this majestic mainstay of my hometown, an old friend who has offered a welcome place to reflect when deep thought was needed. My cup of strong black coffee steamed away under the watchful eye of the mild, October sun as I took a bench facing away from the encroaching presence of period houses and out the the wooded slopes which stretch down as far as the Vale of Putney. One can picture the youthful Henry VIII chasing a hart across this expanse with his barons and a pack of loyal talbots on a grand hunt, the likes of which we will never see again. 

Those woods... I like to imagine a mysterious, and once wild area, the reserve of mushroom pickers, poachers, robbers and bandits. A place pock-marked with dank taverns and mysterious old caves housing zealots and hermits; dark, quiet spaces full of the smell of horse chestnuts and rotting leaves... I probably romanticise, but that is the effect that a gentle pondering by Rushmere with a mellow Jose L.Piedra Nacionale has.

Purchased from a newsagent with a well placed humidor (something that all vendors should well consider purchasing to encourage my custom), Piedra are not in the top flight of the great cigar producing houses, but they provide a very pleasant and protracted smoke. Not too heavy and not too light, like Baby Bear’s porridge, it was just right. A perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee it is also admirably matched with spirits such as blended whisky, eau de vie and chilled vodka.

I smoked away, ever drawing looks from disapproving parents who weren’t content that I was smoking in one of the most open spaces in London well out of the way of sensitive nostrils. But no matter, I became lost in my thoughts as the smoke pleasingly curled up and dissipated into the wider atmosphere. 

Like one of my heroes, the novelist Turgenev, I pondered a myriad of problems both social and personal: heartache, longing, work, the socio-political situation of the United Kingdom... in my mind it was all very profound, yet I am sure that others would find fault with my contemplation. Like ‘The Wanderer’ in Caspar David Friedrich’s seminal painting of the early 19th Century (another favourite of mine) I surveyed an area of land integral to my development and one which had changed little in the last 26 years.The clink of scaffolding rang out in the distance as the autumn fun fair was being set up, conjuring in the mind a mythical tradition of an annual gathering on the common akin to something out of a Thomas Hardy novel... complete conjecture but a pleasant idea all the same. 

As the cigar burned down further, releasing some richer, wood-like notes and my coffee was on it’s last dregs, I sighed at how fleeting everything was as a lone House Martin swooped over Rushmere’s stillness, supposedly to grab an insect from the spindly rushes that line the banks. Would Rushmere be around in 100 years? I hope so, and I hope that there will also be someone else sitting by its banks, cigar in hand, trying in their own way to set their world to rights in a paradoxical world of love, loss, success and above all hope. We all need our places to hideaway and enjoy our own company (even, ironically, in wide open spaces) and I do hope that everyone has a Rushmere of their own. 

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