Since when did autumn start in August? It seems like only a fortnight ago it was high summer - hot sweaty summer - but now all of a sudden it's autumn. How on earth did that happen? It's become almost traditional recently for autumn to be late, not early. Blame global warming or whatever, but trees have been keeping their leaves several days longer, migrating birds hanging around weeks later and lawns still needing cutting in November. Not in 2003. This year looks like being an exception.
The signs have been there for a while. Argos stand accused of switching to their autumn catalogue a number of weeks ago ("You want a sun lounger? Sorry madam, but we can do you an 8ft Inflatable Light-up Snowman instead"). Then last week Tesco sent me a copy of their latest promotional magazine. This glossy publication namechecked 'autumn' eight times in the first four pages, encouraging me to cook with berries, curl up with a mug of hot chocolate, stock up on brown cardigans and generally keep 'warm and cosy'. Given that I was overheating in a t-shirt and shorts on the day it arrived, that went straight into the bin. And now this week I've been sitting at work watching the leaves on the plane trees in Green Park start to change colour. In August? It won't be long before we have to rename the place 'Yellow Park' instead. Maybe it's just the first signs of drought, but it's all very unnatural, I tell you.
Keeping an eye on all these changes is a branch of science called phenology, the study of the dates of annually-recurring natural phenomena. In other words a nationwide band of amateurs who watch the landscape for signs of seasonal change - the first cuckoo, the first frogspawn, the first conker, that sort of thing. Their overall results are anything but amateur, and so it's possible to plot the changing changing seasons across the country. For example, back in 1999 your average UK oak tree was completely brown by October 30th, whereas in 2001 the corresponding date was November 11th instead. 2001 had a particularly late autumn, with horse chestnut leaves not starting to change colour until September 21st and beech leaves not starting to fall until November 4th. See the fascinating full seven-tree four-year database here. Bet all those dates are earlier this year. You couldsign up and become a phenologist yourself to help find out. Or just look out of the window and watch the early fall.