Back in the UK for a month after four months in Thailand, without my own place and staying with friends and family, I’ve had the opportunity to look at what would have just been ‘normal’ in my life previously with fresh eyes. I’ve considered what I’ve been glad to come back to, and what I’ll be sad to miss again when I leave.
Taking it for granted
One of the things that has struck me most forcibly in this category is the countryside. I grew up in a rambling Vicarage, set in an acre of ground and surrounded by fields on two sides. Deer would get into the garden sometimes, and rut on the lawn. The cat would bring in mice from the field, and my sister and I would annoy the local farmers by playing hide and seek with friends in the fields of waving gold corn in the Summer. So the countryside was in my blood, even though I then chose to attend universities in two of the most industrial cities in the UK, Leeds and Manchester.
A few years ago, away on a long weekend with my Mum, she persuaded me to join the National Trust (she did it with logic – we were away for four days, she thought we could go to 4 or even 5 NT places in the 5 days, thus I’d be half way to be getting my money’s worth before I even got home…done). I started, gradually, to become hooked on the NT. And that, and the English countryside it protects, has been one of the things I’ve missed most whilst away.
Thailand’s scenery is amazing – dense undergrowth, strange insects, dusty scrub and thick wiry grass, with tall palms which hold coconuts ready for picking. You feel closer to the food chain, particularly the further out of the cities you go, with delicious and exotic tropical fruit available on every corner. But the heat makes for a certain landscape, and water is precious, so you never see dew on the grass, or get the evocative damp smell of the ground in the woods after rain.
Frozen in time for ever
On one of my first trips out and about this April, when back in the UK, I persuaded a friend to spend the day with me at a couple of NT properties which happen to be close to each other in Guildford (Clandon Park and Hatchlands Park, two big properties within a mile of each other). He was game, and as we walked around, and I breathed the air and felt the space, I remembered how much I loved visiting these places and spaces. We went on a weekday, and it felt like we had them almost to ourselves – there were moments in the huge grounds where we couldn’t see anyone else at all.
I also managed to fit in visits to Hidcote Garden (a fabulous 20th century garden, with lovely ‘garden rooms’ in the Cotswolds); Morden Hall Park (a park space with a river in the midst of built-up South London) and Dapdune Wharf (a visitor centre for the 20 miles of waterway on the River Wey, Guilford, a navigation which opened to barge traffic in 1653), all very lovely in different ways too. I can’t lie to you that the scones and cake at the NT cafes are a definite pull, but it’s also wonderful to just spend time in these creations, living and breathing a different time and place.
There’s something about imagining these places at their height that both amazes and fascinates me. I have no doubt that had I lived in those times I would have been a scullery maid or a governess, I wouldn’t have managed to be one of the rich and powerful. It’s hard for me to imagine a society with such clear class lines – and the idea of people being born to a certain role in the world, given my profession of Occupational Psychologist focuses on hard work and our ability to develop our own potential, is fairly contrary to everything that I believe.
And yet. Because it’s in a dusty past, brought to life by empty plates on tables, clothes hanging in wardrobes and a pair of old-fashioned wellington boots which look like someone just took them off, you can imagine that the people have just stepped out of the room. I love it when a fire’s been recently lit, and you can smell the woodsmoke – I often think with no electricity or gas that the houses and people must have smelled of smoke most of the time between the fires lit for heat, and the candles for light. In the great houses, you can see grand stair banisters that look like the maid has just been called away from polishing them, and the cavernous kitchens with their copper bottomed pots (which the poor servants not only had to cook with, but wash and polish afterwards as well) look as though the cook is halfway through preparing the next ostentatious dinner for 20.
I’ve never watched Downton (don’t send me hate mail, I didn’t say I didn’t like it, I just haven’t watched it!), but I imagine that it’s the same as the UK’s fascination with Downton’s era – a world we can’t quite imagine today with our electronic devices, double glazing and central heating. And importantly for women – the washing machine. I sometimes send up thanks to the universe for the invention of washing machine, which helped to change women’s history forever.
Anyway, I digress. I hope I’ve shared some of my love of the National Trust for you. I managed to convince my friend – I spent much of our visit rabbiting on in much the same vein as this (at least he won’t have to read this post!) and at the end of the visit he also joined…
The Royal Parks
Another taste of the English countryside has come from several visits to two of our Royal Parks, Richmond and Bushy. As well as being a glorious, free, green public space, Bushy is the home of the original ‘parkrun’, a phenomenon that has swept through the UK and the world, and in less than 10 years has gone from a handful of runners to nearly half a million, a quarter of a million of those in the UK. In their own words, “Parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.” I wasn’t there to take part in the run (although, before you scoff, I have done…once…very slowly indeed!), but to celebrate my Aunt and her friend doing their 250th runs (only the 7th and 8th women to do so and the 34th and 35th overall). It was great to be in the park, but it was fantastic to see 1000 participants attend on a chilly but sunny Saturday morning, and complete 5km in times from a speedy 16m 37 to a much more sedate hour. It’s an amazing phenomenon, and the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers and runners is contagious, even to a non-runner like me.
In Richmond Park, I had a different experience, out for a walk with a good friend. We meandered round the park for hours, our conversation as wide ranging as the expanse of green hues around us. At times we were the only people in an protected wooden glade or pottering down a hedged path, and our environment facilitated the sharing of personal topics and seeking advice; at other times in the vast open meadows and spaces we were able to rant and give voice and headspace to big topics in our lives. And for much of the time, it felt like we had the park to ourselves. It’s amazing to think that Richmond Park is so close to the heart of London, and such a big space. Sometimes I think we forget how good as a nation we have been at protecting our green spaces, given the density of population. If you ever want a real conversation with a friend, I recommend a natural environment such as these to provide both intimacy and space.
A few other highlights
And I have to mention a couple of other places that have really stuck out for me on my brief sojourn in the UK. One was a friend’s garden, where the Cherry Tree was in full and glorious blossom, and we sat underneath and looked up at the blue sky on one of the first properly sunny mornings of the year.
Personal gardens in general back in the UK have been a highlight, as in Thailand there aren’t so many gardens, and those that I have seen tend to be practical rather than ornamental, so finding even tiny spaces in the UK which have been lovingly tended and cared for through a bitter winter, to bring colour to a concrete jungle, is a real pleasure and delight.
I also got to know more of Derbyshire and the Peak District on a visit out to Matlock Bath and the surrounds with another Aunt. The hills and environment there puts me in mind of Jane Austen and again, another time. Such solid, industrial buildings, with fewer high street chains than many high streets in the UK, the great expanse of countryside around them means visiting feels as if you are in a giant textured green bowl.
The last was staying on the Malvern Hills, where (another – I do have a lot!) Aunt has a cottage, looking out across at the county. It’s a stunning view, even when the sky is heavy with cloud and rain, and one which reminds me of childhood – I wrote the first non-school piece of creative writing I can remember in that cottage looking out from that hill. It started “on a grey and ghostly day…”.
I was glad to have a little sunshine when I visited, but for me, the essence of England is strongly embedded in the damp earth of the postage stamp fields you can see spread out like a quilt of patchwork greens across the land, so the state of the sky doesn’t matter too much…