Friday, 7 August 2020

The Golden Road

August 6th, 2020

I’m in Wales. One of the reasons I’ve not blogged for the last few days is that I’ve been blissed out, living life on a moment-by-moment basis, whilst salty sea breezes buffer my skin and etch lines into my forehead! I look like Captain Birdseye!

I’m staying in a cottage in Pembrokeshire, with a group of university friends. We come away most years and have stayed in the same beautiful seaside cottage near Dinas Head on three occasions now. I think we first went away together as a group twelve years ago. On that occasion, we went to the New Forest. My abiding memory of that particular holiday was our camp site being invaded by a set of tiny New Forest ponies, who rampaged through our little patch like a bunch of football hooligans. One of them ended up in young Isabel’s tent, steadfastly refusing to move. I have seldom laughed as much as I did that afternoon.

Anyway, yesterday, after embarking on some sort of Krypton Factor-style challenge involving the transportation of fourteen people and four cars to various key points along the length of a long, non-circular public footpath, we set off for The Golden Road, which stretches across the Preseli Hills, about six miles inland from where we’re staying.

The plan was to take our packed lunches and go for a very long, gloriously rugged walk. There seems to be some sort of heatwave going on this week in London which has not reached Pembrokeshire, but, the pay-off has been the most astounding, elemental weather. And nowhere was this more the case than up in the Preseli Hills. On several occasions, we actually found ourselves within the clouds. Great mists would roll in and then, almost immediately, glorious windows opened up in the clouds, allowing us to peer down at a patchwork of fields and ancient woodland and then out to the elephant grey sea. The sun shining through the clouds had turned little sections of the yellow cornfields below us into shimmering pools of gold. It was magical. 

Those patches of gold


The Preseli Hills are, of course, the very hills from where the giant rocks of Stone Henge were quarried. It’s impossible to comprehend how they managed to transport such enormous blocks of stone over such large distances and, indeed, why it was that they chose to use rocks from this part of the world.

The area does feel mystical, somehow. Most of the hills’ peaks are crowned with Iron Age burial mounds. Huge piles of stones mark the spots where important, yet long-forgotten people have been laid to rest. The views from these tors are exquisite. You can see for miles and miles. At one point we realised that the misty mountains poking up in the distance, far across the sea, were almost certainly in Snowdonia - probably 100 miles away! The winds, as you might expect, were somewhat bracing up there. 

All fourteen of us at The Place of the Eagles (Foel Eryr)

We came across very few people on our walk. It ought to have been a fairly easy walk, but the paths in some places were almost unnavigable, vanishing regularly into marshland. Even the hardiest walkers were turning around and returning to their cars! The soil on the hills is really peaty and in some places curiously bouncy. I wondered if I was experiencing an earthquake when one patch of turf suddenly started to bounce like a trampoline!

The drawback was that the trainers I was wearing, veterans of my 120-mile walk along the River Nene four years ago, were entirely un-waterproof. Within minutes of starting our trek, my socks were a soggy, sodden mess.

About half way through the walk, whilst sitting on a tor, I took my shoes and socks off to get some air on my feet. It was whilst ringing out my socks that I noticed my feet had gone weirdly pale and wrinkly. Jeannie described them as looking “parched” which was curiously appropriate whilst being simultaneously the complete opposite to what they actually were!

To avoid trench foot, I made the decision to do the rest of the walk barefoot. It turned out to be a rather wonderful experience. I’m entirely flat-footed, so actually a long walk can leave me in quite a lot of pain after shoving my trotters into shoes which are nothing like as wide as Hobbit feet like mine need shoes to be!

The sensation of walking across the moors barefoot was fabulous. The grass was soft, springy and fabulously damp. Periodically, I’d feel a foot squelching into a pool of water or peaty mud. The only time I needed to put my trainers back on was to negotiate a section of the path where thorny gorse had grown across the ground. But for the rest of the time I was as happy as Larry. No accidents. No cuts or grazes. Just happy feet! 

Nathan and Jago in the mist

At one point, we came upon a large family of Ultra Orthodox Jewish people making their way up the mountain side, which is a somewhat curious sight outside London or Manchester. They were playing rather loud music as they walked - half-klezmer, half-pop music. I walked a little further, but when I looked around to see where they’d got to, they’d disappeared to the extent that I wondered if I’d actually imagined them. 

Iain, Wils, Lola and Tomas

Oh yes... and when we got back home to the cottage, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset!
The view from our sitting room window (not even joking!)

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Spaldwick

May 30th: Spaldwick 

On 30th May, Nathan and I drove up to Huntingdon to visit our good friends Lisa and Mark and their kids Poppy and Rosie. Nathan is Poppy’s godfather and was told when he accepted the position that he would be responsible for her glamour and her grammar!

Lisa’s middle child, George, didn’t make it through childbirth, so I have taken on the responsibility of looking after his memory on Earth. The London Requiem is dedicated to him.

They live in a charming village called Spaldwick, which is near to where the A1 meets the A14, not far at all, in fact, from Brampton, where Samuel Pepys grew up. The powers that be have been working on the junction of those two massive roads for some time now. The exit from the A1 onto the A14 feels a little messy and unnecessarily windy, but my parents tell me it’s entirely revolutionised the A14 which was a total disaster in those parts.

It was an incredibly hot day but Lisa’s garden is cool and shady. Rose had her paddling pool set out in the garden and was leaping in and out of it with boundless energy. It was one of those days when, as children, we’d be allowed to get the hosepipe out. 

Rose's paddling pool
Every time I’m in Lisa and Mark’s garden, I’m reminded of one of my most mortifying experiences. It was the day that Andy Murray first won Wimbledon and they were having a massive garden party. It was another incredibly hot day and the party erupted into a huge water fight. There were water bombs and pistols, hoses, and frankly, anything which could be filled with water was being used as a weapon or a missile. 

Mark and I were stalking each other like Ninjas, pouncing with increasingly ludicrous quantities of water. A marvellous opportunity presented itself. I caught Mark just outside the kitchen door taking a breather, so filled the entire washing up bowl with freezing cold water, sneaked up behind him, and tipped the lot over his head. I laughed demonically.

Imagine my surprise when Mark turned around, a look of deep shock on his face, and I realised it wasn’t Mark at all! It was a complete stranger who wasn’t taking part in the water fight. I felt just terrible!

Anyway, on May 30th, Lisa and Mark proudly took us to see their new allotment. Apparently the Spaldwick allotments have been a long time coming but curiously it was during lockdown that the Parish Council finally made it happen. I think there are maybe 20 separate patches, all rather pristine-looking with big water tanks regularly spaced along a central path. 

The allotment
There was something deeply moving about the place. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was seeing all the villagers enthusiastically erecting and painting sheds, carefully digging their patches and sharing the knowledge they were learning. None of them were jaded old timers. No one was pretending to be king of the allotment or policing the behaviour of anyone else. They were just coming together as a community and doing something really worthwhile. It was genuinely heartwarming. 

Proud Mark
I think the weather helped by bringing a sort of nostalgic quality to the place. The sun beating down. Clouds of dust spewing into the air. Rosie ran off into the hedgerow where the local children had built the mother of all dens. It was so reminiscent or the late 1970s somehow: Those long, hot summers of drought, ABBA albums, teddy bear’s picnics, flared jeans, Atara’s Band, blackberry picking and Silver Jubilees. 

Lisa in her shady garden

Friday, 31 July 2020

Uffington White Horse in lockdown

May 26th: The Uffington White Horse

This year, I was determined to make the most of the beautiful weather. Late May and early June were particularly lovely. My favourite time of the day is undoubtedly dusk. Twilight. The gloaming. The period when it gets dimpsey. The fact that there are so many words for it tells you that that the magical transition from day to night has intrigued and delighted people for generations. As the days get longer, and we approach Midsummer, dusk becomes all the more special. For me, there is nothing more beautiful than sitting on a hillside watching the sun coming down. The shadows lengthen. The wind picks up. The air becomes thick with electrons. Smells become more intense. The birds become deafening, and then, slowly, stop, replaced by the sparse hoots and shrieks of the night. Banks of lavender and pink clouds fade into a blue light and everything is suddenly mysterious. Your eyes start to play tricks. You see shapes moving out of the corner of your eye. You talk in whispers. Anything louder seems crass.

One day, I long to see the green flash. I have seen phosphorescence, the Northern Lights and a total eclipse of the sun. Each one was as magical and extraordinary as I’d hoped it would be. Phosphorescence, which I witnessed at midnight in Nerja in Spain whilst skinny dipping with Sam Becker and Philippa, was perhaps the most extraordinary, largely because it was so unexpected. We were lying on the beach, at the water’s edge, enjoying the sensation of the warm sea water lapping over us. We suddenly noticed a bank of green shimmering light on the waves, perhaps twenty meters out to sea. I’m not sure why we weren’t frightened. It seemed natural, somehow, and we were intrigued. We stayed put, allowing the gentle waves to wash over us as the light got closer and closer. And then it engulfed us. We all stood. I can’t tell you why. Maybe there was a moment of doubt or fear in us all. But I remember watching these glistening diamonds flowing down the contours of Sam and Philippa’s body as the water fell from them, and feeling the luckiest man in the world. And as soon as the phenomenon appeared, it had disappeared again.

Anyway, there has always been more than a whiff of the pagan about me. I don’t think any composer could make music without a belief in magic of sorts. I have always been intrigued by witchcraft, ghost stories and prehistoric communities and have a deep reverence for the power of nature. One of my favourite spots in the world is the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. I have visited the place on countless occasions and introduced it to many friends. I have blogged very regularly about trips there, so I won’t describe it in great detail this time.

It’s undoubtedly the most iconic of the various white horses which are cut into chalk hillsides across England. White horses are ingrained in British folk law and they have intrigued us for countless years. I can guarantee that there’s a picture of a white horse somewhere in your house. If you look carefully on the front of a tub of Anchor Butter, for example, you’ll see a depiction of the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire. Some of the carvings are Victorian, like the one at Sutton Bank in Yorkshire. Others, like the one at Westbury potentially date from the 9th Century. Uffington is special. It’s the oldest white horse in Britain, and possibly more than 3000 years old: a fact which I find utterly staggering. Its full beauty can only be seen from the air - which has generated many conspiracy theories about UFOs - but it is also far more figurative than many of its brothers and sisters and this adds to its mystery. Its quirky shape has been recreated on all manner of logos and tattoos.

Michael had never been there, so I decided to take him one night after work. I knew it was a long journey - perhaps a two-hour drive from London - so didn’t tell him where we were heading. We simply packed a picnic and headed west on the M4.
Michael with the White Horse behind him
I have never visited the white horse in bad weather, and always enjoyed the place most at sunset. The horse is on a hillside which faces the setting sun, and it starts to glow in majestic shades of red and orange in the golden hour before dusk. The yellow grasses which grow on the hillside in the summer also seem to turn orange, and I have countless pictures of friends in the area in front of hillsides which almost seem to be on fire. It truly is the most awe-inspiring location. And all the time, sometimes almost deafening, the incessant chirps of skylarks, who actually sing as they fly. Their sound is utterly unique - almost like the sound of a modem dialling into the internet in the late 1990s!
That orange light...
Michael was suitably impressed. There is no such thing as a bad view in that area. Uffington marks the end of the Chilterns, so if you face the west and you can see the entire Wiltshire Plain stretching out for miles towards Bristol and the horizon. Head up to the Iron-age hill fort and look east for views of rolling hillsides. In the Golden Hour, I can guarantee shadows longer than you’ve ever seen in your life. It was a truly magical evening. 

Those impossibly long shadows


The gloaming

Thursday, 30 July 2020

A walk with Philippa

May 25th: A walk with Philippa

One of the drawbacks of lockdown was not being able to see my two closest female friends, Philippa and Fiona. I’ve known Fiona since we were about 15. We played in the Northamptonshire Youth Orchestra together and used to busk as part of a string trio with our mate Edward Thornhill in shopping centres across the Midlands. On one occasion, just after I’d finished my A-levels, my parents went on holiday to France. I was so convinced that I’d tanked my exams, that I refused to go with them, telling them that I needed to be in Northamptonshire instead, in order to go through the process of clearing. As it happened, I did rather well, and got into my first choice university, but by then the holiday had been booked and I was destined to stay at home alone. However, even at the age of 18, I was scared to be on my own at night in our house in Higham Ferrers, which was considered to be haunted by pretty much every person who stepped inside it, so Edward came to stay with me for the week. By then we were both driving, so we spent a fairly magical time travelling out to crop circles in the middle of the night, ghost-hunting in the eerie Brixworth church and listening to ELO, ABBA and Steeleye Span on the car stereo. Typical teenaged pursuits. On the Saturday night, my mother sneakily called from France, expecting to hear the sounds of a full-on drunken house party. What she heard instead was the sound of the kettle boiling, me with a mouthful of one of her home-baked chocolate chip cookies and Fiona and Edward playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in the background! We’d phoned Fiona up at about 10pm to say, “we’re coming to Northampton to pick you up… bring your violin.” We played chamber music through the night. I was a dream teen!

Fiona now lives in Glasgow. We speak most days on the phone, but I haven’t been able to see her, and this saddens me enormously. Philippa, on the other hand, lives in London. I met her when I was 19. She’s actually the same age as me, but was a year behind me at York University on account of having taken a year out to back-pack across India, learn to walk like a model and become impossibly glamorous. I think, to this hick-from-the-sticks, all the people I met at university who’d grown up in London seemed that little bit more sophisticated and confident but Philippa was something else. As my Mum once put it, “you notice her the moment she walks into a room.”

Philippa has two children, however, and my assumption about most families in lockdown was that they were all hunkering down, dealing with the misery of trying to educate children, whilst, in many cases (including Philippa’s), simultaneously working full-time from home, without being able to rely on child-minders, parents, or, for those long first weeks, the ability to go to the local park to let the kids run around like lunatics. Philippa also has a husband, two dogs and a cat. They all live in a tiny terraced house off Columbia Road and I genuinely don’t know how they’ve managed to stay alive!

Anyway, we decided to go for a lovely walk one evening in late May. I drove out East, and we went on a winding route which took us across the slightly grotty Ion Road Gardens, past Hackney City Farm, through Haggerston Park (which is full of plum trees - a post war initiative designed to get Eastenders eating proper food) and along the canal tow-path all the way to Victoria Park. 

Philippa on the tow path
Hackney and Shoreditch have a very different vibe to Finchley and Highgate. Many of the people who live there are considerably too cool for school. It’s a Mecca for bearded hipsters with coiffed hair, cut to look just a little bit shabby, who drink home-brewed beer and eat in terribly expensive ├╝ber-trendy restaurants in old warehouses. City workers by day, the suits come off, they reveal their tattoos and they pretend to be artists by night, playing with guitars and frisbees in parks, and discussing philosophy in barges which have been turned into bookshops.

(I should point out that none of this describes Philippa who is a highly successful screen-writer!!)

The great irony, of course, is that you have to be very wealthy to live in Hackney these days. It’s a shit hole, with dreadfully arcane parking regulations, gangs, shootings, and terrible pollution, but because it’s also got cereal bars, macrobiotic cafes, spoken word artists and an impossibly cool, shabby-chic vibe, it’s more expensive to live in than the genteel, tranquil, leafy, but apparently boring Highgate! Based on the people we met on our walk, I’d say a great many Hackney residents are really noisy, quite into drinking and quite bad at observing social distancing measures. I can’t tell you how many people bumped into us as we walked along the tow path - and how many of them didn’t seem that bothered!

I must book in a session with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of this bizarre and irrational dislike I have for Hackney. Of course, it’s got a lot of positives. The area around Philippa’s house is absolutely beautiful. It’s row upon row of charming terraced houses, all perfectly kept, and a brilliant backdrop for period dramas. They film there ALL the time. The streets are filled with kids playing out. It feels really safe - like a proper community - and her neighbours are wonderful people.
Philippa and her husband Dylan outside their lovely house
One of the other things I love about Hackney is the graffiti. That sounds like a strangely sarcastic comment, but the walls by the canal are filled with it, the colours are quite brilliant and I love how it all reflects on the smooth surface of the water. The graffiti is often quite witty, political and artistic in those parts as well. It doesn’t feel as mindless or destructive as it can feel in other places. 
Some of that graffiti
Anyway, location aside, it was a real tonic to see Philippa. It always is. She makes me howl with laughter, puts up with my whinging and always deals with my curious outbursts with great kindness. I do say some very odd things to her. I’m not quite sure why this is. We went walking with her dogs, who are the fastest things in the world once you let them off their leads. They are particularly fond of squirrels. You see these little black dots tearing into flower beds without any sense of the damage they may be doing to themselves, or the the herbaceous borders! I also wonder what the dog would do if she actually caught a squirrel. They’re adoringly good-natured creatures, but maybe they’d chew them to see if they squeak. Eek!

With the lovely dogs in Victoria Park

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Tide Mills and Meriel

19th May 2020: Tide Mills

On May 19th, 2020, Nathan and I drove down to East Sussex to visit Meriel. One of my lockdown priorities was visiting friends who were living on their own. Of course, self-isolating with family brings a whole set of bizarre challenges, but lockdown was toughest, in my view, on those who had to deal with it alone. I have friends who didn’t speak in person to a living soul for eight weeks or more and I cannot bear the thought of anyone being lonely. 

I’m rather pleased to report that Meriel seems to have found herself a partner during the latter stages of lockdown, but certainly, back in May, she was living alone, and feeling a little blue.

It was a great pleasure to drive anywhere during lockdown. You could literally sail from destination to destination without encountering any slow-moving traffic. Even traffic lights very rarely seemed to get in the way of a decent drive. We’d initially discussed the idea of trying to meet Meriel half way between Lewes, where she lives, and London, but the idea of spending a glorious sunny day by the sea was too alluring to ignore. And we'd be there in a flash...

May 19th was a Tuesday, so we were never going to turn into a speck of bathing suit in a provocative Daily Mail aerial photograph of a mass of bodies on Bournemouth beach! Besides, our planned destination was Tide Mills which is very firmly off the beaten track! It doesn’t have shops, or ice cream vans, and the shingle on the beach is razor sharp, so, even on the hottest summer days, outside of global pandemics, it’s always bizarrely empty.

It’s a really atmospheric spot. Tide Mills is a derelict village which was condemned in 1936 and abandoned in 1939 when the last few residents were forcefully evicted. It was used for street-fighting training in the Second World War - largely by Canadian troops - so it feels eerie. These days, the old village is nothing but a twisting, wind-carved network of light grey stone walls and brick built arches covered in sea grasses and twisting brambles. It’s the perfect stage for adventurous or imaginative children and on a misty Autumnal day, I’m pretty sure the ghosts of past villagers can be seen going about their business. 

The long, steep shingle beach
On a hot sunny day the place seems to gleam. The long shingle beach plunges down to a silvery-grey sea. The reflection of the sun dances on the white waves. But that shingle is lethal! The beach is so steep, that attempting to climb up from the level of the sea is nigh-on impossible without cutting your feet to shreds. Anyone visiting the place should take a pair of sturdy sandals, or sensible water proof shoes. There is, as we know, never an excuse for Crocks, but, if you happen to have a pair, Tide Mills is the place to wear them, before burning them, naturally.

We walked along the old tramline from Tide Mills into the neighbouring town of Seaford. It’s one of those desert-like landscapes you get when areas of shingle start to become home to strange plants which almost resemble cacti.
The old tram line to Seaford
The joy about Meriel is how freely she laughs. Her head tilts backwards and she lets out a chuckle and then a roar of infectious joy. Life has not been kind to her over the last few years and the laughter was sometimes buttoned by a frown. But she’s found resilience and inner strength and I’m pleased to say the laughter is back. Perhaps she now sees in herself the person we all love incredibly dearly.
The infectious laugh
On the way home, we called in on Hilary and her son Jago who also live in Lewes. We sat on a rug about five meters away from them in their garden. Obviously, it’s quite difficult to explain social distancing to a hugely excited little boy - Nathan in particular is one of his favourite people in the world - but we managed to complete the visit without being licked, and I think this has to be a celebrated! I took quite a number of pictures of our little group, sitting happily in the early evening sunshine. Unfortunately, Jago has not yet left behind his desire to stick his tongue out in every single photograph. I’m not entirely surprised - his father refused to be photographed at his own wedding! Hilary, furthermore, is almost impossible to photograph with her eyes open. It’s a really strange thing. She’s not one of those people who blinks noticeably, but when the camera comes out she turns into Blink McBlinky.

Eyes closed, tongue out!
Some people have a curious self-sabotage button which gets pressed the moment a camera comes out of its bag. This causes some to blink, and others, (Hilary NOT included in this category by the way) to start talking incessantly. You know the sort? They launch into a monologue, “no, no, put it away, I always look terrible in photographs… well hurry up, then… gawd, who do you like you are, David Bailey? Come on… I’ve got a cake in the oven.” And, of course, instead of focussing on looking wistfully into the camera, their mouths take on terrible gurning dissatisfied shapes. If you’re the person who thinks they look awful in photographs, you’re obviously either not learning to love yourself in a mirror, or you’re tensing up when pictures are taken because you think you’re going to look horrible.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Thaxted... finally

18th May 2020, Thaxted

It took quite some time before my mother and father felt confident to have us pay them a visit. They are both in their mid-70s, so it’s been very important for them to shield themselves, and for the rest of us to make sure we do whatever is needed to help them in this respect. We finally drove to Thaxted just after Boris decided to relax lockdown rules for the first time in that famously confusing Sunday afternoon speech. The country, of course, immediately went into meltdown. I always felt the message behind his new rules was simply to be a little more relaxed whilst remaining vigilant and sensible, but everyone decided it was best all round to take to social media instead, screaming the most ludicrous questions, and smugly posing the inconceivable scenarios: “So, if I’m not allowed to see both parents at the same time, what if I’m walking with one, and the other one comes out of a shop. Will we be arrested?” And, of course, if you ask, the answer will always be no. So I don’t ask. But I’m probably a natural rule breaker…

May 18th was a beautiful hot day, which was nothing new for lockdown. So that we could stay within the rules, a great plan had been hatched which involved meeting my Mum by the side of the house, and walking with her - a ludicrously large distance apart - whilst carrying a picnic into the beautiful fields behind their house. Rumours were circulating in Thaxted that there was a bluebell wood somewhere in the area so we thought we might have a look for that. In true rural folk style, however, the only directions my parents had been given was to turn right at the badger set! “No, not THAT badger set,” said my Mum as we walked past the largest earthworks I’d ever seen created by a mammal which is not a rodent, but actually a member of the weasel family. It’s always good to get a fact in.

My father would independently make his way to the designated picnic spot - and we could see his familiar swaggering gait walking five hundred metres behind us.

I felt very emotional seeing my Mum. We hadn’t seen each other since early February and I’d been incredibly worried about her, at one stage wondering if we’d ever see each other again. Such terrible stories were floating around about people dying on their own, and their loved being unable to even attend their funerals. I’d watched Llio’s beloved Dad’s funeral on Zoom and been so distressed at the sight of her bravely sitting on her own - two meters away from one of only eight people who were allowed to be there with her.

My Mum’s smile can light up a room, and seeing that flash of white hair and the turquoise and lilac colours she almost always wears, was a real tonic which almost made me cry.

We chose a rather lovely spot for our picnic at the corner of two fields, and sat, about five metres apart in two clumps, unable to share food despite our having brought most of Sainsbury’s with us. We were, however, so grateful for the experience of being there. My mother wore a sun hat. 

Cow parsley?
Looking at a photograph of the occasion, I see a bank of what I hope is cow parsley behind us. There is a lot of giant hogweed around at the moment, and it looks very like cow parsley. It’s known as “Britain’s most dangerous plant.” Look it up. When the sap of this terrible weed comes into contact with a person, it rects to bright sunlight and badly burns and blisters the skin. No joke. This isn’t some strange conspiracy theory. This year’s hot weather has meant that giant hogweed is now growing everywhere. They are trying to kill as much of it as they can. Huge patches of it along the Dollis Valley Green Walk are now brown and dead, with signs up warning people to be careful. 

Those beautiful fields
After finishing the picnic, we went back to sit in the parents’ garden. My mum had decided that we could use the downstairs loo, so had left a pair of gloves and some hand sanitiser outside, but in the end I decided to wee behind a tree!

Since lockdown started, my parents have been playing online Scrabble with their friends Sally and Stuart. I chatted to my Mum on the phone yesterday and she estimates that they have now played well over 100 games. My mother has a physical Scrabble board which she carries around with her, so that she can play around with the letters old-school style, before committing them to the game. When Sally and Stuart place a word on the online board, she dutifully adds it to the physical board. Seeing her with her iPad AND a Scrabble board was one of those delightfully eccentric sights which makes you proud to be from the stock you’re from!

"Online" Scrabble

Monday, 27 July 2020

A walk into The Shire

A walk into The Shire: 22nd May 2020

On the evening of the 22nd of May, we went for a very long walk with my cousin’s step son, Harry. It feels a bit technical and impersonal to call him my cousin’s step son, and because he refers to me as his uncle, I should probably call him my nephew. When you’re one of three gay siblings, you take what you can in terms of younger relatives!

Harry lives in East Finchley, probably less than a fifteen minute walk from our house, and, ever since his wonderful mother died last year, we’ve tried to see him as regularly as we can. He’ll always be an important part of our clan.

It was his idea to go for a walk. One of the joys of walking with people during lockdown was that you could cover some serious distances because the very act of walking was the sole thing which was allowing people to legally be together. In the very early days, just sitting on a bench for a breather was viewed with great suspicion. I once watched a tired dog-walker being moved on by an over-zealous policeman. I remember having a furtive sandwich on one occasion, sitting on a wall in a secluded street in Hampstead with a friend, looking around us like we were doing an illicit drug deal! But the bottom line was that if you wanted to be with someone whilst staying within the rules, you just had to keep on walking...

Harry’s visit, therefore, was the perfect opportunity to head down to the Dollis Valley Green Walk, to see what kind of adventure it could offer us.

As I’ve written recently, this North-London, ten-mile footpath follows Dollis Brook from Hampstead Heath deep into the Green Belt. The Green Belt, by the way, is a 7-10 mile wide area of green space which entirely surrounds London. No one is allowed to build on it, so it stops the city from sprawling whilst giving city dwellers a “girdle” of open space in which to breath clean air.

Nathan and I had hitherto only walked a couple of miles along the stream, and we were keen to see where else it would lead us.

Dollis Brook really is the most wonderful little stream. Parts of it seem to be winterbourne, or, at least only active after a decent amount of rainfall. It has, of course, been a particularly dry year, so perhaps it’s of slight concern that the brook is empty in several places. I always panic about the fish. I wonder if they have a sense that a river is drying up and manage to swim to safety down stream. Perhaps they simply end up floundering and panicking in ever-shrinking pools; a ready-made meal for a passing kingfisher.

The brook is entirely lined by tall trees, all of which change colour with the seasons from lime green to orange and brown. Sun glints on the surface of the water like diamonds, and shines through the branches of the trees to create intricate and beautiful lace-like patterns on the pathways. The birdsong is intense. Magpies, crows and parakeets squawk, caw and croak tunelessly (and yes, there are many parakeets in North London), whilst robins, thrushes and blackbirds show off their virtuoso vocal prowess. On one magical occasion, I heard a cuckoo. It was so clear and cuckoo-like that I thought it had to be fake! In May, the whole pathway is lined with wild garlic. Delicate white flowers tumble down the banks of the stream whilst the air hums with the scent of Italian cooking! Next year I shall make pesto.
Wild garlic near Dollis Brook
The brook snakes up through suburban housing estates, allotments, golf and cricket clubs before splitting into two separate streams. The right-hand fork, which is officially Dollis Brook, heads up to Totteridge and Whetstone, flanked by the designated Green Walk. The left-hand fork is known as Folly Brook. The path is a little wilder and less well-trodden, so it was this fork which we decided to explore with Harry.

The further north you walk, the more the suburbs peter out. Playing fields and bramble-bedecked wooden fences and walls give way to scrubland and then heathland, and then, through the dark trees which surround the brook, you see open fields with horses and cows. Most non-city dwellers reading this blog will be doing so with quite a healthy dollop of “so what”, but when a Londoner like me realises that he can walk from his house into the actual countryside, he gets a little excited. It reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in a fairly rural environment, always aware of the changing seasons. Things were difficult when weather became inclement. When the mists rolled in from the fens, or the snows fell, or the Nene flooded, or winds took trees or electricity cables down, we knew about it. We couldn’t get to certain places. We’d have power cuts. In the city, by and large, things just carry on as normal.
The open fields of the Green Belt

The greatest thing about Folly Brook is that it suddenly enters a sort of woodland, which resembles Middle Earth. The path takes you through entirely enclosed walkways of shrubs, and gnarled, twisted hawthorn branches which feel like secret passageways. Fallen trees have become stiles and bridges. Ferns grow tall. Everything is green, verdant, Jurassic almost, and utterly magical. Rhododendron trees with pink, purple, blue and white flowers thrive in the marshy ground. And climbing up a steep ridge, you suddenly find yourself standing by the beautiful Darland’s Lake. A lone heron perches on a log waiting for fish to pass. Leaves rustle in the trees. The mayhem of London is another world away. There’s no traffic noise. You could be in the middle of nowhere. In any period of time.
Darland's Lake
Turn right at the lake and you’re in an area of open heathland scattered with gorse, buddleja and butterfly-laden wildflowers. A steep, wind-swept hill takes you up towards Totteridge Village. If you stand on the hill and look behind you, you can see nothing but green, rolling countryside. The odd Merchant Ivory-style, grand manor house pokes its head above the trees, and, back in the direction of the city, a few distant cranes are all that could ever remind you that you’re not in the middle of the Chilterns in the 1930s.
Harry in the heathland looking back towards the city
Waiting at the top of the hill is the famous Orange Tree pub, which was not open back in May, but will be now. When a global pandemic isn’t raging, it’s the perfect place to sit and eat a hearty plate of grub in a pub garden. We went there with Nathan’s Mum and Ron about a year ago. The only issue was the wasps, which we trapped in bottles of lemonade. 

Our journey back to Finchley found us following Dollis Brook itself, after walking along the road to Totteridge and Whetstone. It’s a less magical, but still very pleasant walk which takes you through a water meadow, which is rather romantically called Whetstone Stray.
Whetstone Stray
Over the following months, we have walked variants of that particular trip on countless occasions. Brother Edward came up to Finchley on the 16th June, on the 30th of June, Nathan's birthday, we had a very pleasant walk with his sister, Sam, his nephew Lewis and their dog Ginny, and on 11th of July, Nathan and I turned left at Darland’s Lake, and found ourselves walking out of the Tolkien novel and entering the world of Lewis Carroll. Steep paths lead up and down the hillsides in this part of the greenbelt, many of which are lined by incredibly tall hedges, just as I imagine the garden in Wonderland.
Brother Edward by a rapidly-drying Darland's Lake
So, in a very peculiar way, we have to thank Covid-19, because, I think, it has encouraged many of us to explore our local areas in almost forensic detail. For the first time ever, I have thought, “I wonder where that path leads?” and instead of walking on, I’ve merrily headed down the path to take a look. As a result, I have found great beauty, little hidden pastures, absolute peace and tranquillity - and, a week ago, 2kg of blackberries!

Ginny and her family by Darland's Lake
Nathan, Lewis, Sam and Ginny in Middle Earth