Notes from Town and Country
From Hazel, Highbury, 21 August 2020
It’s true that I’m writing this in Highbury, but mentally I’m in Suffolk. We came back yesterday from a week’s family holiday, and after months of being confined to London and seeing very little of our grandchildren, I’m finding it hard to make the transition. In my mind’s eye I’m still on the harbourside at Walberswick grasping the back of my 7-year-old grandson’s T-shirt as he crouches above the water, his small body tense with excitement as he strains over the edge to see if there’s anything in the net he’s dangling into the murky depths below. ‘Shall I pull it up now?’ ‘Well, wait a little bit, you’ve only just looked.’ ‘But there’s something in it. I know there is. I can see it!’ We peer down. Something seems to be moving, and yes! Oh joy! ‘Granny, it’s a crab! It’s huge. It’s gigantic. Quick, come and look!’ We all cluster round as he pulls the net up to reveal a small crab. It’s certainly large compared to the others in our bucket of seawater, which are so tiny they’re almost transparent. (‘Be careful not to hurt it,’ I hear from our granddaughter, aged 9.) The bait smells disgusting, and we’ll be throwing them all back soon, but for the line-up along the quay – Dads included – this is a competitive business. For the children it’s heaven. In a little while we’ll walk back along the sandy turf to the motor boat which plies the few yards from one side of the creek to the other, to stop off at the Sole Bay Fish Company, where you can sit outside and eat crab or lobster or any other kind of fish that takes your fancy. The pleasant thing about this waterfront is that it’s still a working place, with crab and lobster pots piled up between the wooden sheds, though when the harbour began silting up in the seventeenth century the herring industry gradually died, and the huge prosperity it had created departed with it.
Unfailingly we wake to skies of unbroken blue, so on other days it’s buckets and spades into the car and off through the lanes to Southwold, along the pretty little main street, now in these anxious days organized into an efficient pedestrian one-way system, up one pavement and down the other, through the seaside terraces set back behind open greens to the car park near the beach. Then up and over the dunes to the golden stretch of sand so broad and long it looks as if there’s hardly anyone else on it. ‘Thank goodness there’s a breeze!’ we gasp as we dump our things and pick our way gingerly on soft town feet over the pebbly bits to where the waves are licking the shoreline, and out in the distance a white ship is making its way slowly across the far horizon.
With temperatures rising into the mid-30s, it sometimes feels too hot even for the beach and we go blackberrying along the shady lane beside the cottage that leads up on to heathland where rabbits scurry about among the bracken. We’re staying on the outskirts of a village a few miles inland from Southwold, and one morning we go down to the church to see the unique 500-year-old painting known as the Wenhaston Doom. This has survived because it was painted on wood rather than on a wall, and whitewashed over as being suspiciously Catholic during the reign of the Protestant king Edward VI. In 1892, during the usual Victorian ‘improvements’, it was dumped out in the churchyard where overnight rain dissolved the whitewash to reveal the painting beneath.
The Doom would originally have been above the rood screen between the chancel and the nave, but now it’s directly opposite the entrance, where a nice lady in mask and rubber gloves welcomes us in. We all stand silently in front of this medieval vision of the Day of Judgement, somewhat overcome. Christ presides, seated on a rainbow, while below the Archangel Michael is busy weighing the souls of the just and the unjust, watched by a fabulously evil-looking Satan. To their left naked sinners are led cringing into Hell by horned demons and to their right four of the just stand waiting complacently with St Peter who holds the golden keys to Heaven. The children are impressed by the uncompromising message, though the weighing of souls causes initial confusion.
‘Do you believe in Hell?’ our grandson wants to know.
‘Well, no. Not that kind anyway.’
‘But a lot of people still do,’ interposes our granddaughter.
‘Why do they?’ (our grandson again).
‘Um. It’s a bit complicated.’
Perhaps it’s time for lunch.
From Gail, Manaton, 21 August 2020
After months of peace and quiet down here, life has speeded up. The lanes are full of Lycra-clad cyclists and there have been long tailbacks on the M5 as families head south for a staycation in the West Country, our own children and grandchildren among them. Suddenly the kitchen floor is awash with Lego, and a ‘house’ made out of a large cardboard box, and assorted dressing-up clothes, while outside the water-filled granite trough has become the scene of a naval battle and the grass banks under the cherry tree are full of soldiers defending their positions.
My reading habits have changed too. For the moment I’ve given up trying to read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful third volume in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light. The house is just too noisy to concentrate. She’s been supplanted by Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy and Captain Pugwash and the adventures of Percy the Park Keeper. Meanwhile my husband has nobly been trying to read the Tintin books to a grandson – reading cartoon books aloud requires the patience of Job.
The office dogs, Chudleigh and Stanley, have mixed feelings about the arrival of small people. Their diet has suddenly become much more varied as they sit beneath the kitchen table, waiting for the inevitable fallout from meals, but they also run the risk of being hugged to death, sat upon or chased round the house.
Impossible, amidst all this, to get any work done. My mind is on what’s in the larder or fridge, whether there are enough runner beans for nine hungry people, and what to cook for supper. We’re a long way from a shop so planning in advance is vital – no popping out for an extra onion or pot of cream.
Veg patch aside, though, there is one source of food which manages to combine walking the dogs, entertaining the children and providing pudding – blackberrying! So off we set with a bag full of freezer boxes. Of course the children eat at least as many blackberries as they put in their boxes, and of course Chudleigh (who has learnt the art of helping himself from the lower bushes) gets caught up in brambles and has to be released, but still, an hour or so later we’re heading for home with five or six pounds of fruit and much talk about how to make the best apple and blackberry crumble.
Now the family have left and I’m back at my desk, checking the proofs of our winter Slightly Foxed Edition, Laurie Lee’s incomparable Cider with Rosie. His memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village just after the First World War records the end of a particular way of life but I did stop in my tracks on reading this:
Our village outings were both sacred and secular, and were also far between. One seldom, in those days, strayed beyond the parish boundaries, except for the annual Choir Outing. In the meantime we had our own tribal wanderings, unsanctified though they were, when a sudden fine morning would send us forth in families for a day’s nutting or blackberrying. So up we’d go to the wilder end of the valley, to the bramble-entangled Scrubs, bearing baskets and buckets and flasks of cold tea, like a file of foraging Indians. Blackberries clustered against the sky, heavy and dark as thunder, which we plucked and gobbled, hour after hour, lips purple, hands stained to the wrists. Or later, mushrooms, appearing like manna, buttoning the shaggy grass, found in the mists of September mornings with the wet threads of spiders on them.
Our mushrooms have yet to appear but it won’t be long. Yesterday I saw my first shaggy inkcap.