I suppose I should own up to the fact that my attachment to these bleak and windy seaside places is probably the responsibility of Charles Dickens, and in particular the character of Ham Peggoty who drowned while trying to rescue the appalling Steerforth, (the inspiration for the character of David Cameron who found in politics the perfect outlet for his gifts). I grudgingly admit that Dickens’ tendency to big-up the qualities of the deserving poor while monstering the undeserving rich is – well, a bit overblown – but my malleable young mind was filled with heroism, and the melancholic thought that an end-of-terrace post war house fell a long way short of an upturned boat on a beach.
If the Gradgrindian tendency ever understood the power of literature and music to mould and move us, they’d outlaw it in an instant, but mercifully I was free to be corrupted by Dickens and HG Wells and – because television is, or can occasionally be an art form too, by Ted Willis and Dennis Potter; as great a bunch of lefties as you could hope for.
So here we are near another beach that’s about as far away from Yarmouth as it’s possible to be; the wind is blowing a hoolie and we’ve been kept in the campervan by continuous rain – so I can write to my heart’s content on the free wifi and even try out some of the features of the programme that I’ve never used before, for instance linking to Google pictures and justifying the type. It’s almost exactly a year since I started writing this blog so (statistically at least, and 130,000 words later) I must be a survivor. It’s also exactly four years since I handed back the keys of the church where I was vicar for 25 years with the words of the bishop ringing in my ears – “I didn’t really know you, but I hear that you’re a bit of a legend” . Who believes gossip? I ask. It’s enough to drive a man to take on an allotment.
Back in the real world we’ve got two pubs here, and the oldest (so they say) postmaster in the country who regularly falls asleep in his chair after lunch so it’s best to buy stamps in the morning. What’s especially good is the fact that we have four environments wrapped into one place.
We have the epic big-sky estuary, the convergence of three rivers, with sand dunes and mud flats – a birder’s paradise; then there’s the saltmarsh specialist plants around the edge mostly past their prime now; the farmland surrounding Muncaster Castle which has been tended for so long that the mature woodland reminded me of my grandparents smallholding in the Chilterns; and finally there are the the fells pressing in all around us. There are even the remains of a Roman bathhouse.
However I was reminded once again that plants don’t read textbooks and can change dramatically with different environments. If you read the previous post you’ll know I was feeling a bit disconnected from field botany as we drove across, but yesterday we couldn’t walk along the coast because of the high tide so we turned inland and walked up part of the Eskdale Way towards Muncaster Castle. Apart from the unexpected stand of mature beeches, I found and identified many of the usual suspects but was stumped by a much leggier and taller Tormentil than usual, growing in the hedge, and a clump of tall daisy-like plants I don’t remember seeing before. Back at the van I quickly identified them as Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) which gave me a burst of sheer pleasure quite out of proportion to a bunch of rather faded daisy lookalikes with downturned petals and odd, buff coloured centres. I honestly don’t think I’d be any more pleased if I’d found a Ghost orchid – well perhaps a little bit more pleased, but the real joy is in knowing the everyday. As someone said on the telly the other day – you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince. Most of my princes have turned out to be garden escapes anyway. The everyday is where I mostly live and we’re surrounded by everyday plants, insects and animals that most of us are unaware of. I’ve developed the habit, every time I see a plant whose name I know, of saying hello. I don’t find it alarming, but passers by sometimes give me strange looks. I can’t get that moment of recognition out of my mind; a new friend amongst a host of strangers. Now I can name the Sneezewort it will call out “Hi” to me wherever I see it and I will say “Hi Sneezewort” back and I will feel a little more at home, wherever I happen to be.
Later in the day a Facebook album appeared with pictures of the vegetables our son had gathered on our allotment in our absence. Hope there’s some left for us!