ARTICLES

Damien Enright on Mainland Britain

*I visited the well preserved ruins of a Roman villa at Verulamium, otherwise known as St Albans, in Hertfordshire in the UK. There, in the display of culinary instruments and implements were these cute little dormouse ovens, for all the world like egg cups with a domed lid. It seems the Romans baked the little creatures individually in these earthenware casseroles, with the lids tied down, so that no flavour or succulent juices escaped.

*Delayed at Stanstead: While others sat at Burger Kings or bars or blinking at TV screens, I bought myself a French roll filled with passable brie, and a 25cl bottle of chilled white wine. With these, and my luggage on a trolley, I headed for the fields of Essex staggering in the heat. I shortly found a gap in a well-trimmed airport hedge and a beautifully trimmed hillock beyond it, half shaded with an open grove of silver birch. There, I set down, and encamped around my trolley. Above, the sun shone from a blue heaven in which a single lark sang. It fluttered up and dropped stiff-winged and slowly, like a leaf falling on a still day, singing its way to earth. I took my binoculars from my bag and observed it, it and the small blue butterflies playing over the airport meadow of marguerites and clover in the sun. It was, altogether, an enjoyable and educational few hours at Stanstead, in the Essex countryside.

*My son, aged 12, thought Giggleswick sounded a fun place to stay so, as it was his holiday, we stayed there, amidst the Yorkshire Dales. It turned out to be a good choice, the B&B was comfortable and the countryside around replete with wonders and plenty to do, very important for a boy. Eating fish and chips is part of the Yorkshire experience. Yorkshire fish and chips are far superior to any elsewhere, even in good London chippers. Yorkshire fish comes steaming out of its light batter, fulsome, toothsome, flavour-full, fat and copious, hot and fresh.

*In Oxfordshire last week, the sun was obscured by haze. When it did break through, the fields of wheat and barley lay out, rich and golden, across a landscape unbroken by houses. What houses there were, lay in leafy hollows and the small villages of the Cotswolds were hidden in groves of trees. I was impressed by landscaping and rights-of-way, and will write more of this shortly. Meanwhile, I visited the tiny village of Adlestrop, where a famous poem was written by a man whose steam train stopped there briefly, one June afternoon. He said: ñWhat I saw/ Was Adlestrop – only the name/ And willows, willow-herb, and grass/ And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry…î Meadowsweet and willow-herb in June, and haycocks dry? Was it poetic licence or was the weather different in 1902, the summer two months earlier? Now, it is always August before these flowers bloom. But the poet, Edward Thomas, I think deserves the licence, because he so well conveys the warm, summer fields stretching to the horizon, which I, too – a century later – saw. ñAnd for that minute a blackbird sang/ Close by, and round him, mistier,/ Farther and farther, all the birds/ Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.î [ends]

*Then, at my daughter’s home, in a sizeable Hertfordshire town, we saw a mother fox and two small cubs gambol at the end of the garden in the dusk. We watched through the French windows, my grandchildren and I, enthralled by the peaceful kingdom of domestic foxes, piping song birds and a large, Persian cat which sat grooming on a garden seat nearby.

*Two hundred Canada geese rising honking from a field of barley stubble a few hundred yards from the M25 motorway at sunset was something I didn’t expect to see. My grandson’s birthday-present dog had flushed them. I had no idea so many wild geese lived in the ponds near my son’s Rickmansworth, I had no idea that nature had been accorded, and successfully re-colonised, such a niche of land and water within minutes of motorways, large towns, industrial estates.

*Last week, my son found one under an ancient fig tree in a dark back alley behind an old house in Caledonian Road, near Euston Station, in London. How it got there, in a grassless back yard, is impossible to know. A tiny spore must have blown in from Kent or Hertfordshire, wafted over the Thames or the Lea, over the tightly packed houses and teeming motorways, and come to rest beneath the ancient fig. There, it grew into a fungus as big as a World Cup football, glowing in the semi-dark.

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