“Go west, young man!”
That old piece of advice – not often heard these days – came to my mind yesterday as I drove westward along the M4 and M5 motorways, from the heart of England to north Somerset for a change of scenery (so many damned oakwoods around here – even a woodturner can get sick of the sight of them occasionally!). “Why north Somerset?”, you may ask. The answer is, quite simply, the smell of the sea, the sound of it – and the chance to see a landscape of small fields with hedgerows, and manky looking sheep, little farms with rusting corrugated iron-roofed sheds, and narrow country lanes with hedges reminiscent of my own haircut (slightly unkempt, but very thick, and definitely doing their own thing). Here in West Berkshire and surrounding Wiltshire and north Hampshire, the land is beautifully and expensively groomed, on the whole. Hedgerows are shorn carpet-smooth and geometrical, field gates swing and close with delightful precision, and the tractors seem to tower over my dear old Land Rover Discovery as they purr past in the opposite direction. Don’t get me wrong – this is farming at its Rolls Royce best. These are the people who shape and conserve the landscape they farm. They do it because they are often born to it – stewarding land which has been in the family for generations – and they do it extremely well. They obviously also make a great deal of money in the process. As an ex-smallholder who struggled for twenty-odd years of my life to convert my little patch of a few boggy acres into a productive little sheep farm, with a tractor built before the start of the Second World War, a sheepdog who occasionally went on strike if I shouted at it, and more moles than can be found in all the corridors of power in Whitehall, I can appreciate the effort and money that goes into making the countryside look the way it does round here. My problem is that it all seems so …..so chocolate box….so quintessentially English. I suppose that I should expect nothing else from the heart of England – but somehow, it seems to lack soul. It somehow seems like one of these amazingly beautiful women you might see out and about in London – or Paris – or Rome….. perfectly groomed, very elegant, easy on the eye – but not in the least tiny way desirable. Usually, when I look closely at the faces of such people, their eyes look completely empty, and, like a beautiful cowrie found on a beach forage, all the beauty is in the shell.
Understandably, then, I felt more at home yesterday, as I reached the highpoint on the motorway and looked down on the shoreline of Avonmouth and the Severn estuary curving away into the heat haze. Almost immediately, I could feel the ozone in my nostrils. It was a beautiful warm day with barely a cloud in the sky, and as I turned the car off the motorway and drove the short distance to the little seaside town of Clevedon, I was like a small child on a trip to the seaside – becoming more excited as we approached the beach. “You sad bastard!” I can almost hear you say – but trust me, it was a delicious feeling, and I relished it. Once on the little promenade, it was good to hear the Somerset brogue …and the general chatter of people enjoying themselves. True, there seemed to be a preponderance of older people walking about – often grandparents with very young grandchildren in tow (or should that be the other way round?) – but even the sea air seemed happy and relaxed – all a far cry from the cut-and-thrust of downtown Newbury on a Saturday morning, where a pleasant “Good morning!” is as likely to be met with a hostile, dead-eyed stare, as with a reply.
Curiosity now well stimulated, the journey continued on, further west – and to the seaside resort of Weston super Mare, a few miles further down the coast. I hadn’t been to the town for many years, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I needn’t have worried – the place was absolutely buzzing in a way that I haven’t experienced in a small seaside resort in Britain for many years. Perhaps the current economic climate, and the emergence of the “staycation” as a result of it, have got something to do with it – but Weston was a little gem! Yes, there was a bit of a problem finding a parking space – but that was because of major re-modelling of the sea-front area rather than a lack of spaces. The local council had improvised parking areas – all well-managed (apart from the ticket machines charging £4 for parking, and only taking coins!) and the long promenade was thronged with people of all ages and all shades, all enjoying the sunshine and the fresh sea air……. just like when I went on childhood visits to Blackpool from the grime and noise of my native Preston. Altogether a very traditional British atmosphere!
To get back to the comparison between Berkshire agriculture, and that of rural Somerset, it is an interesting comparison, and for many reasons. However, both are stewards of our countryside in their separate ways,and we should all be grateful for that – and for the excellent food they produce. I have to align myself more with the smaller-scale farmers of the West country, because that was my level of farming in days gone by. The truth is that farmers who struggle to maintain their land, their boundaries, and their stock are still good farmers on the whole, and their husbandry is as careful and caring as any you will find. They may not have the money to spare to barber their hedgerows as neatly as the big Berkshire corn barons, or to tarmac their farm approach tracks…but they make our countryside what it is, and has been for hundreds of years – and I am very grateful for that.
Yesterday’s little trip has certainly left “Go west, young man!” ringing in my head – if not in my ears – and seeing and smelling the sea again reminded me very forcefully of just how much I miss it. Must look at the price of houses down there ……………………………..