Thursday, 27 June 2013

Land of my Fathers

At ground level England can seem very urban and concreted but flying from Stansted to Belfast earlier this month it is easy to see what a 'green and pleasant land' it is. The impression from the air is a patchwork of green and bright yellow with the occasional splodge of woodland or a wiggly deep green line showing the path of a stream or river. And - mercifully - the roads don't show up that much. So although most of our country is tamed and manicured, there is room for wildlife. I just wished I could have heard the birdsong from up there.

It was odd returning to the place my Dad called "over at home", and it was odder still that it felt both comfortable but unfamiliar, especially with my uncertainly about how much my English accent would make me seem like the enemy. The "religious" divide still feels alive and well.

The taxi driver who took us to our hotel, chatted as taxi-drivers do. He was quick to comment on our accents, joking that we might have difficulties with his. I presented our credentials saying that his lilt felt friendly and homely.

The taxi-driver responded 'That's what some say - others tell the truth.'

The jokes - apparently - hadn't evolved in the decades I'd been away.

My cousin talked about the Falls Road black taxis during the height of The Troubles. The Falls is very much a Catholic area. My grandfather was an Orangeman, which speaks of his affiliations. We're an athletic clan, and my cousin's daughter started to excel at trampolining. The best club in Ulster meant a journey up the Falls Road, where black taxis act like buses, picking up fares and charging little more than a bus.  But my cousin was told, 'Don't let your daughter use the black taxis. With her accent, everyone'll know she's protestant.'

Last time I was "over at home" I determined I would avoid sectarian labelling and when asked my religion, I replied. Buddhist.

'But are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?'

City Hall, Belfast

Life is much calmer these days. The black taxis offer tours of the Republican and Loyalist murals. Bridges have been built between communities, and money has been spent on regenerating the city. Mum and I took a tranquil riverside walk along the Lagan and were serenaded by gulls and robins.

We wandered along to Victoria Square and up into the glass dome and the panorama of the city: all the stately architecture of the capital, Napoleon's nose on Cave Hill, and the massive cranes of Harland and Wolff (where Titanic was born).

In our hotel, I overheard a conversation that made me smile. A group of Ulstermen - probably in Belfast for a wedding - were complaining about their wives' aspirations while staying in the Big City.

'All they want to do is shop - and they'll end up in Marks and Spencers.'

I recalled a very similar conversation of decades ago. My aunt and uncle were visiting from Northern Ireland and staying with my parents in suburban Surrey. My aunt and uncle were keen to explore London. My uncle aimed to soak up the history while my aunt wanted to shop. 'And would you believe it?' My uncle complained, 'We ended up in M&S!'
Well at least Belfast's M&S is in a listed building.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Next the Sea

East Anglian countryside is wonderfully varied as a drive north from Cambridge shows. Yes, Cambridgeshire is green and beautiful, but it is Fen-flat so only rarely are you treated to a good view. There are other things to bring a smile to the face though. The first was driving past the village of Fakenham which sounds like an ancient Saxon curse, and on north through sumptuous poppy-fields of the Brecks and vistas of gnarled Scots Pines with their backs bent against the prevailing winds. On again through Little Snoring – there really is a village called Little Snoring, as well as Great Snoring, and sleepy places they do seem to be.
Scanning the map en route, there are a great number of Norfolk and Suffolk villages with an ing in the name, often in the middle: like Sandringham. Ing means “son of” so that when a Saxon chieftain’s son set up his own settlement (a ham), his father’s village might be called Wallsham and his son’s – usually within five miles – would be Wallsingham, but often the father’s settlement will have disappeared over time.

The roads of North Norfolk are a delight to drive. There are plenty of surprises too. We paused at the 12th century castle that gives Castle Acre its name. The crumbling walls are now decorated by Dog Roses and many of the rest of the fortifications are now covered with lush grass, forming banks that are still challengingly steep to ascend. It is an atmospheric place.

Often the roads cut through woodland so lush that the trees form a tunnel. Journey times aren’t fast but being behind the wheel is so much more enjoyable than motorway driving. Our target on this trip was the windmill that is a cosy hotel at Cley Next the Sea – a fine spot to savour the squalls and brooding clouds coming off the ocean. Here too there are fine sea-marshes which made me recall the excellent atmospheric novel by Jeremy Page – Salt – that had me wanting to go out and find some samphire to nibble. Instead we ‘made do’ with some delicious piquant lavender bread from the Cley deli.

looking out from the old quay to the sea defences and the sea itself - about a mile away

Yellow horned poppies and looking back towards Cley across the salt-marshes

the windmill that is a hotel

Cley hasn't actually been "next the sea" since the 17th century; it is about a mile away these days. Striding through the salt-marshes towards the sea though we were treated to views of avocet, hilariously hyperactive plovers and even a Marsh Harrier getting mobbed by 30 or 40 wading birds as it flew off with one of them – probably a shelduck. The high point though was a boat trip from Blakeney to the colony of Grey and Common Seals. It was cold and windy but the occasional faceful of seawater only added to the adventure.

The two species of seals co-exist contentedly. The much larger 'roman-nosed' Grey Seals produce their pups around Christmas time so their youngsters were already huge. Some of the bulls are truly massive: they weigh up to 250kg. The smaller Common Seals have more attractive faces and are due to give birth around about now. The adult males reach a maximum weight of about 120kg. Both species have the most endearing undulating-fat-rippling means of moving on land.


How can lying like a banana possibly be restful?

Seal life seems to be about eating and sleeping

Some of the youngsters were a bit nervous as the boat approached but not for long

This seal seemed really interested in close up views of us