Tuesday, 29 April 2014
The call of the bluebells - and Durdle Door
The English countryside in Spring is one of the great sights on the planet, especially so when the bluebells begin to emerge from their slumber and turn the land sky-blue. And it strikes me that nowhere does this happen with more splendour than in Sussex, although I will admit freely that the heavily-wooded Surrey Hills and the North Downs can look beautiful too, and possibly more perfectly carpeted with blue, marred only by excessive shade:
The topmost shot was taken by me in 2006 near Bewl Water, on the Sussex-Kent border. The next two (with mauvebells rather than bluebells) was taken way back in 2002 on Hackhurst Downs, a little bit of the western North Downs above Gomshall, and clearly shows how early digital cameras failed to get colours quite right. But the effect of a dense, ankle-high swathe of bluebells is still captured.
The title of this post also mentions Durdle Door, that giant Jurassic arch on the Dorset coast, itself dwarfed by the colossal cliffs to the east and west, but always impressive, and no more so than on a crisp Spring morning when the walking boots are on, and a few miles of breathtaking coastline will be absolutely the right tonic for a jaded mind or any kind of unhappy thinking. Some shots of mine from 2008 and 2009:
Bluebells and high white cliffs epitomise the special allure of Southern England. We fought wars to protect them. Wars against the Spanish, wars against the French, wars against the Germans, and wars against greedy (can I say psychopathic?) property developers. There is collective cultural emotion invested in those iconic little blue flowers, in those iconic stalwart cliffs. And many other things too: the majestic mountains of Wales and Scotland; the lakes of Cumbria; the ancient cathedrals; Stonehenge; the Uffington White Horse; the Rollright Stones; the timeless flow of the Severn or the Thames; the cool, clear, gentle waters of the Test in Hampshire, disturbed only occasionally by a fish taking a fly; the peal of bells from a country church; the darting wren and the vigilant red robin of leafy suburban gardens everywhere; the Union Jack flag. Worth a fight indeed. And sorely missed when abroad.
In 2007 M--- and I spent two months touring New Zealand top to toe. Both Islands. We wanted to see it all. And it was a rewarding experience that I will never forget. Nor need I - I have all our photographs that were any good, thousands of them. The photo-shoot to end them all, at least so far.
We went there in March and spent all of April there. Their late summer, shading off into Autumn. Our Spring. And despite the wonder of the place, there came a moment when we realised that we were missing the transformation of the drab brown winter landscape back home into a fresh new green-and-yellow-and-blue fairyland - new green shoots, bright yellow daffodils, and the dear bluebells. We were also yearning for the particular glories of the English coast that we loved.
I recorded the very moment this happened in the Travel Diary that I kept on my laptop as we went from place to place, stopping overnight at this or that site (a mere gravel lakeside, or a proper holiday park) in our campervan. We were in South Island, working our way down to the furthest south-west that the State Highways could take us. We'd just seen the Norwegian scenery of Milford Sound. Now we were looking at lakes, with these sorts of views:
But even so, I wrote this:
2007 0326 POSSUM LODGE HOLIDAY PARK, Murrell Avenue, Manapouri, NZ
Close to the attractive Lake Manapouri, this was a decent site with good facilities, although not spacious: all the campervans were packed in together in a circle. We were still pestered with the black biting flies. The fee was $NZ 28.00.
The local walkways were nice, as was the beach and the harbour.
It was here that we first started to look forward to going home. We weren't yet tired of New Zealand, but the thought of a week on the Dorset coast was highly appealing. Tyneham and Warbarrow Bay, for instance.
It was the twenty-third day in New Zealand, with 34 more to go. Altogether - if you include flying time and days spent in Los Angeles and Hong Kong - we were absent from home for over two months. Funny how one suddenly longs for the familiar sights of home after only three weeks or so, even if one is having a brilliant time! From this twenty-third day, a tipping-point so to speak, we took in the New Zealand scene with no less enjoyment, but not with quite such eagerness, because home was on our minds and each day abroad was standing in the way of a blissful reunion.
And we kept on seeing reminders of home that we'd be better off not seeing. There were chestnut trees and conkers in Christchurch city...
...and a riverside restaurant there called Oxford-on-Avon, where you could get a kind of Roast Sunday Lunch with Yorkshire Pudding, and the odd duck would waddle in from the stream outside, quacking in a Sussex dialect:
And later on, now once more in North Island, there were country scenes like this, near Havelock North, that seemed uncannily reminiscent of Wiltshire. It only tugged at one's home-loving heart, and fed a growing homesickness:
Maybe the infuriating blackflies at Manapouri had something to do with it - worse than Scottish midges! We encountered them all along the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, and quite far inland too. Wherever there was lots of rain and lots of water. Here's one, trying to get into the campervan, with its devil's horns:
At Milford Sound, there was a framed notice telling of the role the blackfly played in Maori legend:
But no, it wasn't just the flies. We wanted the Cobb at Lyme Regis, the sunset at Sennen Cove, the fresh-mown hay in a field near Hailsham, the sheep on Romney Marsh, the soft sand at West Wittering, and the green bareness of the South Downs. Two days before that overnight stop at Manapouri, two days before the tipping-point, we'd seen an outdoor exhibition of photographs at Wanaka, and one of them was of that prehistoric White Horse at Uffington, on the north-facing chalk escarpment between Swindon and Wantage:
I do remember being taken aback, seeing that in New Zealand of all places. It was an intrusion. We were as geographically far from England as it was possible to get. We did not want to be recalled to Oxfordshire just yet. But we were recalled. It was like emigrating by choice to a foreign land, and loving the life, and the new friends, and the sunshine, and the food, and all the other delights, and then one day hearing an accordion strike up, and the plaintive sung words of a traditional English folk song...and whether it tells of Tolpuddle or Tyneside, all is lost in an instant.
There's no place like home.