From which the sky may be viewed
Most Sunday mornings, I cycle home from a zumba class soon after ten. After crossing the railway, I tentatively signal right, cross the traffic, and then follow a path around what was once the village green of St Stephens, Hackington. It’s now a suburb of Canterbury, just under a mile from the cathedral. The green is bordered by an old wall, giant beech trees, with a little playground next to the church on the side away from the main road. The Sunday Eucharist is at 10.30 so, as I pedal home, the church bells are usually ringing. And I often end up making a little video on my phone of the trees, variously bare, or in the full leaf of early summer, or the glory of autumn, or just looking splendid against the sky.
Why do I like this little patch of earth so much? What is it about place? It seems to be one of the great themes of our time. As Billy Collins writes in his poem A Sense of Place, the topic ‘now consumes 87% / of commentary on American literature.’
I’ve recently read two excellent books on place. Kathleen Jamie’s poetic essays in Sightlines, describe places I’ve never been. One chapter, about the whale museum in Bergen, was so vivid and moving, that I can’t imagine going there in reality would add any more. Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground is about Cornwall and features places (and some people) I know well, giving me a sideways take, seeing the familiar through new eyes. And in-between I read Jenny Alexander’s unusual and wonderful book on dreaming – my own dreams take me regularly to a town I’ve yet to visit in my waking life. Which of these places is the more real?
My own Cornwall, after four years living away, is starting to take on a mythological quality in my psyche. Countries I’ve lived in – Turkey, Russia and Pakistan – now, after decades and seismic political and social changes – no longer exist in the same way. And yet, there’s continuity, as there is with friends unseen for years, who retain their essential self.
Is it arbitrary where we end up and ‘drop a couple of roots’? Four years ago, I knew I was moving out of Cornwall but had no idea I’d be living in Canterbury. I like moving. My dad was a Merchant Seaman, my maternal grandfather, a journeyman carpenter, was rarely at home. My dad’s parents though, were homebodies, only ever living in two houses, and the garden of the modest retirement bungalow, supplied fruit and veg for the village. That village isn’t far from here, and where I spent some of my childhood, but I haven’t wanted to go back. One side nomads, the other side rootedness.
I have a strong sense I won’t be in Canterbury ‘forever’. I’ll definitely live in more houses and possibly countries, and yet, that little patch of green, its trees, its church, its bells, speaks to me so powerfully I can almost say ‘This is my landscape’.