Daily Decoration: a swan a-swimming (not on the seventh day)

A flat wooden Christmas tree decoration with a swan and the figure 7 in gold on a green background

Today is not the seventh day of Christmas. But this is the only Twelve Days of Christmas ornament I have, and today I have seen a very large number of geese. Not a-laying, but a lot more than six of them. Two hundred, at least. I thought for a long time that they were swans, until four or five of them flew overhead, and the sound was wrong – honking, not the whirring noise that swans’ wings make – and the beaks were wrong. So the day’s wrong and the numbers are wrong and the birds are wrong, and none of them were either a-swimming or a-laying.

But it was great. You can’t argue with a field of two hundred waterfowl, and besides, I was out on a decent walk, an hour out, an hour back, and that’s something I haven’t done as much as I’d like this year. I’ve done a lot of quick morning walks – twenty-five minutes out, twenty-five minutes back – but not much new territory. I think part of that’s a hangover from last year. I got out of the habit of walking to places in lockdown, when the pubs were shut and the trains were for essential travel only, and so any walk had to be short and circular.

Today’s walk wasn’t a new one. Coveney and back again: I’ve done that plenty of times, on foot and on my bike. But it was time and space to think about the adventures I might yet take. It’s tricky, obviously, with the Continent shutting down every few months. Maybe 2022 is the year we go down the Rhine. And I have this idea of cycling from Ghent to Aachen. And I’m less interested than I used to be in crossing one route after another off a list. That means going to places because I want to go to them – but knowing what I want to do can still be a challenge sometimes. It needs to be a bit more specific than ‘somewhere new’.

More than anything, I think, it needs a change in mindset. Adventure happens when I’m adventurous. And in the meantime, perhaps, I can be preparing. Getting my road bike serviced. Looking at maps. Going a little bit further, a little bit longer. Expanding my comfort zone a bit at a time. And in the meantime, there are hundreds of geese if I only walk half an hour from my front door.

Daily Decoration: Advent candle

A red candle marked with gold figures up to 24. It has burned down as far as the figure 19. In the foreground, a cardboard angel holds a banner saying FEAR NOT.

‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘it’s the candle.’

‘Mm?’

‘Something in my brain said, ah, that’s Christmas. It’s the smell of the candle.’

He has a point. For those of us who spent a lot of time in churches in our childhood, candles smell of Christmas all by themselves; there’s no need to add pine or cinnamon and put it in a fancy jar. Although I’m not sure how he hasn’t noticed it before, because, as you see, I’ve been burning this one all through Advent. And in fact it isn’t Christmas yet.

We buy each other chocolate Advent calendars, but I get the candle for myself. I have a fairly well-defined set of preferences. Not white – which usually, as this year, means red. Not conical (I made that mistake one year and regretted it as the time to burn through each number increased daily). Not too hideous. This one’s pretty good, though it could have done with some blank space at the bottom. As things stand, I’m going to have to take it out of its bottle before I get down to 24 and put it in some sand or something. I’d rather not risk cracking the glass.

The bottle is something of a hero of antiquity. It dates from my student years – 2006, to be precise. It says so on the side, courtesy of an Exeter University Methodist and Anglican Society glass painting evening. 2006 was the year I graduated. This year’s Freshers were born the year that I was a Fresher.

This September we went down to the West Country: took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up again on a selection of trains and buses. Excellent fun (I particularly recommend taking the open-topped bus around Land’s End). We stopped off at Exeter and went to Evensong at the university chapel, eighteen years (give or take) after we first met there. A lot has changed – the choir, for a start, is a lot more competent and a lot tidier than we ever were; the room where I painted that bottle has been taken out of use, except for storage – but I had a very strong sense that the important things were still the same.

The glorious ceiling. The high clear windows. Radcliffe responses and Greater love hath no man.

Or, perhaps, the same but more so. The singing better, the choir robed, the new scholars inducted with a formal blessing. The implicit inclusion of queer Anglicans made explicit.

A sense of a beginning.

Daily Decoration: Ljubljana dragon

Laser-cut plywood dragon set in a circle, with text 'Ljubljana' at the base

I only found out when someone mentioned it on Twitter a few hours ago, that today’s the anniversary of Patrick Leigh Fermor setting out on his epic foot journey to Constantinople. It’s rather pleasing, because I was thinking about PLF a lot when I was planning the journey on which I picked up this dragon.

My Grand Tour in 2018 was rather less epic than PLF’s journey. I only had three weeks to get it done in, though my budget was probably quite a bit more generous, courtesy of the Betty Trask Award. Going by train, I got some impressive mileage in. I didn’t get invited to stay in any castles, though I did end up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna.

But that’s by the by.

I loved Ljubljana, in much the same way as I loved Bratislava: they’re both capital cities that haven’t been capitals all that long; they’re easy to walk around, and hard to get lost in. Bratislava had the better food, and a cathedral with a wonderful eighteenth century St Martin in a pellisse. And trams.

But Ljubljana has dragons. They guard one of the famous bridges; there’s a legend about a dragon and Jason, of Argonauts fame. And actually there was some very good cake, too. And bendybuses. And a funicular.

I went to Ljubljana because two separate friends, both far more experienced than me in the art of adventure, recommended it. That was how I planned a lot of the journey: recommendations from people who knew what they were doing; places I’d always wanted to go to; things that looked good in Europe By Rail. A bit of wiggle room for emergencies, or just in case I wanted to change my mind. (I did, a couple of times.)

But all the time I was planning it I had to get around a voice in my head that was trying to tell me that this was the last fun thing, before… Before what? Well, before Brexit, before whatever horrors the next US election were going to inflict upon the world, before I lost my nerve.

And had Patrick Leigh Fermor, tramping across Europe and seeing the rise of Nazism on the ground, got into my head? Had Patrick Leigh Fermor, looking back on the adventures of his youth from the bitter experience of sixty-something (and a world war), managed to scare me, betwixt and between at the age of thirty-two, out of going? No: he was half the reason I wanted to go at all.

I can’t say that I saw a global pandemic coming. Sometimes the voice in my head tells me that it told me so.

But it wasn’t the last fun thing. It wasn’t even the last continental European holiday: we got to Lille the next year. It wasn’t the last public transport adventure: even this September we took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up the West Country on buses and trains.

The Grand Tour wasn’t the last fun thing. And actually, by the end of the trip it was feeling less like the end of something and more like the beginning of something. I’d learned a lot about travelling on my own, about not actually having to speak every language, about when to rewrite a plan and how absolutely anywhere looks better after you’ve had a shower. And I’d learned that very often it is just as simple as deciding that you want to go somewhere, and going there. Here be dragons. Let’s go and see them.

If you want to read about my Grand Tour adventures in more detail, perhaps excessive detail, start here.

Daily Decoration: Dutch windmill

China windmill, white with blue sails and details, hanging by a blue ribbon from a brass knob

Finishing off the vaguely Dutch theme of the last few days with an actual windmill from Amsterdam. Amsterdam was a day trip: we were staying in Leiden and it was our first foreign holiday together since our honeymoon. (Really? Six years? But then there really wasn’t much money to spare for most of them.)

Most of our recent foreign holidays have been to the Low Countries. There’s a good reason for that: we only started gathering some disposable income once we’d moved to Cambridgeshire, because that was where one of the jobs was. Add to that my reluctance to fly (it’s not that I’m never flying again, but I’m going to need a very good reason indeed), a shared interest in cycling, and the proximity of the Harwich ferry and the Eurostar, and it becomes obvious that we’d visit Leiden, then Ghent, then Lille.

(Solo trips are another matter. More on that tomorrow. And we are still holding out for that rail tour alongside the Rhine.)

I wasn’t massively keen on Amsterdam. My experience throughout my travels (again, more on that tomorrow, probably) has been that I prefer the smaller cities. But I did like the Netherlands more generally, and I’d like to go back sometime when All This is under control. In the meantime, I’m exploring my own flat land.

Blue sky reflected in a straight, calm, river, with reeds and a grassy artificial dike on the right bank and overhead railway power lines on the left bank
Cambridgeshire.

Landing (Emma Donoghue) #EU27 project

Paperback copy of 'Landing' by Emma Donoghue, with a coastal scene and wooden blocks with pictures of an aeroplane, a compass rose, and a maple leaf

Four books into the #EU27 challenge, and for the first time I’ve managed to read something that was actually written in the European Union. Except, according to the cover, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Oh well. She’s Irish, much of this book is set in Ireland, and people pay for things in euros. I’m going to count it. I’m also going to count it towards the Sapphic Reading Challenge, which I’ve been keeping up with but not, as yet, posting about.

Published in 2007 (the year in which I last travelled by plane, incidentally), this is a complicated romance between an Irish-Asian flight attendant and a Canadian museum archivist. And, while I’ve been doing a lot of escapist travel reading throughout the pandemic, I wouldn’t say that this was a book to induce wanderlust: it’s too clear-sighted about the trials of travel, and of being in love with someone who’s thousands of miles away. Though there’s a real affection for the real Ireland and for the fictional ‘Ireland, Ontario’ I didn’t find myself planning an expedition, the way I have with some other places.

I could add all sorts of tropey genre tags – long distance relationship, age gap romance, opposites attract – but they wouldn’t come close to conveying the depth of the novel. I would want to say that all of them add up to make for two interesting, complex characters. (And the supporting cast on both sides of the Atlantic deserves a mention, too: from the stoner ex-husband to the obnoxiously precocious god-daughter.) I wasn’t convinced that their relationship was going to last beyond the end of the book, but watching it get as far as it did was fascinating.

Hyperlocal travel writing: West Fen Road

A very flat green field dotted with large white birds under a pearly grey sky

The name is a little misleading. Oh, it’s the road that takes you into the West Fen, but there’s as much north as there is west in the direction.

I take my life in my hands and cross the A10, and immediately drop down below sea level. This is a low, flat land. At this time of year it’s deep brown or bright green: vast breadths of ploughed soil, and young shoots. The sky above is an inverted bowl of cloud, pearly grey, dull.

It was a Dutchman who drained the marshes. Cornelius Vermuyden. The last time I walked down to the quay there was a paper picture of him in the window of the art gallery, armed with shovel and plans, and staring down Hereward the Wake across a broad drain. Hereward wouldn’t recognise the place. Vermuyden wins. For the moment. The Netherlands aren’t that far away, across the North Sea, but everything’s that far away, these days. In my head, Jacques Brel sings about the towers of Bruges and Ghent, mijn platte land, mijn Vlaanderland. Ahead of me, there’s Coveney church; behind me, the cathedral and St Mary’s.

The road surface is broken again and again by grooves in the tarmac. If I were on a bike, they’d be murder on the wrists; in a car, they’d induce motion sickness; on foot, I only notice them by eye. To my right is a ditch deeper than I am tall. Every now and again I have to hop up onto the verge to show willing when the cars pass. I don’t entirely trust it. On the other side of the road, an intermittent hedge provides some shelter from the wind. It’s hard to judge distance. Those white blobs: swans or sheep?

The tractors are big here. I remarked to a friend who grew up in Devon how big tractors have become; she thinks they were always big here. There’s room for them to be. The fields and roads of my childhood (the Marches, and then the Isle of Wight) wouldn’t fit these monsters.

I get a little closer to the white blobs. Swans. They’re too clean, their edges too well-defined, to be sheep. Big, though. Are the swans bigger here, too?

The road progresses in a series of right angles. Every now and again there’s a farm. Ebenezer (O, the deep, deep love of Jesus – but I can’t remember any more of the words than that, and wander off into Here is love vast as the ocean), Hale Fen Farm, the one that’s marked on the map as Frogs Abbey but which doesn’t have a name board. Tall willow trees, mud-spattered, and a mud-sodden teddy bear abandoned underneath them. I really cannot go rescuing muddy teddy bears from the side of the road, but I’m only just sufficiently hard-hearted to leave it.

It’s only a few days into Lent. I think about the wilderness. No barren land, this; its featurelessness is what makes it such hospitable farmland. Forty days and forty nights. My mind still switches from the harsh fifths of Aus der Tiefe to the gentle thirds and tones of Buckland at verse four, and it’s six years since I’ve been in a choir that had that trick. So shall we have peace divine…

There’s plenty of warning of the sharp steep hill into Coveney: you can see it from miles away, but it calls for some adjustment in pace, effort. Because I’m not on a bike today, I can saunter along the pavement and stop to read the information board. Coveney: Old English: village in the bay. Before all this was fields, the higher ground that Little Downham and Ely and Sutton sit on a ridge in the marsh, a horseshoe-shaped cove, with Coveney an island in the middle of it.

If I were on a bike, I’d go on, follow my nose, follow a drove until it petered out into a sharp-stoned path and I gave up for fear of a puncture, or until it met a main road. As it is, I sit on a bench to eat a couple of ginger biscuits and drink some water before turning back towards home. The daffodils are coming out. Down the hill again, and south-east, or, at least, what averages out to south-east, between all this right-angled corners. From this dead straight road through dead flat fields I suddenly see what the Old English meant. Ely crowns the ridge ahead of me, and there I am in the bay, down on the seabed. Little by little, walk by walk, I’m beginning to get my head around it, this platte land.

Deep grass-edged ditch alongside a single-track road running along flat arable farmland. Cathedral tower on the horizon.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the path alongside the A10

One of my great comforts this past year has been travel writing: reading it, and visiting in my imagination all the places that I can’t visit in the flesh. But it’s also made me appreciate where I am. And that made me remember that in fact I live in a city that’s a popular tourist spot in ordinary times.

Actually, I don’t believe that’s necessary. No matter where we live, we can approach our streets, gardens, kitchen tables, with a travel writer’s eye (and perhaps an attitude of self-parody, if need be). Take a look at this: Travel and Food Diary: Quarantine Edition.

So, if you’d like to jump in and share your hyperlocal travel writing, please do. (#HyperlocalTravelWriting ought to do it.) We can visit each other virtually, travel the world, see the sights, taste the food, smell the scents, from our computers.

At the same time, it felt a bit like cheating to go straight in with the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell and all the rest of the attractions on my doorstep. They’ll come later, I’m sure. But I thought I’d start with something more ordinary: the path I walk most days.

Pale blue morning sky with moody purple, pink and apricot clouds over twentieth century detached houses, bare winter trees, a shining tarmac path, and dull grass

Start at the north end. Immediately, there’s a choice. Left or right? Left, the path is narrower and the trees are closer. Right, the wider path is split down the middle: red for cycles, grey for pedestrians. They clasp between them a broad green space. There’s probably a dog or two bounding across it: a black labrador, maybe.

Left or right? It doesn’t matter. This wasn’t so much a fork as a spoon, and you started at the very tip of the bowl. If you didn’t dip down to the subway under the main road, drawn by the allure of a takeaway (not, in these times, a film or a swim) at the leisure park, or follow one of the little paths off to the left to find yourself somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, you’ll be where the bowl meets the handle. Now the two paths join, split the difference, become a sinuous strip of tarmac self-consciously meandering between the houses on the left and the trees on the right. The cycle track ends, but the cyclists continue: a lad on a paper round, sporty-looking people on mountain bikes, small children wobbling on stabilisers or whizzing off on balance bikes. Scooters, too. Dirt tracks, made by children or dogs, lead off into the trees and emerge again a little further on, for the pleasure of going nowhere in particular.

Beyond the trees, the A10 roars on. Somebody’s going somewhere, even if it isn’t you. South, towards Cambridge and London. North, towards the sea. The birds keep singing regardless. Thrushes, sparrows, pigeons. You might even hear a cockerel.

Now the path dips, loses a couple of metres in height. You notice it, out here in the Fens. The path broadens a little, becomes concrete, passes a small water processing plant, is barred by a gate (easy to walk round, and a particularly good blackberry spot in the autumn), meets the road. Not the main road, but the one that takes the traffic into the city from the north west. The cars (it mostly is cars) coming from the south whose drivers wish to do this veer into the middle lane, slow rapidly, and wait for the southbound lane to be clear. From the north, it’s easier. Meanwhile, the main flow of traffic – cars, white vans, grimy lorries, huge tractors in primary colours, hauling gleaming-bladed implements behind them – keeps on going.

Cross the road, and pause on the other side. Look up the hill. There’s the cathedral, effortlessly imposing. You’d have to climb a bit to get to it, more than you’d think from looking at it from here. You’ll have to climb anyway, following this path.

Again, the planted tree barrier has grown up on the right, recently enough that you can still see the plastic guards around the trunks, long enough ago that some of the trees have swelled enough to push them off. Hazel, silver birch, blackthorn, wild roses, brambles. Even in winter, the rosehips make the hedges bright. The houses are a little further away, but every so often a path branches off to take residents off into the maze that only they have really got their heads around.

Still it continues, an artificial path winding through artificial bumps and mounds, little bridges crossing little drains. Chunky plastic benches are provided at decent intervals. This is a path for people. Keep on climbing, and you come to a wide, open green. Look at the houses, spot which ones have been made to the same pattern as each other. Watch the dogs joyfully chasing balls. There might even be someone with a kite. Some new trees were planted this winter, filling in some more of the space between the path and the road: try to picture what it’ll look like when they’ve grown up. At the top end, there’s another little bridge, and then you’re back on this same climbing, tarmac path, tucked between the houses and the road, except now the road is quite a way beneath you.

At the top of the hill the path gives onto a square of houses with an impressive playground and a majestic horse chestnut tree, older than anything around it. Keep on past it.

If it’s been dry, or very cold, or if you’re not too worried about your shoes, you might as well leave the path and climb up to the top of the little mound which really is as high as you can get. Look down on the road, look west across the fen, look at the morning sky. Follow the hedge line or walk the ridge, sloping down southwards. Or you can keep on along the path, which has its own rewards: huge variegated ivy leaves; snowdrops and crocuses, or, later, cherry blossom; or later still, the orange balls of buddleia globosa, thick with bees; a bush full of opinionated sparrows; a copper beech hedge; a bright-beaked blackbird.

And then you’re at another road. Look left, and there’s the cathedral again; right, the roundabout to sort the Ely traffic from the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic from the westbound traffic and the traffic that wants the filling station or the Travelodge. And straight ahead, a tranquil field, ploughed or green, and another lone chestnut tree, its branches sweeping downwards, hazy in the morning light.

December Reflections 24: one year ago

reproduction of a 1610 map of Buckinghamshire

One year ago, I was somewhere in Bedfordshire, or Buckinghamshire, or possibly Hertfordshire, visiting in-laws and in-laws’ in-laws. I’d taken the train straight up there from London, and I think we all hopped straight into the car and went to pick up my stepmother-in-law’s brother and then all went to see her brother. There was a lot of travelling that afternoon, anyway. No planes (I haven’t flown since 2007), but trains and automobiles, by all means.

This year, not so much.

It occurred to me earlier just how much travelling there is in the Gospel accounts of the nativity. Mary, going to the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph, travelling to Bethlehem. Or from Bethlehem to Egypt. The Magi, travelling from the east, via Jerusalem. Even the shepherds go even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that is come to pass. The Gospels disagree about who travels where, but they both agree there’s a lot of travelling. Matthew and Luke, both knowing that Bethlehem is important, both knowing they’ve got to get everybody there somehow, but not sure whether to start them off there and move them to Nazareth later or throw in a census to get them out of Nazareth. I sympathise.

As my Playmobil crib figures hop from bookshelf to bookshelf, traversing the length of the sitting room, I don’t seem to be going very much further myself. This evening I’m travelling vicariously with NORAD Santa. In a normal year I’d be clocking up over a hundred miles every weekday. That all ground to a halt in the middle of March. Actually, I hadn’t done so badly. Work had sent me to Manchester, and then I managed a dash to Bristol for what must have been one of the last full-scale weddings. I’d gone north. I’d gone west. South would come later.

I’m sad not to be seeing people. My in-laws are in tier 4 now; we’ll be in it ourselves from Boxing Day; and such of my family as wasn’t in tier 4 will be moving from tier 1 to tier 3. This isn’t such a wrench as it has been for some people, as we’ve done Christmas on our own before. And goodness knows I’m well off compared to the poor hauliers waiting at Dover. It’s more the not knowing when I will see people again.

Which is not to say that I haven’t found value in staying still, or in traversing the same short distance over and over again. I wrote, some time in the first lockdown,

this time is reminding me very much of my childhood: all the household is at home all the time; there are columbines and copper beech and swelling fruit in the garden; I can hear a cock crowing. Encountering civilisation is a bit of a palaver. I spend most of my time barefoot. Going on holiday is a very remote possibility and will be the Isle of Wight if it ever does happen. People who I love very much are a long way away from where I am, and there’s no prospect of seeing them soon.

I did make it to the Isle of Wight; my middle brother drove up with his fiancée and picked me up. And the journey was the way they always used to be: leaving very early in the chill of a clear summer morning that’s going to be hot later, heading south through long shadows.

Until we got to the ferry terminal, where they were still advertising the Isle of Wight Festival which was never going to happen this year, and there was another brother in the queue…

Soon, soon, we’ll be able to do all that again. And it’s worth waiting for.

December Reflections 17: things I missed

plastic tumbler with blue design representing the various things that go on at Ventnor Fringe Festival

I did make it to Ventnor, and was very glad to do so, but of course the Fringe was cancelled. I was able to see my family, but I missed the buzz and the music and the hanging around at the Book Bus drinking Belgian beer until it was time to go and watch something strange or brilliant or completely whack. There were a lot of holes in the calendar this year: Ventnor Fringe; our housewarming party; the Discworld convention; the national Ultreya. Whole months went by without my looking at the calendar at all.

I missed the things I’d promised myself I’d do more of – live theatre, yes (I saw two operas in two weeks back in February, though I wasn’t intending to maintain that ratio), but ice skating, too, cinema (we live five minutes from a cinema now!), taking trains to places on the Continent. I missed the things I took for granted: a pint at the pub, being able to sing in church.

I’ve said a few times that I’m quite prepared to continue being an antisocial cow for as long as it takes, and that’s true. But there are things I’m missing a lot, and I shall be very glad to do them again when it’s safe.

December Reflections 7: on my wish list

map showing most of western Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, with major rail routes

I’ve been trying to take a trip down the Rhine ever since 2018 – when I got very close, but was thwarted by train delays. In 2019 we were saving to buy a house, and also just weren’t very efficient. 2020 – well, no. I was quite sufficiently twitchy about going to the Isle of Wight: crossing any international borders would have been too much.

And I have to admit that things aren’t looking great for 2021, either. (Plan B for next year is to hire a car and see how many of the Great Little Trains of Wales we can get around.)

Still, we’ve put together a convincing itinerary; we just need to find a convincing week-and-a-bit to slot it into. Maybe that’ll be next year. Maybe it’ll be some other time. Anyway, the Rhine is staying on my wishlist until I actually manage it.