Wednesday, 6 August 2014

In search of quintessential English countryside

Long have I postulated the profound difference between the English countryside and the Polish wieś. The former is where one wants to retire to, the latter where one wants to escape from. Any opportunity to visit some beautiful English countryside should be seized with delight.

The further south you go in England, the more gentle the landscape. In place of rocks, crags, cliffs, mountains, rushing streams - rolling meadowland, soft contours, meandering watercourses. The Derbyshire Dales are gentler than the Peaks, which are less craggy than the Pennines. But south of the Watford Gap*, the English countryside becomes gentler still.

On our way down from Derbyshire to London, Eddie and I explored some of the rural landscapes that I loved most when still living in England - south-east Warwickshire, south-west Northamptonshire, north-east Oxfordshire; where the Midlands yield gradually to the Home Counties. Villages that I visited many a time as a student - on foot or by bike, later by car; villages along the course of the old Great Central Railway as it ran south from Rugby via Woodford Halse and Brackley towards Quainton Road to become part of Metro-Land. Bounded by the M40 to the west, the M1 to the east and the M45 to the north, this is countryside with very low population density. Staverton, Catesby, Hellidon, Priors Marston, Napton-on-the-Hill. Landowners cleared the peasantry off common arable land to farm sheep more profitably, thus beginning England's destructive class distinction.

So off we went, leaving the car in Upper Catesby, in search of the quintessence of unspoilt England. Below: Eddie's trained eye scours the horizon for a glimpse of the remains of the Great Central Railway - the Catesby Viaduct lies down there, somewhere... And into the Catesby Tunnel the train used to run, until the barbarous Beeching ripped up the tracks. Since 1966 the valley no longer resounds to the steam whistle and the rush of express train headed for London from the Midlands and the North.

Below: looking down into the valley. Note how beautifully the public footpath is maintained. Private land and public right of way - clarity of ownership and purpose. For walkers, the countryside remains accessible along these ancient byways. But the history of enclosure and how the peasantry lost their right to the commons is also visible here, unlike in Poland, where you can ramble pretty much at will over the countryside (as long as you're not trampling crops).

Below: the footpath turns 90 degrees left into a nicely laid gravel path. Neatly trimmed hedgerows and clipped grass verges show that the landowner cares about the aesthetics of the property. Where will this path lead us? Let's see...

Below: on to a lovely barn; late-Victorian or Edwardian; fine brickwork. Other than one man mowing his lawn seated on a small tractor, we saw no other sign of human life this fine Sunday afternoon. Looking at the cars in the drives, the local residents are people who made their money in town and moved out to live in rural ease.

Below: a row of former almshouses, now probably each worth a third of a million pounds a piece. For who would not love to live in Lower Catesby, ten miles from the M40, even less from the M1; an hour's drive from London Town?

The church of St Mary and St Edmund, Lower Catesby - and there's Edmund, hemmed in by local sheep. Built in 1861 on the site of a church that had been here since the 14th Century. It was Sunday but the church door was locked; there was no sign saying at what time services were being held. The Anglican Church is losing sway even in its rural strongholds, as well-heeled urbanites, seeking sanctuary from the madness of city life, displace local folk.
Indeed, once in London, we watched a BBC1 TV programme called Escape to the Country, in which people seek the dream property from which to get away from it all, amid Views and a Wealth of Exposed Beams. Right: looking along the avenue of trees, the footpath leads us back up towards Catesby House, a 19th Century Jacobethan building that stands on the grounds of Catesby Priory, a Cistercian nunnery dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.

I've written two short stories set around this magical part of England; read them here and here.

Onward then, to London, via Harrow-on-the-Hill (see post before last). And that's it for this summer's holiday.

* The Watford Gap is an important reference point in English culture. Some 100km north of Watford (an exurb of London), the Watford Gap lies along the line south of which people say 'bath' and 'grass' with a long 'a', 'luck' and 'cut' with a vowel that approximates a Polish 'a', while those to the north would say 'bath' and 'grass' with a short 'a' and 'luck' and 'cut' with a vowel approximating a Polish 'u'.

This time last year:
Behold and See - short story, Pt III

This time six years ago: This time six years ago:
Another return to Penrhos

1 comment:

Richard - Woodworks said...

Hello Mike,
Peter lives at Helidon now! It would have been great to meet up and retell the tale of the first visit to the tunnel, in between sips of Old Hooky. Aargh!