I’m gearing up to sell my house in the spring. If all goes according to plan, it will be my last house sale in the USA in preparation for my first house purchase in the UK. With me so far? Plan – move – UK? You have questions, you say? Oh. You mean why are my American husband and I relocating across the Pond when we have no clue how Brexit will impact the UK or how Trump will continue to influence the US? When all rational thought suggests we hunker down in a bunker stocked with tinned mandarin oranges. (Are there tariffs on those? Maybe the tins, you think, not the orange segments? No, I have no idea either. Hard to plan what to stockpile, isn’t it.) But I digress …
Obviously, you’re right to be confused as to my relocation timing. I agree to a little apprehension myself. Confusing times lead to confused decisions.
But enough of politics and world chaos. Here’s what really confuses me: All those things I said I’d do to this house when I moved in thirteen years ago and didn’t do. (Except paint the wall behind the toilet red. That I did.) Why have these irritating household fixes now popped from bottom to top of the URGENT to-do list? Why is the loose trim under the cabinet in the bathroom keeping me awake, even if you can’t see it unless you’re on your hands and knees with one ear on the floor? And the crayon marks on the woodwork from the previous owner’s kids? Still there. Only now those marks glow like an Elizabethan ‘The Armada’s coming!’ beacon on a hilltop, guiding the eye to the rainbow stains. And then there’s the red paint wall behind the toilet that seemed like a good idea thirteen years ago but never really worked and I’ve lived with it because, well, admitting your husband was right all along is never going to happen except the realtor agrees with him and now I’m stuck with a smirk on hubby’s face. (He needs to remember who’s sponsoring his relocation to the UK. One word from me at Heathrow immigration and he’s expat toast. Just saying.)
And there’s the retaining wall in one of the flower beds. It’s completely covered in mature shrubs. I planted them years ago to hide the one wobbly boulder. Which they do, by the way. Completely. But suddenly that unlevel boulder seems such an eyesore it’s visible from space and most certainly will be picked up by the realtor’s drone during the photo shoot.
See what I mean? I have bigger issues than retirement fund instability, my husband getting stuck in a camp set up in a field where the third Heathrow Airport runway is destined to be built, and the price of bread eclipsing the price of cars.
Is it possible I’m fixating on the red paint and the garden wall to take my mind off Brexit backstops and Trumpianism? Surely not. Well, maybe. Okay, it’s highly likely. Suppose I just need to hope the whole ‘Which is worse, Brexit or Trump?’ thing gets sorted out soon.
But, let’s face it, for me it’s never been about which country’s winning the bet on who’s confusing world order more. It’s always been about a strong sense of where home is and where it isn’t. At least there’s no confusion in my mind on that score.
July has been a big month in the Gemmell household, two newsworthy events occurring within days of each other.
First, after decades of dithering about citizenship, I celebrated my first Fourth of July as a US citizen. I know, right? Hell froze over despite climate change. In honour of the occasion, America decided to forgo the usual focus on picnics, hotdogs and apple pie to celebrate the event with a militaristic show of force. Tanks roamed the streets of Washington DC, the President acted as MC for the airshow, and ‘bombs bursting in air’ threatened to revert to its original interpretation, rather than signify a pretty firework display.
Was my new citizenship status the provocation for this change or could it just have been coincidence? I mean, the British were coming long before I married into the colonial clan. First to collect taxes and demand better treatment for tea. Later as voice-over artists for Jaguar car commercials and, in my case, to provided accent modification services to a population that seriously needed it. Or not, depending on you view of the appropriateness of ‘France’ being a three-syllable word. (Fu-Ra-Yuns echoing down the Champs-Élysées endears you to no one, America. Just saying.) Anyway, my formal dunking in the melting pot hardly seemed cause for lining up the troops.
But I’m greater cause for suspicion this July and tanks are necessary. Apparently. You could argue it’s not just me. USCIS naturalized 756,800 people in fiscal 2018, a five-year high, according to a USCIS report, and there’s a backlog of a million applications for citizenship and permanent residency according to government statistics (reported in the Washington Post, June 3rd, 2019). The wait time for approval has jumped from four or five months to close to a year under the current administration (reported on NPR, September 1st, 2018). So, all these new and potential new voters may have played a role in the rolling tanks. But I choose to keep the focus on me. I commit now to bringing more apple pie to next year’s Fourth of July party.
The second event occurred four days after the tanks decimated the National Parks budget: my 30th wedding anniversary. This occasion annihilated my theory that only old people can be married for thirty years. Turns out you can be very young and reach this milestone; in my case, due to the fact I was betrothed at birth to my US husband in a ceremony dedicated to cementing the ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. No, really. It was attended by Margaret Thatcher and Bush 41. They used one of those new-fangled fax machines to share the news with my parents. I still have the smudged documents. Anyway, my husband sweetly maintains he got the better end of entente cordiale. I sweetly agree with him. As much as I miss home and as much as hireth nibbles at the corners of my conscious 24/7, I wouldn’t have missed this American man for anything.
July 2019 goes down in history. I hope you found many reasons to celebrate. Hopefully all your reasons included pie.
I’m fortunate to have citizenship in two countries: The United Kingdom and the United States of America. But it’s not lost on me that ‘United’ appears in both nations’ titles when ‘united’ currently seems a strained concept in either place. Pick your poison: the bedlam of Brexit or the trauma of Trump. You can be supporters or detractors of either and still wonder how we got to this place in history.
Neither issue impacts my resolve to return to the UK permanently. This was a decision made years ago, during a gallop on horseback across Porlock Hill and during a cream tea in a sleepy village. It was made beside a gurgling steam in Horner and while hanging onto my sandwich during a gale on Dunkery Beacon. Politics, current events, head-scratching choices – in the whole scheme of things, they don’t matter. England is home and that’s that.
However, current US policies have coalesced my family’s energy around leaving the US sooner rather than later. Soooo … you heard it here first folks, next year is the year! Yep, by the end of 2020, my husband and I plan to be living in England. The wheels are in motion, the list-making has begun. And, boy, is that list intimidating.
There’s all the usual rigamarole associated with any kind of move, whether it’s down the road or across continents and oceans: Prepping the house to sell, worrying how best to transport the dog (he does ‘down the road’ but may prove resistant to crossing oceans) and of course the stuff of nightmares – The Clear Out. Is it more cost-effective to leave everything and buy new in England or transport everything via container ship? Evaluating each piece of furniture, each knickknack, each cupboard full of memories, it’s daunting. What to take, what to sell, what to destroy in a fire in the back garden because that wooden crate, snatched from a party in college and still used to hold the stereo (yes, stereo. It’s that old.) is too humiliating to post on the local Buy and Sell site. Do I take the custom-made couches that, let’s face it, were designed twenty years ago for a dreamed-of cottage in England but in a size more suitable for the larger colonial house in Connecticut? Do I take all the framed posters of global vacations that hang in my current huge basement but couldn’t possibly fit in a downsized UK house? And then there’s the issue of the books. Hundreds of books. But … but my books!
And don’t get me started on the garden. My trees, shrubs and perennials are all well-loved members of my family. There’s a story behind each one. The lilac was a gift to memorialise my mother-in-law, the white rose for my father-in-law. There’s a beautiful hydrangea, a gift from a student for fixing her ‘Howwible R’, (her words – before treatment), when I was a speech-language pathologist. A large potted rosemary commemorates Basil, our dearly departed Golden Retriever. I’ve nurtured them all through transplant shock, bug infestations, puppy-chewing, polar vortexes, and scorching summers. How can I possibly explain to these plants they’re being left behind through no fault of their own but because customs won’t let them into the UK? (And because the realtor seems to think a stripped-bare patch of earth full of tell-tale holes will impact price.) Parting from human friends is hard but they can visit me in England. My maples, silver birch, ornamental plums, blue spruces, spiraea, red- and yellow twig dogwoods, clethra, peonies and hydrangeas are bound to this place. Is it so unreasonable to demand, as part of the sales contract, the new owners send yearly updates and photos of the irises and oriental lilies?
My relocation situation includes the complication of visa applications for my husband. Having just been through the citizenship grinder – and my American daughter-in-law’s UK visa application – the thought of all the months of confusing and contradictory instructions, expense, and nail-biting waits for approval is intimidating. But needs must. I need to – and must – return home. It’s time to commence countdown. But first, I must go outside and sit with my climbing roses. They’ll require careful explanation of the situation if I’m to expect them to bloom next spring during the house showings. Think I’ll avoid any conversation about current politics on either side of the Atlantic, though. No one could explain any of it to anyone.
There are two schools of thought in writing: write what you know or write what you can imagine. Doesn’t leave much off the table, does it? I, however, know my limitations. Writing a spy thriller is out of the question. I just couldn’t compensate on the written page for my natural deficiencies. I recently read Daniel Silva’s The English Girl. Boy! I thought my characters traveled a lot, but this international spy thriller left my head spinning. All that global rushing about, all that memorization of files and faces and contact info, all that being hunted down with no nice embassy official coming to help if things got messy. Seriously? Does anyone have this kind of energy? This kind of memory? This strong a nerve? As Olivia Colman would say, it’s all quite stressful. I began thinking about all the ways I’d let Daniel Silva down if I were one of his characters. The list is long and ugly.
To start with, I can’t remember a single name of anyone I’ve ever met. This is not a new thing. And facial recognition could be an issue. I once asked my own son, “Can I help you, Sir?” He’d arrived home with a beard after a semester abroad.
The ability to manage multiple passports, visas and identities is far beyond my skill set. I never have the right paperwork ready at the airport. Is it just the passport they want? The passport and green card? The passport and boarding pass? The form I filled in on the plane? Seriously, what the hell do they want now?
Nerves of steel under interrogation? Nuh-uh. Arriving at any international airport, I panic when asked my name. My only name. My real name. The name that’s never been in trouble anywhere in the world. My profession? What? Reason for visit? Er? You’d think, as I sweat through the 30-second encounter with an immigration officer, I had a kidnapped member of the royal family in my luggage. I would fail a polygraph test if they asked whether I wanted a glass of water.
My navigational “difficulties” have led to more marital discord than anything else. I’ve never known north from south, east from west. I barely know right from left under pressure, as hubby will tell you after many an almost collision. If you’re giving me directions using complex terminology like “Head south-east on Rue de l’Espionage then turn west on Avenue Ouest,” well, let me tell you, me being there before you kill the hostage? Just. Not. Happening.
That whole chasing the bad guys across time zones thing? I have an unnatural need for ten hours of sleep a night – which I never get, by the way. Most of the time I’m not functioning well enough to let the dog out. But mess with my circadian rhythms and all hell breaks loose. If you need me in Istanbul on Wednesday, you’d better mean the second Wednesday of next month. I’ll need at least a week to get over the jet lag before I’m good for anything.
Finally, there’s the whole creature comfort thing. Crouched in a ditch in the cold for two days, drinking water out of my socks, wearing leafy camouflage (which would itch, by the way) waiting for a target to come outside so I can hit him between the eyes at 1000 yards? I’d have set solid, my back out and my feet asleep since … a day and a half ago. The hunger growls would be so loud those listening in via satellite would have to turn the volume down.
I met Tom Clancy once, the ultimate spy thriller novelist, at a book signing. He made small talk with me about beer. I don’t drink beer. But should I reveal that? Was this a test? Should I lie or remain stony-faced silent until he broke eye contact, looking elsewhere for a softer target? I felt quite uneasy about it all. What a relief when he finished signing my book and I could leave via the back door. (A real spy wouldn’t have screamed when the alarm sounded.) Mr Clancy probably knew about my beer aversion anyway. From my file at Langley.
I shouldn’t have read that spy thriller. Shouldn’t ever write one, either. My nerves are all ajangle, just in time for my US citizenship interview tomorrow. I fear it’s not going to end well. It’s been nice knowing you
To know me is to know I’m somewhat of a cream tea aficionado ‒ and I don’t mean just the ‘life-as-an-expat-makes-me-crave-all-things-English’ kind. No, I’ve loved scones and jam and clotted cream since I was old enough to lick the inside of a jam pot. (Which, incidentally, is frowned upon now I’m older.) Anyway, in anticipation of my move back to England, I contacted one of the most iconic tea rooms in the United Kingdom to see a) if they’d let me in, given my penchant for licking the inside of jam pots, and b) if they’d show me the inner workings of my idea of Nirvana: a tea room. Surprisingly, they said yes. Enter Paul Gibbs and David Pollard.
A chilly autumn mist
lingers over much of Porlock Vale as I negotiate the winding lane to Selworthy.
I feel I’m driving through a portal, framed by arcing gold, russet and amber
boughs. This much beauty is distracting, and I haven’t even reached the iconic
Selworthy Green yet. Changing gear is trickier than I remember and I almost
stall going around the 90-degree bend by the 15th century whitewashed
church. Thirty years in America leave my left hand unused to such driving tasks.
I pull into the car park and grab my journal, leaving my laptop under the front
seat. I’d initially thought I’d carry it in for my interview with Paul and
David, the dynamic duo behind Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage Gift
Shop and Gallery. But as I stand gazing across thatched rooves, the silent
cemetery and striking views of the moors, high tech seems somewhat out of
place. Maybe I should have brought a quill and parchment paper. And worn a
bonnet. Too late now. Where does one buy a bonnet these days, anyway?
I open the gate
to Selworthy Green and cross the threshold into a different world: birdsong,
the brittle crackle of leaves chattering back to the wind, a stream gurgling
towards the sea after a stint on the moors high above the village. A step back
in time. Many a dream of moving to Exmoor begins at this gate.
Clematis Cottage greets
me on the right. A lichen-covered bench sits in welcome under the diamond-paned
cottage window. A riot of pink resurrection lilies keeps the bench company. Pyracantha
and ivy cascade over the stone walls and steps. An ilex tree of some variety
draws the eye through the bountiful berries to the fields and moors beyond. I
feel no need to take another step. Surely this bench is as good a place to
spend eternity as anywhere? But I take one more step because my nagging subconscious
reminds me I have an appointment.
I pause again on Selworthy Green. I have no choice, appointment or not. Surrounded by burnt-amber cottages topped with mossy thatched hats, its grassy welcome is set in a frame of confectionary-coloured flowers, even in November. Picture postcard perfection. I inhale the welcoming scent of a wood fire, tendrils of smoke curling from a chimney into the air. A door opens. A cheery hello, followed by ‘Want a cup of tea?’ Why, yes. Yes, I do.
Paul Gibbs waves me into Periwinkle Tea Rooms. Paul and David are entering their second year as National Trust tenant operators here, though there’s been a tea room in this location for decades. Ducking under the thatched porch, I’m reminded of a hundred other entries into this hallowed place. As a teenager, sullen (until the cakes arrive), as a newly-wed, proudly presenting Exmoor to my American husband, as a mother introducing my US-born children to an important part of their cultural heritage – clotted cream, flapjacks and ploughman’s lunches. And now, as a homesick expat and empty nester, looking for all the comforts of home I just can’t replicate in America. The tea room had been closed for several years. Seeing it open again elicits more complicated emotions than I’d imagined. I thought I’d lost this part of my history.
With a grateful sigh, I take in another of my favourite Exmoor views: A sideboard groaning with cakes, a glowing fireplace, tea pots lined up like soldiers ready for the lunch fray. Wonky beams and low ceilings; all of it familiar. Yet, there’s something new here, an energy that belies the quintessential ticking-clock-sleepy-cat-on-windowsill expectations of an English tea room. This is no museum to the lace table cloth, encased in magnolia white walls, the hush broken only by the faint clatter of a stainless-steel teapot lid.
There’s new colour
here. Plenty of it. In the seafoam walls, in the local artwork, in the cushions
scattered around the bench seating. In the light reflecting from glistening ceramic
tea pots and the quirky snail-shaped menu holders.
There’s music too,
coming from sophisticated elec-trickery
(remember the Cat Weasel TV programme?)
flashing under the cakes. It’s my first clue this is a thoroughly modern
operation wrapped in quaint trimmings. As Paul directs my tour – I’ve never
been upstairs before ‒ I realise this is not your grandparents’ tea room. There’s
a computer screen above the impressive commercial ovens in the bakery. Paul shows
me detailed statistical analysis: every scone sold in 2018 (13,628), every
cream clotted (33 kilos) every carrot grated (26 kilos), walnut halved (20 kilos),
egg cracked (3,727), Victoria sponged ‒ sorry, your majesty, but that’s 7,453 total
slices of all cake varieties for a total of 828 cakes. And finally, every dollop
of jam (410 kilos). That’s a lot of jars to lick!
Where am I? This is not what I expected. I’m somewhere between below stairs at Downton Abbey and the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (Darn it. Should have brought my old laptop in with me, just to compete.) Pulling up more screens, Paul shows me social media has replaced the lunch gong here. The business twitter account has a staggering reach of up to a million a week. There’s Instagram, Facebook, a polished website and a blog, all responsible for an impressive increase in guests taking detours to visit. The only nod to custom in the kitchen is a binder full of recipes, including all the traditional favourite cakes, biscuits and scones, along with new inspirations, like smoked salmon, leak and potato soup. Paul tells me the recipes are followed precisely, every time. Nothing is left to memory or chance. A guest can return time after time for that favourite coffee cake and never leave saying it was better last time. This is all part, Paul says, of knowing your business, knowing your market, and never compromising on standards. This may explain why they won ‘Tourism Business of The Year 2018’ at the Best New Business Awards.
It all seems so … not thatched. I’m sensing SEO manipulation and business projections Amazon would be proud to call its own. Turns out, I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul and David also run Mill Close Solutions, a management consulting business specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality start-ups. With their Selworthy businesses open seven days a week, eleven months of the year, when do they have the time, you may ask? I almost feel guilty interrupting their day for a cup of tea. Almost.
I’m honoured to
be offered a seat in Writers Corner, designated for local writers who meet to share
all things ‘Author’. (Authors eat cake too, I’ve heard.) I start by testing the
tea. Periwinkle Tea Rooms uses Miles tea, a local supplier who blends tea and
coffee specifically to compliment the peaty Exmoor water. I don’t know what
that involves, but it tastes sublime. Of course, that could be as much a part
of context as flavour. Hard to imagine not enjoying anything in this glorious setting.
Taking a break from his duties at Clematis Cottage ‒ the gallery side of the business featuring Exmoor artists ‒ David joins us for a chat about finding home. His journey to Selworthy started on a fruit farm in Kent before spending eighteen years on Sark, in the Channel Islands. He says he doesn’t miss Sark, mainly because it could take weeks to get off the island in bad weather. Paul, born in Devon and raised in Dorset, has a strong family tie to Selworthy. His great-great-grandparents worked on the Holnicote Estate, one as a woodsman, the other as domestic help. They even lived in one of the Selworthy ‘grace and favour’ cottages. They rest here still, with their youngest daughter, in the churchyard a few yards from where we sit. Paul recalls conversations with his great-grandmother about life in the village. Treasured memories.
ancestry full circle to now live himself in Selworthy is profoundly meaningful
for Paul. ‘Selworthy is such a special place for so many people,’ he says. But
for him it’s more than that. It’s the beating heart of his family history. I
wonder out loud if someone had to compromise to live here, the historical
connection deeper for one half of the partnership than the other. After all, I
have the same concerns about asking my husband to move to Exmoor just because
it’s home for me. But neither Paul nor David struggle with the decision. They both
cherish the opportunity to make Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage ‘must
see’ destinations. They’ve succeeded already. Trust me on that.
Their love and
excitement at being here has led to phenomenal success, outperforming all
expectations in their first years. They’re certainly willing to go out on a
limb for their guests, even throwing an impromptu wedding reception for a bride
whose ancestors lived in Periwinkle Cottage. They organized a meet and greet
for me with other local authors too ‒ well above and beyond the call of scone
I wonder what Paul’s great-great-grandparents would think of a world-renowned, technologically-advanced enterprise in Selworthy. It was, after all, just low income housing in an isolated village ‘back in the day’. Who knows? But certainly, this is not your grandparents’ tea shop ‒ unless you had state-of-the-art grandparents. That said, Periwinkle Tea Rooms still uses your grandparents’ recipes. Those delights, combined with time-honoured tradition, stunning scenery, the welcoming warmth of a fire cracking in the grate, and good old-fashioned hospitality will bring me back to Selworthy over and over again. No matter how long I’ve been away, this place is part of my family tradition. It will continue to be so thanks to Paul and David.
In Wisconsin, the last two days witnessed savage war: Man against the Elements. With air temperatures of negative 26F and wind chills in the negative 50F range, surviving the coldest polar vortex in a generation was all I could hope for. I was home alone; my husband delaying his return from a business trip as travel in these conditions was too dangerous. It was me against the world. But I had an ally. My house.
Home had to
become more than a peaceful, cosy sanctuary. It had to morph into an escape
pod, a foxhole, a superhero friend in the worst of times. As the winds picked
up, the snow churned and the world turned to black of night, my survival
depended on my house. Would it stand up to temperatures it was never tested to
withstand? Would the windows fail, the pipes burst, the roof cave in? This all
crossed my mind during the vortex days and the long, long vortex nights.
I helped as much as I could: opened all the bathroom cabinet doors to let heat in around the pipes, covered curtain-less windows, turned lights on in the garage because if I’d tried to do it once the temperatures plummeted, the bulbs could explode.
But I could do little. My house took the brunt of it. It suffered for me. I listened to it scream. Cryoseisms ‒ known as frost quakes ‒ occurred all through the day and night. The boom and pop shook the house as the foundations fought against the freezing ground. The siding contracted in bursts like exploding vinyl popcorn, the windows bowed against the wind. Those windows! I hurt for those windows. As the snow piled up on them and the glass oozed ice, both inside and out, they wept real tears during their herculean efforts to protect me. I soothed them as best I could, wiping their eyes with soft towels and whispering to them to hold on, stay with me now. Just a little longer. But I had to leave them to check on the commander of the battle: the furnace. Would it hold out? Would the fuel line rupture as the ground froze deeper than ever before? If the furnace lost the battle, the war was over. I turned the light on for it so it wouldn’t fight valiantly alone in the dark. It needed to know its efforts were appreciated. That someone cared about its survival. I cared. My dog, Watson, cared. My photo albums, my computers, my artwork, my books, my indoor rosemary plant – we all cared. Fight on, brave furnace! Wisconsin Forever!
It held! My house
held! The bricks and the glass and the wood and the concrete and the wiring and
the gas line and the furnace held! I could cry with gratitude! I hug the walls
and kiss the patio doors, aware some houses didn’t hold. Rooves caved in from the
snow, fires erupted from broken power lines, houses drowned in waterpipe
breaks. Those houses tried, too. But these were times for extraordinary houses.
Mine was one of them.
How do I thank it? For holding off the onslaught, for protecting me against a frigid Armageddon? New coat of paint? Not nearly enough. So I hereby award my house a title. An honourable title.
Arise, High Commander of Highland Drive. Long live the King!
Note: I’m fully aware there were others in this battle with me: power company workers, water main fixers, snow plough drivers, emergency personnel, construction workers, fuel delivery drivers, architects, to name a few. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart. And my biggest thanks of all goes to those working to keep the homeless safe. You are true heroes.
There are pros to
life as a rolling stone: a global perspective, varied opportunities, a trail of
diverse friendships, strong adaptive skills. Cons: an outsider’s perspective, constant
regrouping, new rules. (Did you know you can display the Union Jack instead of
a licence plate on the front of your car in Connecticut, but not in Wisconsin? ‘Officer,
I didn’t know that. Thanks for informing me in front of everyone with blue
lights flashing and your hand on your gun.’ Some relocation lessons are
hard-earned, but for the most part they add zest to life.
Despite my wanderlust,
I find myself envious of those who’ve remained in an area long enough to pull
back the curtain; to know all the workings of a place. As I build momentum for
a move back to England, I thought it may be helpful to find someone who knows
Exmoor like that.
Nigel journeyed to Exmoor via Hampshire,
Nottingham, and London. He’s worked for
the National Trust for forty years ‒ mostly on Exmoor ‒ currently as the Projects
and Grants Manager for the Holnicote Estate. (From the ochre-tinted cottages of
Selworthy to the peak of Dunkery Beacon, the Holnicote Estate comprises most of
what I call home.) Nigel’s bio says
he’s ‘passionate about the countryside, wildlife, music and cooking good food!’
Sounds like someone I should meet.
We shake hands in
the car park at Horner, a tiny hamlet at the foot of Horner Wood ‒ an 800-acre
section of the Holnicote Estate. Blue skies greet us after days of rain. We
head off into what Nigel calls his ‘favourite temperate rainforest’. This is
one of my favourite spots too. Horner Water burbles through the predominantly
sessile oak woodlands. Cloutsham Ball sits at the top of the steep combe,
presiding over dramatic views of Hurlstone and beyond. Dunkery Beacon towers
over all. On horseback or on foot, I feel cosily cocooned here. It’s the
location of one of my favourite benches in the world.
I thought I knew this place quite well. Turns out I knew little but the trails. Nigel knows every turn in the river, every plant, every historical detail, including the locations of at least two Iron Age hill forts near by. He points to a raised earthen berm topped with mature trees, a testament to the Tudor Age men who rerouted the river to facilitate their iron ore industry. Yes, they moved the river. I didn’t know that. We cross it via a small bridge. Nigel explains the bridge timbers were replaced by iron railway lines, recycled from the West Somerset Railway. He shows me pollarded trees, a pruning technique used for encouraging young growth for fencing and ship-building. I’d never noticed their unusual shape. As we climb, we pass a storm-ravaged oak, its trunk fractured into a stunning natural sculpture. Nigel tells me the year it happened. He conveys an unspoken understanding it is worthy of note, as though the tree is a friend. Oaks here can be upwards of seven hundred years old. I feel a need to spend a few respectful moments with the mangled tree.
As we admire the
view across to Wales, I comment on the amount of holly covering the slopes. I
don’t remember there being this much of it in the undergrowth. Nigel see it as
a rather pesky plant. Since the reduction of sheep grazing in the National Park
‒ a result of agri-environment grants to reduce the impact of trampling and
damage to heather moorland ‒ holly has taken over. During research, I discover “Holnicote”
may trace its roots to the Anglo-Saxon word for holly ‒ holegn. Therefore, its dominance here may be well established.
I remember more mistletoe. I saw so much of it from the saddle years ago. Nigel tells me there’s less now, but still some near Timberscombe. Anything I notice Nigel can explain, whether it be acidic soil, resulting in fewer native flowering plants, or policy change and its impact on vegetation. He shares more: Greater than 440 species of large fungi can be found in Horner Wood. It’s considered by some the most important woodland for fungi after Windsor Great Park and the New Forest. Horner Wood is also one of the richest bat sites in the United Kingdom, boosting fourteen of the seventeen UK breeding species, including the rare Barbastelle. This may explain how busy Liz Bradshaw is, Nigel’s wife. She’s an expert, regularly consulting on all things bat.
We come to a monitoring station on the banks of the river. I can’t imagine what it’s doing out here. Of course, Nigel knows. He’s part of a research project called the Multi-Objective Flood Management Demonstration Scheme. The equipment at the station collects water flow data every five minutes. Using this information, flooding in the Bossington area ‒ where Horner Water enters the Bristol Channel ‒ has been significantly reduced. Modern science buried deep in the ancient forest. Who knew? I wonder what Tudor Man would think of this technology and if it would have impacted decisions to move the river. Maybe Horner folk considered Bossington folk too far away to worry about.
What’s it like to
know a place so well, to be so acutely attuned to its strengths and weaknesses?
It comes at a cost, Nigel feels. Not all is smooth sailing in Camelot. His job sees
him sharing information with Exmoor residents on controversial and divisive
topics, such as Brexit and the banning of hunting. It hasn’t always made him
popular. Exmoor, as seemingly remote from Parliament and Europe and US politics
as anywhere, still exists alongside current issues. That’s a good wakeup call for
me. Escaping world complexities is not what Exmoor is all about.
We discuss the
biggest changes over the thirty years I’ve been away. Nigel feels the number of
visitors, the extension of the tourist season, and the purposes for which they
visit can be viewed as blessings and curses. They change the special qualities
of Exmoor. Landscape and wildlife pay a price for successful Exmoor businesses,
such as adventure tours, hotels and shops. “Erosion, with its inherent
soil loss and water run-off is becoming a real problem,” Nigel says. This
translates into a decline in upland wildlife. He continues, “Curlew, ring
ouzel, merlin, whinchat, stonechat, grasshopper warbler – all disappeared or
rapidly disappearing from Exmoor.” It’s a familiar dilemma in areas of
outstanding beauty: the very businesses necessary to sustain an area can damage
it. Nigel feels strongly about this. “National Parks should not put recreation
above biodiversity.” I promise to remember this.
moss-covered stone walls and the quintessential wooden pathway signs. It’s all
breathtakingly beautiful to me. I ask about other places Nigel enjoys. Apparently,
Badachro, in Wester Ross, Scotland speaks to him of home as I define it: the
place you sleep the best and breathe the deepest. “It reminds me of Exmoor thirty
years ago,” he says. “A wild, untamed, wildlife-rich landscape that excites me
every time I visit.” Recently announcing his retirement, Nigel plans to spend
more time in Scotland. As my face falls – but
we haven’t got to the ‘cooking good food’ part of your bio yet! – he
assures me Exmoor will still feature prominently in his life. Its diversity of
landscapes and wildlife, its cultural richness, including archaeological
evidence of 5000-year-old communities, its wild appeal and remoteness ‒ while
only two hours from Bristol and Exeter ‒ all keep him passionate about Exmoor.
We exit the trees just above the old watermill and head back to the cars. I cherish a whole new appreciation for Horner Wood, but Nigel makes me realize just how much I don’t know about my ‘home’. Or anywhere for that matter – the curse of the constantly rolling stone. I can tell you Bora Bora is surrounded by surreal turquoise waters, the central California coast, though ravaged by fire and landslides, is still beautiful, that the brutal winter storms of Wisconsin produce stunning natural snow sculptures. I can tell you Bahamian sea water is too warm in August, your feet will get wet in Venice, and New Zealand’s volcanic and glacial topography never fails to impress. I can tell you where they serve a great tres leches cake in Costa Rica and that the Brazilian rainforest is vast. What I can’t give you is depth. I can’t express a connection forged by time. But I want to know Exmoor; to pull back the curtain and learn to greet a tree like an old friend. It will take a while. And that’s okay.
Many thanks, Nigel, for sharing your knowledge, and for your commitment to Exmoor.
If you caught yesterday’s blog, you’ll know I paid a visit to the West Somerset Morris dancers as part of my ongoing effort to reconnect with my English roots. It was a success. I left the session feeling more English than when I arrived, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. Witnessing part of something so intrinsically English is bound to stir the old DNA. But something did surprise me. I hadn’t expected to meet so many kindred spirits. Several WSM members recognized and understood the pull of home. They had also left their birth places before connecting in Somerset. I found out more about them during the tea break …
didn’t used to serve tea during practice ‒ until women joined WSM in 2015.
Thank goodness for women, I say. As the kettle boils, I get to corner a few of
the members to ask: why Morris dancing and why Somerset?
For several WSM
members, Somerset is where they were born. Mitch, Reg, Dudley, Peter, Joe,
Edmund and Ray have called Minehead, Watchet, Taunton or Bishops Lydeard home
forever. Other members followed somewhat more circuitous routes to Somerset.
Like Kathy and Andrew, husband and wife, who lived for several years in New
Zealand. Retiring in Yorkshire, their desire to be active members of a
Morris led them to Somerset. Though a passion for the dance attracted them to
the Southwest, they happily report considering the area home now.
After a four-year
stint in Africa, Nicky explored the rest of the world with her husband,
Malcolm. It was a trip to visit the in-laws in Porlock that led to permanent
residency on Exmoor. Nicky’s always enjoyed Morris music and as soon as women
were invited to join WSM, she jumped in. Or is that cross-hopped in? ‘Dancing
with the Morris is such an uplifting experience,’ Nicky says. ‘The men are
hilarious, as you may have noticed.’ Yes. I have noticed.
Anne moved to Somerset seven years ago. She was delighted when the West Somerset Morris asked ladies to join. In her opinion, the WSM is the best thing about Somerset. Barbara was born in London, moving to Somerset thirty years ago. She didn’t hesitate to join WSM as soon as women were allowed. She tells me the group makes everyone so welcome, it’s like family to her now. I’m starting to get that sense after only an hour in the group’s company.
Edwin, who plays
the concertina, was born in Watford, near my birthplace in Hertfordshire. He
studied Classics at Oxford and came to Somerset ‒ via a stint in Manchester ‒
to be closer to his wife’s family. This is Edwin’s fiftieth year as a musician
for WSM. He requires no sheet music, just the name of the dance and he’s off ‒
foot tapping, eyes half closed, lost in the moment. He tells me it’s the people
here that make Somerset home. As I witness the jovial comradery in this village
hall, I believe him.
Steve washes the
mugs while I dry. His story is unique. Having spent his life in Oxfordshire, he
dabbled in genealogy after retiring. Unbeknownst to him, five generations of
his family were out of Watchet, a Somerset coastal community. Upon discovering
this, he felt drawn back to his ancestral lands and here he is now: a
It’s an interesting mix of experiences: those who remained settled in one place and those who found home later in life. Both groups feel it’s important to perpetuate the traditions of Somerset and Exmoor. I’m shown memorabilia saved from each public display. Photos and flyers preserve happy faces outside pubs and on village greens and at Christmas celebrations. All proceeds from displays go to charity. This year WSM are supporting Halway Manor Library, The Air Ambulance and Southwest Children’s Hospice. Good fun and good citizenship. Win-win.
I ask Squire Joe
if he considers Morris a re-enactment of the past or whether it is, in fact,
forging ahead, making new traditions. He thinks it’s both. Times change: women
join, tea breaks are added, and they don’t drink as much alcohol during
displays anymore ‒ that’s what Joe tells me anyway. When asked about the main
draw to join the Morris, Joe feels it’s a fun hobby that encourages members to
connect to place, time and each other.
Sounds good to me
‒ ancient dance woven into the fabric of society. Dance aside, I see a pattern
here: people searching for connection and home. Whether through ancestry or fluke,
there’s a shared desire to be part of traditions that both precede and outlive
us. I vow to weave myself back into England as soon as possible.
I wish you home
for the holidays, wherever that is for you.
I heartily thank
the West Somerset Morris for their kind welcome. The hilarity was a bonus!
‘I’m off to find
England. MY England’, I announce to my American husband. ‘Great,’ he says.
‘Bring back some Club biscuits.’ Tut. Eyeroll. Like Club biscuits epitomise my national
identity. (They’ll be in my luggage anyway.) But if not Club biscuits, what exactly
is ‘My England’? I’ve met many Brits abroad who crave the comfort of all we
left behind, without being able to pinpoint what that is. Hiraeth (or hireth,
Cornish spelling) ‒ a deep yearning for home with a sense of loss ‒ has taught
me to beware the rose-tinted dangers inherent in returning to the land of my
birth. After all, what exactly do I think I’m returning to?
Sounds like a fieldtrip’s
in order. I head across the Pond to search for …well, England. A white
handkerchief flashes in my peripheral vision. Enter the West Somerset Morris.
Morris dancing, that most quintessential of ancient English folk dances, prances proudly through my youth. May Day festivities, royal jubilees, Christmas pub crawls, the Morris dancers were always there in sashes, tabards and tatter jackets. The sounds of the concertinas and fiddles blending with the bells attached to the dancers’ shins. To the rest of the world, the scene may be evocative of cosy murder mysteries; Morris dancers used as a cinematic cue we’re in jolly, quaint, quirky, hankie-flapping England. It’s bound to be one of the dancers who trips over the dead body.
But I digress.
I’m here to discover my connection to this English tradition. The West Somerset
Morris is brave enough to let me visit a practice session.
I drive to
Sampford Brett, a village just outside Exmoor National Park. As I check
directions to the village hall, a peal of bells makes me smile. I roll down my rental
car window. The joyful tones cascade from the church belfry and wash over me;
memories of childhood Sunday evenings. Nowhere else in the world do bells sound
like this. But I mustn’t tarry. The Morris waits for no one. Gathering up my
pen and camera, I pull open the door to the village hall, and step inside the
beating heart of English tradition.
greets me ‒ Bagman an infinitely more interesting title than secretary. Ray is
also the Foreman of this Morris, aka the dance teacher. Next, I meet Squire Joe
(the leader). Other dancers arrive. In a corner, the musicians set up: fiddle,
concertina and flute.
I’m placed in a
safe position at the side of the hall – there are spinning bodies to avoid
after all. Members line up and the music starts. Foreman Ray names the dances
for me: Maid of Mill, Banbury Bill, Nuts in May (this one involves chunky sticks.
I’m here to tell you, they don’t hold back in taking swings at each other),
Border Dance, Skirmish, Jenny Lind, to name but a few. It’s a chilly night but
there’s soon a sweat on brows. This is a workout and then some.
carefully round the perimeter to take photos as Foreman Ray calls out dance
steps. Squire Joe wants more energy from the dancers. The dancers want Squire
to take smaller lateral steps so the lines remain true. This is an art steeped
in tradition, and members are sticklers for maintaining form. I try a discreet little
hop step myself. It’s harder than it looks.
During the tea
break, I ask the group about their own roots and ties, both to this dance and
this part of the country. Members recount stories of global travel,
coincidences and genealogical flukes. These stories follow tomorrow in Part II.
their tea. The fiddle, flute and concertina fire up, and they’re off again ‒
sticks clanking and whoops whooping. The steps have exotic names like
Whole-Hey, Half-Gyp, Caper, Hockle Back and Cross-Hop. Handkerchiefs must be
flicked outwards from chest level, no lower. Ray explains these little details
distinguish one Morris from another and one area of the country from another.
It’s fascinating. I’m so joining the Morris when I move back here!
Or so I think until Bagman hands me a pair of handkerchiefs and invites me onto the floor for the final dance. Let’s just say, it’s a good job I wasn’t trusted with the sticks. As I cavort gamely, trying not to trip anyone while flicking my handkerchiefs with abandon, I’m reminded of the description of Morris dancing in Cecil J. Sharp’s book, The Morris, written in 1907: ‘…the Morris dance is a bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health, and not at all of sinuous grace or dreaminess.’ I may have the rude bit down as I crash around. No one declares I dance with ‘sinuous grace’. Maybe I’m a natural after all.
All too soon, it’s 10pm and practice is over. Ray tells me I’ve only been privy to half the experience so far. It’s on to the pub for a pint, as much a part of Morris as anything, with its history steeped in ale since mediaeval times. Unfortunately, I have an early assignment tomorrow, so have to pass on the offer. Good excuse to come back for the rest of my education though.
I wind along the inky-black
lanes towards Porlock, wrapped in a sense of history, of belonging, of roots. Was
it the dance? The tea? The tradition? The comradery? Yes. Yes, it was.
I’ll never take
for granted the work and dedication of individuals preserving traditions. They
mean so much to the expatriate ‒ this one, anyway. Can I fully explain my
connection to home? Not really. It just is. But I reconnected with part of my
England in a tiny hall in a tiny village, dancing with people I’d never met. I
found kindred spirits in the jingling heart of my home, complete with church bells
and Morris bells. I can’t thank the West Somerset Morris enough for pulling me back
into the dances of England.
There are certain joys in traveling alone. No debate about which museum to visit. The ability to stare at the waves for hours without someone reminding you it’s past dinner time. Ah, yes. Freedom. Independence. The Solo Open Road.
Unless you need to pee. Then solo is not your friend. The following is a true story. Weak of heart? Look away.
A public toilet at a train station in England; the public toilet charging 50p, that doesn’t say it charges 50p at the top of the long flight of stairs down into the dark basement. There’s a turnstile gate at the entrance to the toilets with a torn sign. It informs you of the need for correct change. You have no change, having just arrived in the country and in possession of only large bills because the ATM failed to predict your need for coins. The sign also informs you the change machine is back up the stairs you just came down. You reclimb the stairs, dragging your suitcase, get the change and make your way back down the stairs to the turnstiles gate.
You look around. There’s nowhere to push your suitcase through the turnstile to the other side. You ask yourself, aren’t you at a major train station in a major tourist city where the probability of travellers having a suitcase is pretty high? A polite ‘ahem’ from behind. The line is backing up.
You help three elderly ladies lift their cases over the turnstile. You fumble with your money before dropping a coin out of reach the other side of the barrier. Luckily, one of the elderly travellers sees your distress and kicks the 20p back to you because she can’t bend over to pick it up. You gingerly retrieve the coin from the dust bunnies and god knows what bacteria piled up in the corner, using only your finger nail tips, vowing to wash your hands before you use the toilet. You feed the money into the slot. Three times. On the fourth attempt, the machine recognises the currency.
Wrestling your suitcase to waist level, you’re reminded of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo gun race. Super-human teams of soldiers ‒ young, ultra-fit soldiers ‒ dismantle a huge cannon, run the enormous wheels, wooden trestles and iron gun barrels down an obstacle course, heave it over a twelve-foot wall, run to the end and reassemble the cannon in less than a minute. Only your suitcase is heavier than the cannon because, well, you need a change of shoes to go with each outfit, and you prefer ‘real’ books to e-readers and you happen to read very fast so a book a day for two weeks isn’t unreasonable. Using every available body part, including your chin, you manoeuvre the suitcase. It drops like a super tanker anchor the toilet side of the gate and you’re in. You seriously need to pee now.
You attempt to wash your hands because the thought of the hand that touched the coin that touched the Ebola-laden dust bunnies is never going to touch the toilet paper that touches .. well, you know. But neither the automated faucet, the soap dispenser, nor the dryer recognise your existence; like you’re some kind of vampire, only you can see your reflection in the scratched, graffiti-covered metal plate passing for a mirror and no one’s waving garlic in your face so you must exist. The lady next to you gets her water to run just fine so you wait patiently and move to her sink. You remain undetectable to that sink’s gremlins also. Did I mention you need to pee?
Wiping your still bacteria-laden hands on your jeans, you approach a cubicle. It’s narrower than the airplane seat you spent the night in. The door opens inwards. You have a suitcase.
You have two choices: leave the suitcase outside and pray it will be there when you come out. But … the books! Or pee with the toilet door open, leaning forward at a 90-degree angle with at least ‒ hopefully ‒ half your backside over the toilet, holding onto your suitcase handle while trying to remember what the fine for indecent exposure is in London.
‘Don’t worry, luv. I’ll watch your bag.’
You look around for the voice and a large woman in standing next to you, arms folded, no suitcase of her own in sight. You have questions about her character: is she an avid reader? And her physical attributes: does she wear the same-sized shoe as you?
But I need to pee.
Then risks must be taken.
Maybe she does this for a living? Spends all day in the toilet watching bags that disappear while desperate travellers pee.
Look. Do you need to pee or not?
‘Er. Thank you.’ The door slams and you fiddle with the broken lock, deciding the only thing for it is to jam one foot against the door once you’ve sat down.
And for one brief moment, all is right with the world. The relief! Sun shines into your underground cubby. You’re in a meadow strewn with flowers. Is that birdsong you hear? For the first time since Heathrow, you take a deep cleansing breath. Never repeated because the lady next door is having obvious … difficulties. Remembering where you are and that your books are in jeopardy, you snap out of it.
Are the shoes you can barely see under the door the same ones the bag-watching lady was wearing when you first entered your WC coffin? Damn it! Should have taken a photo of them for the police report later. Now, you have one foot jammed against the door while bent double at the waist trying to keep an eye on the shoes. You feel you’re participating in some kind of warmup routine for the Royal Ballet. Your ham strings scream and your hip pops ominously. Using the toilet paper holder for support, you manage to hoist yourself back upright and zip your jeans faster than an atom heads around the CERN particle accelerator.
You fling the door open. There is a god! Your bag is there! The lady who watched it is still wearing the size thirteen pink moccasins she was wearing before and she’s not reading anything but her wrist.
‘Got to run,’ She says, looking at her watch. ‘Mum’s waiting upstairs with the suitcases.’
I want my Mummy! Please say that wasn’t out loud.
You wave hands, body, feet in front of every faucet, soap dispenser and dryer again, to no avail, while watching a steady stream of women successfully complete the task. You lug your suitcase back over the turnstile and up the stairs, exhausted, beaten down, sweating. But at least you no longer need to pee. You watch others gather their bags from friends and family waiting at the top of the stairs. You’d complain to your travel buddy but you’re travelling solo. You wipe your hands on your jeans and vow never to travel alone again. And to pack only one pair of shoes. And to get an e-reader. A backpack would have fit through the turnstile and inside that cubicle just fine.
I leave for London in a couple of weeks. Planning to stop all fluid intake the week before.