When Life Gives You 2020…

Seven thirty on a Sunday morning and I’m in the woods between Porlock and Porlock Weir on the Somerset coast. Steep combes reach up toward the blue skies, the smooth waters of the Bristol Channel pave the way to Wales. After days of rain sunlight dapples the muddy trails. Spontaneous streams gurgle through the undergrowth. Soggy blackberries glisten, like tiny strobe lights. They’re prolific, dotted along prickly branches that snag my trousers and claw at my fingers. Berries burst as I pick them, bloated with moisture or furry-white with mould from the incessant dampness of the last week. But there are still multitudes of perfect ones; dark burgundy orbs conjuring up warm ovens and oaty toppings. They promise friendly visits and glasses of wine for Sunday lunches – once social distancing becomes social history.

Motor memory controls my fingers, resurrecting sisterly outings of decades past along the childhood lanes, mouths covered in red stains, one for the basket, three for the instant gratification. No washing, just a wipe on the jeans or a rub of a thumb. Once home, we dunked the berries in tubs of water and watched the creepy crawlies float to the surface before Mum baked the fruit into pies or crumbles.

I didn’t gather these foraging memories in the US. I picked blackberries only in England, teaching my children the skills (and the maths of one in the basket and three in the stomach without washing or worrying) during visits home. You can pick berries in the US of course, but in the areas I lived, it was pay-to-play, organized, rule-driven, commercial. Back on Exmoor now, I wander the free smorgasbord of fruit, alone except for a solitary bird. I can’t identify the cry, a croak almost, not a pheasant or a pigeon or any of the little fellas I see on my birdfeeder. I search for a glimpse of the bird, but the trees are too thick to allow more than the one-sided conversation to penetrate the greenery. Still, it’s nice to know I have company.

I’d expected to be showing my US husband the charms of blackberrying – yes, it’s a verb in England – by now. He should have been here months ago. But I’m alone. So is he. Still. The immigration systems in both the US and the UK seem coldly detached from the immigrant/emigrant’s needs. It’s bizarre that we can go to restaurants, schools and shops but visa applicants still struggle to get a one-on-one meeting with an immigration officer. Why is it not safe to send passports and paperwork into someone who could easily be isolated at a computer terminal? It’s easy to harbour thoughts of darker forces interfering with the immigration process. Easy to think that certain powers are conspiring against the sharing of ideas and ideals, of relocation and residency variation. Against joining families together and reuniting citizens of all nations in the country of their choice. Against the joys – nay, the necessities – of adding new ingredients to the global stew pot. If we can rally on the White House lawn, we can carefully tiptoe though travel hubs and follow quarantine rules dictated by scientific data.

I push the darker thoughts aside and let the sunlight play on the fruits in my own berry pot. Here in the woods I feel part of my homeland. Reaching, picking, the plop of the berry in the pot, and the sounds of Exmoor remind me why I’ve fought so hard to return home. I’ll wind my way back along the trail to Porlock, peel a few apples, wash the blackberries, stir the crumble topping and wait for warm scents to fill the house. Hopefully, next autumn’s crop of berries will be harvested by my entire family. Settled, safe – and home. But for now, when life gives me 2020, I’ll make blackberry and apple crumble.

Nothing personal, Flamstead.


Flamstead High Street (image: Fine and Country)

Flamstead is a beautiful English village, situated north of London in the rolling countryside of Hertfordshire. It was my home for the first sixteen years of my life. Quaint, safe, surrounded by bucolic fields full of horses to ride and hayricks to climb, it provided the backdrop for my childhood. So why don’t I think of it as home?

I was born there, went to Brownies there and entered the beauty pageant there in my Spanish dress. I danced around the Maypole there and rode my first pony, Bridie, along every lane and bridle path for miles. I kept score for the cricket club on Sunday afternoons, held all my birthday parties, complete with rabbit-shaped blancmanges and homemade fairy cakes, in the back garden of our house on Singlets Lane.

st-leonards-church-geographSt. Leonard’s Church (image: Geograph)

I walked to tiny Flamstead Junior School through ancient St. Leonard’s churchyard. I competed in the school Sports Day, which comprised of the three-legged race, the egg and spoon race and the mother’s race. For a grand finale, the most adventurous of us would run a lap of the entire school property. It took about forty-five seconds.

I acquired my life-long sweet tooth at Bell Candies, about as Disneyfied a sweet shop as you’ll ever find. Nestled in the bay window of a tiny cottage were the jewels of childhood; white chocolate mice, Blackjacks, Flying Saucers, jelly babies, gob-stoppers and barley sugars. Jars and jars of heaven lined the walls. I stopped on the way to school to spend my pocket money, the owner shooing me out the door if I stayed too long.

I played in Jacks’ Dell, an old crater of unknown origin on the edge of the village. I climbed in, hid in, made forts in, pushed friends in … (Sorry, Paul, about tying you to that dustbin lid and sending you over the edge. Looking back, not one of my better decisions.) I told ghost stories there about Jack the Ripper, who supposedly hid in the dell when he wasn’t busy in London.


The Spotted Dog (image: Thespotteddog.com)

I listened to Sunday evening bell ringing practice, hung out on the bus stop bench with friends, dreamed about being old enough to drink at one of the local pubs …

I grew up there.

I knew everyone. Everyone knew me.

I left my idyllic village to train to be a horse riding instructor on Exmoor. And I never went back to Flamstead again. Never even looked back. I found my soul drawn to Exmoor like a moth to a flame—in a way it never was to Flam-stead.

I don’t understand why. I have no control over it. It is what it is.

Almost forty years after leaving my birthplace, I offer my thanks and my apology. Nothing personal, Flamstead. You did nothing wrong. You were perfect.

You just weren’t Exmoor.

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