The divide

Welcome to Liverpool John Lennon Airport where the time is 10:55 in the morning, the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius and you should watch your bags at all times eh calm down calm down. Imagine. Everybody loves a cliché when they’re not victim to it, so here I was suddenly in the north, a stark, leaden shell suited contrast to the flowery air of France. It is said – mostly by Liverpudlians – that Scouse humour is unparalleled, and you’d need to have a sense of humour to live here. Boom boom.

The north was right proper grim, mostly due to the arrival of Storm Hannah. I have known a few Hannahs in my lifetime and they have all been sweet and agreeable and no offence at all. Storm Hannah, by contrast, was a true harbinger of misery, decimating the promise of spring as quickly and as conclusively as a hi-vis revolution in Queensland.

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The saving grace was that this soggy, cold weekend around Lytham St Annes was perfect for central heating and afternoon naps, for cups of tea and slices of cake, for red wine and takeaway curry with treasured friends and football maniacs. Occasional breaks in the rain allowed for a brisk walk in a brisk breeze beside a sullen waterfront, outings that only really made the arrival back indoors all the more comforting. Cup of tea? Aye.

wilts00aIt was a more placid day departing the north, incrementally brightening on my journey towards London and then onward to Salisbury; the very heart of a conceptual south. Perhaps near here, somewhere within the borderlands of Wiltshire sits that romanticised version of England; of thatched cottages and village greens; of tinkling brooks and sun-dappled woods; of church fetes and coffee and walnut cake. Perhaps, indeed.

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The promising return of spring added to the ambience of a walk in west Wiltshire, footsteps traversing a mixture of quiet villages and busy farms and flourishing woodlands. The woodlands sprouting green and carpeted with bluebells, the farms a hive of rebirth and earnest bustle, the villages cute and clustering around a church and a pub. Church or pub? Hmm, let me see…

wilts02Praise the Lord for a pint outside in the open air, soaking up the sweetly chirping birds and the smell of the country. And thank the almighty for a gentle downhill totter back to the car, parked beside the marquee on the green next to the church in the contented village of East Knoyle. Everywhere around here is easy to suspect as a secret filming location for Bake Off.

[In a Noel Fielding whisper]: In Bake Off this week our contestants go t’mill t’fetch t’grain t’make a barn cake t’take to creecket. Oop ill un darn dale in an accent neither befitting Noel Fielding nor the Wiltshire-Dorset border. Yet it is precisely here, in the affluent southern town of Shaftesbury, that the most revered depiction of life in the north persists in our psyche. That Hovis ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, many of my generation and older see this as The North. Even though – upon deeper inspection – its narrative is delivered in an undefined country twang that could be at home in Dorset. It must be the bloody brass band that does it, for only Northerners trudge up hills to the melancholy parp of a brass band.

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wilts04“When I were a wee lad you didn’t see us lot wasting our time with Instagrams of food and posing for selfies,” Dad clearly didn’t say as I took a photo of some coffee and cake and indulged in a selfie. Because this wasn’t Yorkshire and neither was it the 1940s anymore, though you suspect some in Shaftesbury would be pleased to turn back time. At least to the years before that bloody advert sent people flocking to a hill to take Instagrams and selfies.

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wilts05Back in a more reassuring south, a morning in Salisbury offered increasing photographic opportunities, marvelling at the famous Cathedral with its famous 123-metre spire and its famous clock, a renown reaching as far and wide as Russia. The water meadows glowing under the sunlight, it was briefly warm enough to amble in a T-shirt, a clear signal that things were still on an upward trend. The birds continued to tweet and to chirp and to wade and to pose in such land of growing abundance.

Indeed, it was a day for the birds, a time of year for their lusty antics and devoted nurture. Apart from bluebells and an impending relegation battle for Plymouth Argyle, nothing says spring more than the sight of recently arrived chicks, coddled and cajoled by their stressed-out parents who are quick to snap.

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The new life of spring offers a time for optimism, for hopes and dreams of what lies ahead. It’s an optimism that extends to the many people on narrowboat holidays milling at walking pace through the murky waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. A holiday at this time of year is a risky proposition (tell me about it!), and it didn’t take long for cloud to build and release its patchy drizzle.

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The rain held off sufficiently to climb Martinsell Hill, which is the third highest point in Wiltshire apparently. And, even with a degree of dreariness, the views were expansive, taking in much of the county, much of the south: clusters of civilisation nestled among a gently undulating patchwork of green and brown and yellow.

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From here, Dad and I headed across a ridge towards Oare, which I hope (but sadly suspect not) is pronounced in a wonderful countrified “Oo-arrrrr.” It would suit, because I am certain the number of tractors per head of population is well above the national average. As are the proportion of bluebells, culminating in a delightful peaceful pocket of woodland on our route towards Oare Hill.

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wilts10Bluebells really were in profusion across England at this time, evident everywhere during this sojourn in the south and among the storm-laden lands of the north. Spreading across the country like the philosophy of Nigel Farage, only exponentially more unifying and much easier on the eye. They would have been a clear highlight, if it were not for that slab of coffee and walnut cake in Honey Street before catching my train west. A very perfect bookend to this haphazard instalment of North and South. And preparation for the tea and scones still to come.

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

May

Recently I saw the first mention of Britain being warmer than Spain. It was on the Yahoo homepage, somewhere between top ten tips to pout like a trout and a twitter post from Taylor Swift that you would, apparently, never believe. Somewhere or someone called Yahoo is not a place I would naturally go for in-depth analysis of the factors underpinning the fragmentation of the Middle East or the precise dimensions of Kim Kardashian’s behind, both of which may be somehow inextricably linked. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I created an email address there and occasionally get distracted by evil click-baiters now preying on people who are slightly bored enough to be checking their email.

Anyway, today, Britain was warmer than Spain, and adorned with attractive young ladies baring skin on a strip of pebbles next to some murky water. The pronouncement of this statement is, of course, as much a feature of British summertime as Wimbledon and a plate of Cumberland sausages infused with burnt charcoal. It blares out why go overseas when you can roast yourself red here? Given a clear pathway towards Brexit forged in the desperate need for a PM to save his shiny, pampered skin, and what with the incredulous love-in for UKIP and Nigel Farage (whose own skin is tanned to the extent that it can only have been achieved with European influence), it is a statement that is arguably as popular as ever [i]. Yeah, who needs Spain anyway, what with its nasty weather and cheap prescriptions and high-speed trains and bargain-basement villas and welfare and services readily available to millions of British expatriates?

Back to this article…I am not sure where in Spain somewhere in Britain was warmer than. It could have been the top of the Picos de Europa being compared with a 1980s British Railway carriage in which the heating has always been on. I suspect it was more likely a temperate resort – usually a Malaga or a Benidorm, or perhaps a more northerly Costa Brava – being compared with an equally delightful place like Gravesend or Hastings. Regardless of its pitfalls, the story was clear: the weather was actually quite nice for the first time in ages.

It may be this that I most miss about Britain. When I see numerous Facebook posts like “Loving this sunny weather” and “Baking in the garden” and even – god forbid – “Sitting in the shade because it’s too hot”, I want to be a part of it, there in my jumper, wondering what all the fuss is about. No, seriously, with acclimatisation still pretty instantaneous I’d be there in my shorts and chomping on a plate of burnt Cumberland sausages with the rest of them.

It really is true how eighteen degrees feels much warmer in Britain than it does in Australia. And in May, equilibrium strikes: Plymouth and Canberra will likely attain similar maximum temperatures. But while one is on the rise (or at least fairly steady), the other is quickly descending into Arctic despair, judging by the attire of locals and their desperate protestations of hypothermia. Thus, despite the same temperatures it is not unusual to come across adjacent posts on Facebook informing me that it is too hot to sit in the sun and that I should be wrapped up in a Merino wool thermal Snuggie with accompanying solar-warmed Ugg boots.

Notwithstanding such distorted equilibrium, and a withering autumnal beauty stretching across Canberra, I’d still rather be in Britain in May. Which is a tad ironic when I think I have only been back to Britain in May once, and then propelled primarily by a wedding. I suspect a big reason for this absence is the level of work sprouting from every orifice of the Government, in a crazy cash splurge that could rival a Channel Seven teatime quiz. Spending is temporarily back in fashion in order to receive the same budget funding, the leftovers of which can be spent frantically again this time next year. Thus Mad May, as I quickly discovered it to be known, is a perennial – but welcome travel-funding – feature of my life.

And so it is that my European trips usually take place from July at the earliest, once the financial year has wrapped up. But, as I say, I did manage a May trip once without the Government here collapsing, and it was truly a beauty. Okay, there was some rain – you expect that – and I may have needed a jumper once or twice, but there were also barbecued Cumberland sausages, early season strawberries so much better than any from down under, and one or two days in which it was okay to wear shorts. Add the inevitable industrial doses of clotted cream to a backdrop of pure green fields and wooded river valleys, and you have the recipe for success (and possibly a heart attack).

may01I remember the green most of all. Catching a suburban rattler from London Waterloo through the Surrey heath and into Hampshire, the rail line part tunnel of branch and leaf, the hedgerows maintained by the clipping blade that is the express to Southampton. The woodlands glowing chartreuse, as a gentle sun dapples its light onto sweeping clusters of bluebells. The cocoon of light and leaves offering a greenhouse in which sweaters can be comfortably removed. In the open, fields of yellow canola interspersed with succulent pasture for cows and hilly outcrops for sheep stretch south and west. Despite intrusions of modernity, there is a timelessness to it.

In Devon, the county may have been made for May. Here, the whole landscape is the epitome of the Ambrosia custard can. There is a sense of new endeavour in the rolling hills, a scene of rapid natural productivity in the woodlands, and an audible tinkling of rivers and streams as they make their way towards the estuaries and inlets of the coast. The city of Plymouth is something of a black spot amongst this utopia, but even here you cannot ignore the sweeping green grass of the Hoe, the headlands plunging into the glittering waters of the Sound, and the grasses, flowers, and weeds flourishing in the cracks of the pavements and the neglected council estate gardens.

Not far from Plymouth, largely tucked away from civilisation, Noss Mayo exudes a loveliness that is probably repeated up and down the south coast of Devon.  Here, I could brave shorts, chomp on fresh strawberries, feel the warmth reflecting off the blue seas, and cool down again through the shadowy banks of the Yealm. I could hike up to the church and wallow in more bluebells and daffodils and buttercups and daisies. I could let gravity take me back down to the creek for a cold cider or warm beer beside the water, as boats of red and blue sit in the tidal mud, and the sporadic appearance of a bus may or may not feature. Sitting waiting without a care, floating butterflies will make friends and transform into wasps and shake me from my rose-tinted moment of paradise.  Like impending Atlantic weather fronts, wasps are wont to do that [ii].

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And so back in the real world, the British May may be heaven one day and a drearier version of hell the next. But at least it is not winter anymore and the prospects for a good day again soon appear credible. As the rain plummets onto the broken concrete Plymouth streets and buses of damp people in damp coats on damp seats grind their way up the hills, I have a vision of beautiful people in Canberra drinking flat whites, wrapped up against the perishing eighteen degree days, thinking about what dubious investments they can make before the end of the financial year. Mums sup lattes as their kids crunch amongst the oak leaves, hipsters go about perfecting their hair, beard, and top button arrangements, and tradies roll around in the lucre of non-stop apartment-building. I may long for the colour, the coffee, the air. But there are no bluebell glades, and only the prospect of several frosty months and a period of intense labour for companionship.

In Canberra, in May, there will be no headlines jubilantly celebrating temperatures warmer than the Costa del Sol. And that is surely reason enough to turn minds back to the north.

 

[i] Of course, the very recent 2015 UK General Election demonstrated Little England was still going strong, sticking two fingers up to those pesky Scots what with their crazy ideas of equity and – well – caring and compassion for the less rich, and cementing an in-out-shake it all about referendum on participation in the EU. As for UKIP, well, 3,881,129 people must see something, I’m just not sure what, and whether this something is really the panacea to solving all their woes. Nonetheless, Mr. Farage can at least now go work on his tan.

[ii] Indeed, the European wasp is fast becoming a scourge of Australian suburban idylls. Bloody Europeans, coming over here, taking our native flora and fauna. See http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/european-wasps-in-canberra-at-record-numbers-20150427-1muobh.html

 

12 Months Europe Walking