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Life in the big smoke

Some thoughts for the equinox

At the end of our holiday in Finland earlier this year we spent a couple of days in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. We hiked through forests and spent several kilometers staring at the narrows paths between the bilberry bushes and the moss, trying not to stumble over any of the red pine roots criss-crossing the ground. We climbed up watch towers and looked out over a never ending forest. The air was so clean it felt thick and satisfying, like a fine meal for the lungs.

The days were cloud-covered and sometimes it rained. The temperature hovered around ten degrees centigrade. We stopped by a cold and windy lake on one of our hikes and watched three otters playing in the grey waves, slinky shadows underneath the water. Every now and then a head popped up, watching us watching them.

For a bit more than a week after we came back to London I dreamed of these forests. When I woke up in the morning the only thing on my mind were the trees. Every year I feel more and more homesick when I come back to London. It’s as if I miss the land itself, the forests and the air and the water. And I kept dreaming about trees.

lapland forest

Little by little the memory fades and I sink back into the reality here in London. We have a house to renovate and decorate and there is a lot of other work to do. We’re in the process of emptying two rooms upstairs and have set up camp in the living room downstairs for the first time since we moved in. These last few weeks are the first we’ve been able to use the fire place we installed at the beginning of the year. We found some boxes of old wood at the studio and have been keeping the fire going most nights. That reminds me of home. Even though this is a tame fire, in a perfect and sealed modern stove, a different beast to the smoky, fierce flames in the open fire place at the summer house.

Yesterday we had a fire. Yesterday was the equinox and the days will grow shorter now. That made me think of this Sami story I read while we were in Lapland. It’s about a pagan woman, Mariska, and the priest who tries to convert her. I found the story on this blog.

The priest says, “My poor child, you are now the only pagan left in this region”. Mariska agrees and turns around and sends a kiss to the Sun. She answers, “When you are old like me, you will like the warm Gods”. The priest continues: “But what happens, when the Sun disappears in the winter, behind the clouds?” “One of Beaivvás´ sons sits upon my wood oven. I give him firewood to eat.”, replies Mariska.
“I thought that wood is also one of your Gods. I have seen how respectfully you treat the bark and use it in your handcrafts. How can you put your God in the fire?”, asks the priest. “Only a God is worthy to be food for another God”, answered Mariska, and then she explained that she prefers a God that can be cut down, like a tree, instead of a God she cannot see nor touch.

So this winter I will keep feeding the fire, thinking of home.

My escape to Dartmoor

After the fire and the terror attacks I needed to leave London. I had to get away form people and traffic and cars and noise. I found an Airbnb near Dartmoor. I booked the cottage, I booked a train and I left for a week. Gerry was working, so I spent the first few days on my own.

I was going to write, but instead I walked. There were many maps in the cottage, some were old, some were new, some were laminated. I picked a smallish, laminated one and I picked a path. Then I walked.

I walked through fields covered in chest-height ferns, through forests where old oak trees lined the path and the Holy Brook bubbled alongside me. I walked on ancient bridleways and on small winding roads. I walked away from people and toward any place I could find that was green and quiet. I stopped and smelled the soil, the sunshine on the leaves, the growth and the decay.

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I sat on an old drystone wall, a bridlepath behind me, the ground falling away from me on the other side. There was a small brook in the valley below and I wanted to spend some time near it. The trees were heavy and green above. My phone and the map were resting on the wall next to me. Out of nowhere a happy spaniel appeared, jumped up on the wall and pushed the phone over the edge. I patted the dog, then scrambled down the stone wall, down the slope and crawled underneath a fallen tree covered in ivy to retrieve my phone. It’s still not working properly. I take that as a sign. Slow down.

Gerry joined me for the last few days and we walked some more. We walked to the most famous Tors on Dartmoor, we hiked to an old stone circle and had lunch among the standing stones.

standing stones, devon

I’m back in London now. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, but the paths I walked stayed with me. They were made by feet and hooves over many centuries, perhaps over many millennia, and they can be walked still. That’s what keeps me loving this country. It’s old, its paths are old and there are many left to explore.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

What to do if you only have one day in London

This weekend a couple of friends came over to London from Finland. Some of them had been in London before, one of them hadn’t. It got me thinking. What would be the best way to spend a day in London if you’ve never seen the city before? Here is what I would do.

Morning

Start at London Bridge. Check if Borough Market is open and grab breakfast and a coffee somewhere in the bustling food market. It’s worth going early as it can get busy in the afternoon. If it’s closed go to one of the chain cafés around Hay’s Galleria.

When fed and caffeinated start strolling west, follow the Thames along the southbank. Along the way pass The Globe, Tate Modern and the London Eye.

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Eventually the Houses of Parliament will appear on the other side of the river. Cross Westminster Bridge and explore the area. If the queue isn’t too long and you have money in your pocket have a look at Westminster Abbey.

Afternoon

Walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square, passing 10 Downing Street on the way. Have a look at Trafalgar Square and keep heading north on to Charing Cross road. On the way there’ll be a chance to see Leicester Square and its theatres.

At Shaftesbury Avenue turn right and head towards the Seven Dials near Covent Garden. There will plenty of nice places to have lunch around there. I would go to one of the vegetarian places in or around Neal’s Yard.

There are lots of shops around the Seven Dials and Covent Garden. Many of these shops will be the same ones you’ll find on Oxford Street, but they’ll be less busy.

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Spend the afternoon exploring Covent Garden and Soho. Stop for a tea at Maison Bertaux on Greek Street in Soho. They have amazing pastries. If you fancy coffee instead go to Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in the Seven Dials.

Evening

Take the 24 bus from Charing Cross Road to its final stop (The Royal Free Hospital in Kentish Town). From there it’s a really short walk to Hampstead Heath. The bus will go past Camden, which is great to see from a bus window, but less interesting to walk around (unless you’re a 14-year-old with stripy tights).

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Walk up to Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath, admire the skyline, take a couple of photographs. Stroll around the park and then walk back down to Camden. If the feet feel tired stop and have a green smoothie at Inspiral or a pint at The Lock Tavern.

Take the overground from Camden Junction to Dalston, grab something to eat at The White Rabbit and then go for a drink in the nearby pub Farr’s School of Dancing. On an adventurous night take a bus to Shoreditch and sampel a few cocktails at Callooh Callay.

Top image by Alessia Clauderio all other pictures are mine.

The place where I belong

Back from the summer house where the sun doesn’t set at midsummer. Where the mosquitoes are almost as big as butterflies. Where there is a drawer full of photographs and postcards from Liverpool and New York and California. Hundreds of frozen faces, the relatives and friends of relatives who emigrated two generations ago.

When my grandmother was young they used to pack down their whole house in the spring and move out to the summerhouse. I think they even moved the piano, but I might have made that up. When my dad was young my grandparents crammed their children, cats and dog into a small car in June and drove for three hours to get to there, stopping occasionally to allow the children to vomit from car sickness. They stayed at the summerhouse until autumn came and it was time to go back to work and school. During one of these summers they picked up a tame crow. Another summer my grandmother adopted two aggressive turkeys that nipped at the feet of those who went out for a nightly pee.

The place is heavy with memories and stories. Every summer the house calls us back and we retell some and add some more.

There is a rowan tree by the shore. An ant hill next to the car park and another one near the wood shed. There is a big pine against which my brother and I practiced throwing knives one summer when we couldn’t come up with anything else to do. If I close my eyes I can see the path running from the house to the shore, the one going behind the small red hut which is rotting away and needs a new roof. I can see the rose bushes, the blueberries, the trees and the paper mill on the other side of the bay. I know the place and it knows me. There are roots from the soles of my feet that go deep into the ground. At the summerhouse I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a past and a story.

We went to the summerhouse for a week and now we’re back. I’m raging against London sounds and pollution. But I’m here, back home. Missing home.