I have had such a good day that though my feet are travel weary and dusty I feel wonderful, energised; glad to be alive. SW Surrey is a lovely balmy kind of place; its atmosphere is soft, welcoming, calm and content.
I wake in the 500 year old house on the High Street of Bletchingley and ask Gilbert, my host, to tell me about the village. This he is happy to do; he is in his 80’s, has been here some 30 years and very proud of the place he and wife Frida chose to settle in. I ask about the place name, I have become very curious about place names and people’s names and their meaning; it seems very telling; helpful to understand what a place is about; what a person is here to do. (Rob of the great renown of my story is indeed the meaning of his name (he of the great renown, (Robert) kin of the great renowned (Hopkins).
Bletchingley means little bleaching field. Gilbert tells me this used to be the main trade of the area owing to the fine quality of the fullers clay in the ground. At least it was until the 70’s… Gilbert worked in the textile trade until he retired. He remembers when local workers were paid £3 an hour when that was considered a respectable wage to take home. Then the industry discovered that Eastern workers would work for £20 a month. I wonder how those who made those decisions to get rich by exploiting workers abroad, and making locals redundant, feel now, knowing they have destroyed their local economy for the sake of making a personal profit? I wonder how many of the big mistakes we have made are founded on such shortsightedness?
I leave Gilbert and Frida and their quirky house with the staircase that would be the death of a drunk man; it twists, and has stairs of different sizes and shapes and the stair rail follows only a part of it. Going to the bathroom is a feat of concentration; it requires a stepping over of a tiny landing with a gap with the first stair down below. It might not save carbon to leave the light on all night but Gilbert’s routine to leave a lamp to light the way is probably one of the few cases where this might be a justifiable action!
I go off to St Mary’s church. It is 11th Century and very welcoming. I am greeted by Lydia, and later Lynn (please comment if I have your name wrong), who want to know all about my walk. Lydia tells me that the locals cannot afford to live in the beautiful old cottages that form the centre of the village (a centre comprising church and High street in dumb bell shape); they have all been pushed out by in-comers to the council houses that surround it. Lynn gets excited by the idea of transition towns and I give the link to the website. Maybe we’ll see Transition Bletchingley start up soon. They already have a strong church community and a supportive vicar.
Bletchingley have a history of interesting vicars. Desmond Tutu was curate here in the 70s and lived in the village, and they were the first in the country to have a female vicar. Unfortunately she was forced out; by the women of the congregation. I wonder how often it is actually the women who have perpetuated the disempowerment of our gender?
From St Mary’s I set off across the countryside, following the Greensand way; I have not yet discovered why it should have this name but certainly in places it follows old trackways, and through some very beautiful countryside. The area west of Bletchingley and as far as Dorking, south of Box Hill, the chalk north downs which are visible a good way along the route, is full of old oak, and ash, beech, yew, chestnut, and other native trees. There are plenty of apples and cherries in blossom too, scenting the air, mixing their perfumes with the musky nettle and cheeky wild garlic of which I catch a whiff now and again as I saunter peacefully along the green and leafy lanes. The oak leaves are just unfurling tender young leaves, delicate as newly grown skin, whilst the chestnuts proudly exhibit their upside down ice cream cone showy blossoms. They are all overshadowed however by the living indigo of the bluebell patches that pop up unexpectedly all along the way, carpeting lime green beech woods, or suddenly appearing along banking as brilliant bursts of colour in the ever changing greens of the Spring landscape.
Spring has sprung, and is almost overpowering in its livingness, its pregnant fullness, opulence of birth, life, energy. Birdsong is ever present, and trees that are yet to come into full leaf display big fat nests full no doubt of hungry young fledglings. Squirrels leap from mound to mound, too brave to return to tree branches as I pass, the occasional rabbit can be seen jumping about its business through glimpse holes between trees and up lanes, and shy lambs test their wobbly legs, and run bleating to their mothers whenever I get too close.
And we swopped all this for driving about quickly in metal boxes?!
I am in awe, an observer, whilst all around me life gets on with the busy task of being in the moment. If the world were to stop turning now these creatures, the may flies buzzing, the woodpecker tapping, would not have missed a second of their precious life. We have, I feel, much to learn.
I have approached Redhill with some trepidation; it looks large on the map, a veritable large town in fact. I spot a church on the OS that looks intriguing; it is in a circle of land in the midst of a common. Although that is not where the Greensand way wants to take me I remind myself that I need be slave to no path; I have been blessed with free will. I head towards the church, its spire now visible ahead. I follow it in past the lovely suburbian Earlswood on the edge of the common. When I reach the church it is in fact surrounded by suburb, its churchyard encircling it, and the common it has been separated from around the edges where the houses stop. Yet it draws me still; St John’s. It pulls me like a magnet and I cannot say why.
I stop and eat my lunch there, take a look at the map sitting on a bench overlooking the graves, admiring one bedecked with ivy. I like this; this much maligned plant, often removed for its tenacious grasp on walls, is actually the symbol for loyalty.
When I move off I look back repeatedly, taking photos. Why I am so taken I cannot say but I find myself thinking of pattern language, and if you do not know what that is look for the work of Christiphor Alexander (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Pattern_Language) or even better get yourself along to this year’s Transition Conference, this year taking place just outside of Totnes (http://www.transitionnetwork.org/conference-2010-uk) in June, and hear Rob Hopkins talk about how pattern language might be the new model for transition.
Pattern language supposes there is an ideal pattern for every type of architecture from town planning to the type of window you should put in your bedroom. This fascinating book is set out on such a way that one can look at a picture; a pattern, read a key phrase, an explanatory paragraph, or a whole section, about each piece of architecture. You can plan a town, a street, a house, or a part of a house following the patterns that are starred (5-1) according to the surety of the group that worked with Alexander as to whether or not they had found the best possible pattern, taking into consideration how it fit with its environment, was congenial to good community living, good family living, & respected individual need for space too.
I wonder if St John’s Redhill just happens to be, on its mound in the centre of the town common, placed at the ideal location for a town church? It is certainly pleasing on the eye, fits into the landscape, not imposed on to it, and is eye catching from afar.
My way through the conurbation of Redhill and Reigate continues to delight me; I pick up the Greensand Way once more and it leads me through hidden pathways down the back of people’s gardens and along the back of crescents, and past some children in a field with their teachers learning to identify the trees “and which one is hazel?”, until very soon I am in Reigate park, an area of land gifted to the people soon after the first world war. It is a lovely park, and the people and dog walkers I meet in it are friendly and relaxed; they enjoy their park very much. It is ancient woodland with a vein of open land running along the spine of it on a ridge where stunning views of the surrounding native tree covered landscape and tree interspersed town can be seen.
I try to imagine all of England being covered in this benign native woodland, that is not dark, forboding, threatening, and somehow angry like the pine plantations that pass for forest in many parts of our countryside. I have a sense of planting trees in rows in a foreign country is rather like taking people for slaves. Exploitation, and disregard for nature. English natural woodland is light airy, welcoming, a light lime green and infinitely inviting when younger, and a deep velvety moss green when mature.
Soon after Reigate I come to the village of Bletchworth. A simply gorgeous ancient forge across from an inn, outside of which is parked a farmer’s landrover, parked in a ridiculous place on a junction outside the pub with a total disregard for visibility of oncoming traffic, passersby and the dog that barks at every sound from its place cooped up in the back amongst sacks of fertilizer. I am afraid that when people talk of poor farmers if they are talking of this variety I have very little sympathy. Small farmers, farming traditionally and serving their local community, not taken in by offers of riches for farming intensively and not fuelled by greed to have more land than everyone else, are surely the way forward.
The landrover makes it difficult for me to cross the fast road that cuts the village in two, and the dog in the back goes crazy at the invasion of his perceived territory. When I do get across it is to see that at the other side of the inn a few metres from the landrover is a large car park. The farmer is in the beer garden just the other side of the hedge from his vehicle regaling his friend with tales, oblivious to the impact his parking is having.
I see the old church with its traditional square tower through the trees behind the old forge and am delighted to see that the Greensand Way runs directly through the churchyard. It is made from what looks like white flint stone and is quite distinctive. It is St Michael’s and in I go to learn a little history of Bletching. Churches are great custodians of the history of a place, albeit all too often about the rich of the place. St Michael, however, is different. I go in to the sounds of children rehearsing some songs, their voices are beautifully childlike and joyful, and not the holier than thou stuff heard sometimes at concerts from large cathedrals. These are real village children with their teacher having a good time being themselves; not striving for some distant composer’s ideal of spirituality.
It is in St Michael’s that I find a history of Bletchworth, by Meg Ryan, 1988; “Within Living Memory, Doctors, Builders, Post Office, Shops”. Wouldn’t it be lovely if each place had the person who took it upon themselves to create these records for all to see; the author patiently interviewed all the inhabitants till she had created her 40 page booklet. It makes fascinating reading of the services the village once had and the families who provided them. The postman, Mr Harkett, who would walk 20 miles daily on his round, collecting from the boxes four times a day, the sound of the postman’s knock a familiar and pleasurable sound, a welcome visitor. The drapper and hatter, the greengrocer who supplied the vegetables from his garden, the butcher, & the local builder, who was expected to make coffins too. All this less than 100 years ago in a tiny village we would now call hamlet! The village was vibrant, alive, resilient, a real live community till well into the twentieth century.
I move on reluctantly, and at the next village, Brockham, (badger town) come across a beautiful traditional village green bigger than the village that surrounds it and have a cup of tea at the Duke’s Head and ask about accommodation. Not till Dorking they say, and on I go.
I am delighted by Dorking. I had expected something modern, faceless, busy, overwhelming. It is ancient, wide streeted (to allow for a cattle market once over) and full of old, old buildings. Attractive and well laid out, easy to find your way about. I take a photograph of the monument for Thomas Cubit, master builder. I find the Pilgrim’s, out of town the other side, just where the friendly regulars of the Duke’s Head had said it would be.
The girl who looks after me is Bulgarian, wishes England had better summers. I have dinner, and retire to my room overlooking the garden, and the deeply wooded Box Hill that I shall climb in the morning. Just a word of warning though for any that should follow me, don’t ask for room 5, the mattress is full of springs of the type that let their presence be well and truly felt, the lumpiest bumpiest surface I have slept on in living memory, and that from someone who camped out in a field not so many nights ago!
I am thrilled to overhear the two very ordinary looking men sitting across from me eating too talking about allotments and bartering. I hear the younger man tell his father, friend (?) about a friend who gives produce from her allotment, say a surplus of potatoes in exchange for scrumping someone’s fruit tree! I have a wonderful Aha moment.
Transition isn’t a just movement , an organisation, it is happening right now in our times , we ARE in transition and though we have not arrived yet the journey has begun, not just the first small steps but well and truly on the way! We are the ones making it happen – those of us who are aware – right here right now, whether or not we call ourselves Transitioners.
What wonderful times to be alive in – has there ever been a more exciting shift in history? I wonder what folk in the Rennaissance thought about their times? I feel I am absolutely in the right times, doing the right things; I am happy.