Beauty Past Change

On Sunday, I got back from an overseas trip that was the product of many very long-term dreams and plans. I find that I’m grateful for so much.

On a Friday a couple weeks earlier, Karen and I drove up to DC. We listened to old high-school era mix CDs of my sister’s, and got Chik-fil-A. She put her feet up on the dashboard, and then when it got dark and poured lashing rain for the last couple of hours, both of us got worried about my driving. It all felt very 2009, which was fitting, since that was the year we had sat in a booth in a Chik-fil-A back in Greensboro as teenagers and made a list called “Alice and Karen: London Extravaganza 2012!” Five years late is not that late. As we waited at our gate at Dulles the next morning, I thought that a lot of things were being fulfilled.

We stayed the first few days with my sister in Southall, which is in southwest London. They call it Little India. I always think that coming into Southall as a white American is double culture-shock, because you’ve got all the neat, well-worn British infrastructure, but it’s overwhelmingly, full-to-bursting South Asian.

On Monday night, while we watched a wonderfully ridiculous Bollywood movie, and ate wonderful chicken curry and paneer, one of Mary’s roommates covered our arms with henna, and for the rest of the week when we were out around Southall, we got surprised and approving looks from the locals. I bought a really great coat for £5.50 at the charity shop Mary helps run and stared longingly at the beautiful saris that I have no clue how or excuse to wear. And of course the whole family plus Karen ate at Mirch Masala our last night in the city. Mary ordered for the table: lamb on the bone, two kinds of chicken, naan, veg, more paneer, and pitchers of mango lassi. Then we walked back down the sunny crowded streets, full and happy.

Of course, we saw Central London too. The first day, I dragged Karen and George from Kensington Gardens, where we saw the wonderfully ridiculous Italianate memorial a grieving Victoria had built for her Albert, past various important landmarks, all the way down to the Thames, entirely on foot. We ended up at a pretty sliver of park called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we sat on a bench and watched the river go by. That was my favorite part of the day.

I like the quieter corners of cities best: Karen and I walked around Notting Hill another evening,  and when we went to Oxford for the day, best of all was walking through Christ Church Meadow. We sat by the stream there, watched people go leisurely punting past, and took polaroids.

Later in the week, when the whole family had gotten there we went to Hodgkins Certified Favorite London Places: the British Library, Hampstead Heath, and Apulia for an early birthday dinner for Dad. Mom had gotten us all to write poems for him, and after we had read those out and were full of Italian food and wine, we walked around the corner to see an emotional Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. I had seen The Mousetrap the night before with Karen, but I didn’t compare them. I just enjoyed them both.

 

Then on Saturday Karen left for Brussels and the continent, and my family strapped on our packs and took a train to Birmingham and then another one to Welshpool. Out the window of the train as we were crossing into Wales I saw a field crowded full of solar panels with dozens of sheep wandering between them. I knew that we were getting close.

Back in the eighth century, a Saxon king called Offa decided that he wanted to invade Wales. When this proved more difficult than predicted, he forced his slaves to build a very long earthen wall between his territory and the Welsh, so that they couldn’t invade him back with more success. So now there is a 150 mile walking path named after Offa’s Dyke which winds along the present-day border between England and Wales, back and forth across (and sometimes right on top of) the Dyke itself. Our plan was to do about seventy miles of it, heading south. (Except apparently what the British call walking is what we call hiking, but it’s probably for the best that we didn’t understand that beforehand.)

We got off the train at Welshpool, and it was raining. So we pulled our ponchos over ourselves and our packs and lurched into the town like hunchbacked swamp-beasts to find lunch in a shop. I got a Scotch egg (and others got other things, like sausage rolls,) and we set off down the canal. By the time we reached the actual entrance of the path (marked by the marvelous yellow acorn that we all learned to love so well), the sun was out, and we stripped off our ponchos and marched forth through various wonderfully rolling private pastures, confident in the Right of Way Act for walkers.

Then our precious guidebook announced that there were double arrow climbs ahead of us, and we realized that we had not quite counted on this level of exertion. It was the sort of hill that would almost certainly have had switchbacks in the US, but of course it was just someone’s farmland, and you don’t put switchbacks on that. So we toiled up it for a good hour or two, with a very important reprieve at what was marked as a “special bench.” (All benches henceforth became special.) But after that first painful climb was finally over, there were golden barley fields to cut straight through, which, when you were in the midst of them, went on and on, only stopping at the sky, and then there was a shadowy pine forest that our guidebook called “Grimms’ fairytale,” and a country estate with tall, tall trees, and tame pheasants dawdling past our feet. And then there were hot showers and an enormous dinner at our inn.

The days after the first one blend together more, (or, rather, I’m not going to subject you to a play-by-play,) but I consistently wrote in my journal about the beauty and my tiredness and my contentment. I said that none of these things could be overstated, and I wasn’t being hyperbolic. It was the most beautiful–you did not really have to climb for a view–the view was everywhere. I was the most tired and the most content. We played Spades in pubs at night while waiting for dinner, we picked and ate blackberries as we walked, we had cake at the top of a windy hill and read Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Psalms aloud to the livestock, we took advantage of the free tea and biscuits for walkers in country churches, we squelched in our boots when it rained, we ate bought sandwiches in the ruins of the castle where George Herbert was born, and we saw thousands upon thousands of sheep and marched along daily in their droppings. We even, inevitably, came across a couple of them in various states of decomposition, one with a monarch butterfly fluttering in and out of its ribs. My mom said there was a poem in that, and I agreed with her, but I couldn’t think what it would be.

I realized as we walked up and down and over the hills that I was capable of much more than I had thought, though I resented the fact that while you climbed, the best and farthest views were at your back. (I knew there was a life lesson in that as well, but I decided simply to learn it by osmosis, rather than by dwelling on it.)

We cut our walk short by a day to spend time in Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh town with more bookstores per capita than anywhere in the world. We split up in the morning and then met back at a bench near the town square with our individually accumulated book piles, and in the afternoon took a cab to Llathony, which has a beautiful ruined Priory and only about three other buildings. Our driver gleefully played chicken with the other cars on the narrow Welsh roads, and drove so fast along the side of the mountain and through Gospel Pass, that I said seriously to myself, “Well, if this is the way I go, it’s so beautiful that I don’t think I’ll mind.”

That was a symptom of the way I felt the whole two weeks, though. Once I got past jet lag in London, and adjusted to the fact I was somewhere new, everything in me seemed to simplify and slow and fall into its own groove. The rain which had been terrifying on the initial drive up to DC became friendly as I squinted through wet eyelashes, looking for the next path marker. The sun brightened the things around me: the grass, the roofs, the crowds of sheep, the crowds of people, and I was able to appreciate the shades of difference it made. The practice of gratitude became easy and easier.

Common sense says the feeling will not last, but I’ve been home for a few days now, and it’s still hanging on. On the plane on the way back, I wrote a haiku about the clouds outside the window, unconsciously inspired, I think, by the legions of sheep I’d witnessed staring so stolidly at me earlier that week. So who’s to say that doesn’t mean something?

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                            Praise him.