Saturday, January 19th, 2019

Wanderlust abounds in the English countryside

Martin Conte

Posted on November 06, 2014 in Perspectives
By martinconte

I had the great pleasure, this past Friday, to follow in the footsteps of Wordsworth, Keats, Austen, and many thousands of other writers who lived and wrote in England.  I woke leisurely (I am graced with 3 day weekends), strapped into my backpack an armful of books, notebooks, food, and my ipod (essential), and set off into what is perhaps the most uniquely British aspect of this island: the Countryside.

The city of Winchester is compressed on all sides, like most of England’s population centers, by farmland, hills, land preservations and a few carefully placed highways. My goal was St. Catherine’s Hill, which stood prominently opposite the University, beyond the valley in which the city sprawled. I had passed the hill a few weekends ago, exploring with the Winchester Rambling society, and had often looked out my window in longing at its cluster of trees that sat like a crown upon its summit.

Those who know me personally will no doubt know that I have an irresistible obsession with wandering. Whether it’s the streets of Portland at midnight, or Blue Hill mountain at sunrise, I take great pleasure in the simple placing of one foot in front of the other. England is, quite simply, designed perfectly for such such an obsession.  Framing the highway and villages are thousands of footpaths and cycling trails, stretching from one town to the next. These trails often share pastures with cows, sheep and horses. Winchester’s particular stretch of public wandering land follows the river Itchen from where it crosses the city out into the free air.

You walk along the river, a small affair only about twenty feet across and never more than six feet deep, past the castle ruins, the college grounds, the tennis courts, and a host of houses local students would describe as ‘posh.’

Then, St. Catherine’s emerges.  A slim snake of metal steps lead you up the face of the hill, a casual climb up only a short way. Though the season is long past, the hill is usually home to a conservation of butterflies, up at the top, on a regimented circle of trees. Inside, of all things, a rope swing hangs, on which a steady stream of children climb screaming. Beyond, at the foot of a tree, as if curved to my specifications, a natural nook of a seat, in which I picnic.

There I sat, like some conquering hero, with my book open in front of me and poetry flowing freely into my journal.  It is said that the hill is occasionally host to Wiccan and Witchcraft rituals. I believe it. The magic in the air was so thick and palpable, you could taste it.  I lay there, basking in the satisfaction of the sunny and unseasonably warm day. It was an experience of something which we don’t have an exact word for any longer. In the past, it may have been called the sublime.  Some may call it spiritual, others ecstatic. It was, in lacking of a more exact term, pure peace.

And from that peace stemmed not a little bit of yearning for home, for Maine. The countryside of England is beautiful, but it exists in what appears to be a temporal state. The crowded population is literally crawling from incredibly tight urban density, spreading into the fields. The hill was a small respite from human foundations, but an isolated one, quite unlike the vast empty spaces of our home.  I longed, in a moment, for the empty forests behind my parents’ house, or the empty beaches where we used to skinny dip under the full moon. It is a great privilege, growing up and living in Maine, and a great gift to be able to stretch our arms and minds in the vast untouched woods and seascapes. A gift I do not accept lightly. This freedom allowed me perhaps a greater pleasure in the retreat to St. Catherine’s hill, a more poignant satisfaction in its untouched wilderness.

Up to now, I have found myself fascinated, curious, humored, disappointed, excited and challenged by England. Now, I can safely say that I have fallen in love with it. On my way down the hill, I stopped to speak to a fellow hiker, who told me she once taught at the University. She gave me a homework assignment: John Keat’s ‘Ode to Autumn,’ written in inspiration from the very paths I walked on. It is in Keats’ words that I trust to define that indiscernible satisfaction I found in the cloisters of the hill: ‘While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day/ And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue… The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;/ And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.’  


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