Saturday, 8 September 2018

Life begins at forty

As aphorisms go, this one is more patently absurd than most; generally it has been superseded by the the equally ridiculous 'sixty is the new forty'. However, for the pair of us, there is some truth in the hackneyed phrase. In one sense our future life does does start at forty tomorrow; four decades ago on 9th September 1978 we got married. 

Neither of us are particularly taken with anniversaries, but the number forty does  have a certain gravitas, even though I had to Google its associated jewel - ruby apparently. Whenever we have  mentioned our impending event to people their reaction has been the same,. 'Well done!' they exclaim in a tone that exudes awe as much as approval, as if we'd just announced that we had recently roller-bladed up the Orinoco or risen from the dead.

This got me thinking,  surely fortieth wedding anniversaries cannot be that unusual. However, it proved unexpectedly difficult to find the figures of what proportion of couples reach this milestone - lots of information on divorce rates but very few relating to marital longevity. At first I could not figure out why that might be, then it struck me, divorce, like marriage, is recorded in the legal record, staying together as a couple isn't, so statistically it becomes more difficult to analyse.

Anyway, once we had decided our particular milestone required some acknowledgement, it raised the question of where and how. How was easy, a nice lunch out somewhere, not too formal, but serving delicious food. The question of where went through a number of incarnations gradually decreasing in ambition.

Our problem was that it has been less than certain where exactly we might be on the 9th September 2018. Plan A involved heading towards Greece in mid-August. I imagined a stylish lunch on September 9th. in a restaurant with a terrace overlooking Lake Garda or the Adriatic near Split. Fabulous, but our youngest is making the tricky journey from student to working life. Somehow it did not seem right to take-off to the Eastern Med while Laura was not yet settled. 

Plan B - head through western France towards Spain eventually ending up in Lisbon, departing in early September - there are better budget airline links between Iberia and the UK, so if parental duties called we could easily fly home. It would mean we could see Sarah and Rob too. I plaaned a route down the weest of France and found a lovely restaurant in Vannes overlooking the Golfe de Morbihan, walkable from a nearby campsite. "We've never been to Brittany in the moho and it's a special place for us," we agreed. Then the workshop at Oak Tree Motors informed us that they could not fix the problem with the moho bathroom floor until mid-September. We toying with booking a short city-break in Europe, then balked at the cost and accepted reluctantly that we seemed fated to be in England for our fortieth.

So here we are, September 8th, ensconced in  the Caravan and Motorhome Club's Beechwood Grange site on the outskirts of York. After researching restaurant options across the north of England which met our 'informal ambiance with delicious food criteria' we settled on 'Skosh' in York, which, in the absence of anything else to separate it from other contenders, had been given the thumbs-up from Jay Raynor; we regard him as  omniscient in such matters. More practically, the place is only 80 miles from home and it looked to be an easy walk from the camp site to the nearest regular bus  into the city.

Though quite close to home the journey took us through unfamiliar territory. The end of the M18 near Doncaster and Goole is not somewhere you would necessarily head towards without good reason. "I wonder if Doncaster Services is as bad as it sounds?" I mused as we passed a sign reminding drivers that 'Tiredness Can Kill'; a more accurate warning would be 'Motorway Services Depress'. Doncaster services are as bad as they sound - small, grubby, litter- strewn with a traffic management system reminiscent of Cairo at rush hour.  England has no equivalent to French Aires de Service. If you want to stop to make lunch, service areas are one of the few places set-up to cope with larger vehicles. They may be demoralising but they are convenient.

Onwards - the estuarine plain of the Ouse and Humber is hardly a renowned scenic hotspot, but today its big silvery sky looked magnificent, overshadowing Drax power station's clutch of cooling towers steaming away in the distance. The chequerboard of fields were yellow and a soft light presaged autumn. 

Four decades ago, after a low key ceremony in Newcastle-upon-Tyne civic centre, we spent a week wandering the by-roads of the West Midlands, Cotswolds and Chilterns, all new territory to for us. We had hired a banana yellow Citroen 2cv6. It was too primitive to have anything as high tech as a cassette player so we brought along our portable Panasonic radio-cassette and a few favourite tapes. The preferred soundtrack to our meanderings - Van Morrison's 'Veeden Fleece'. Its laid back, slightly melancholic vibe seemed to suit the moment of transition between summer and autumn. D H Lawrence in 'Gentians' called this time 'slow sad September'. I understand the sentiment, but 'sad' is not quite right, especially for us, profound perhaps, like looking into a deep pool which only mirrors the sky.

Anyway, as we drove across south Yorkshire, the way light fell across the wide landscape and big cumulus filled sky reminded me of our journey decades ago. I got a quick blast of 'The Streets of Arklow' as head music. We chatted about what we could remember of our 'big day' and discovered that we were now quite vague about most of the details. Not surprising, I suppose, forty years is a long time and we have done so much together since then.

We approached a tall viaduct over the Ouse. The silver cloudscape turned grey and sudden squalls buffeted the van as we crossed the bridge. By the time we neared our destination it was drizzling which developed into a steady downpour soon after we had pitched. 

Beechwood Grange site has been recently refurbished. It is spotless and very neat and tidy; it also conformed exactly to all the things about the club owned sites that irritate us, but it was conveniently situated we hoped. Though Google maps showed bus stops a few hundred yards away there were only four buses a day that actually stopped at them and no Sunday service. The half hourly bus service into the city are a 30 minute walk from the site and involve crossing a very busy road with fast traffic. We decided to reconnoitre the route before we headed to the city in the morning. It was OK. York is only three miles distant but the taxis advertised on the notice board cost £9 each way - the bus will do fine we agreed.

It was not fine next day. In fact it poured. By the time we reached the bus stop we were both  bedraggled . Soon we joined all the other damp tourists aimlessly wandering about. York always has been, so long as I can remember, a bit of a tourist trap. It's a few decades since we have been in the city centre. These days the famous Shambles are dominated by Harry Potter gift shops promising to match would be wizards with a 'personalised' wand or sell ex-pupils of Hogwarts a house tee. In fact Gill is one of a select band of people with a genuine claim to being a Hogwarts' alumni.. The teacher training college she attended used some of the less salubrious bits of Alnwick Castle as student accommodation. Later it became the location for the quidditch scene in the first Harry Potter film and like York has attempted to 'cash-in' on the connection ever since. It's all a bit ridiculous in our view.

Time for lunch. We tracked down 'Little Italy'. The restaurant had been our second choice for tomorrow's celebration lunch, so we decided to try it out anyway. The place was good but not outstanding. It prides itself on the quality of its handmade pasta - it is very good and the food is cooked with a genuine Italian flair. Both our main course dishes had minor errors in our view. Gill opted for 'Ravioli Funghi'- it was delicious, but Gill felt that the creamy sauce was too rich and overpowered the subtleties of the ravioli itself. My spicy sausage casserole with gnocchi was good too, but compared to similar dishes we have had in Sicily and the south, the spicing overpowered the dish. It lacked finesse. For tomorrow's meal we hope 'Skosh' can go one better and conjure-up something wholly delicious. We shall see.

Next, a bit of shopping. We tried and failed to buy new shoes. I decided the prices for hiking sandals at 'Go Outdoors' were extortionate and the shoes Gill had spotted at the Hotter shop were unavailable in her size. We paused to watch the troupes of Morris Dancers gathered in Parliament Square. Is there anything more disconsolate looking than a circle of drenched Morris Dancers waving wet hankies in the air? Another thing, why do the chaps playing melodeon always bear a striking resemblance to Harold Shipman?

We found ourselves sheltering beneath some big trees beside York Minster. They were next to the famous 'Five Sisters' lancets. Forty years ago I would probably have bored Gill stiff with an in-depth explanation of the development of  lancet window arrays in Early English style abbey churches in the North East of England during the 12th and 13th century. I remember writing an extended essay about it at university. Luckily I have forgotten the details so Gill escaped an impromptu Pete panegyric on the subject.

Instead, just around the corner from the South Transept we happened upon a monument to Constantine the Great. On the death of his father in York in AD306 Constantine was proclaimed 'Augustus' by his troops, which in effect made him ruler of the Western Roman Empire. It took a further 18 years of sporadic civil war for Constantine to control the entire Roman Empire and he only converted fully to Christianity on his death bed. Nevertheless, in making Christianity the official religion of the empire he had a profound effect on the subsequent development of Europe, both as 'Christendom' and a place where ideas derived from the Classical era continued to hold sway.

Perhaps the proclamation of Constantine is the most momentous historical event ever to take place on British soil in terms of the way it shaped the future, yet it is not particularly well known. We speculated about other contenders - the development of the steam engine - without it the Industial Revolution would not have happened. The advent of the age of machines is written in the geological record- a marker of the transition between the Holocene and the proposed Anthropocene. Perhaps this means Thomas Newcomen or James Watt are equally epoch making Brits. Then there's the publication of  Darwin's 'Origin of The Species' in 1859; the effect of this book revolutionised our view of the human race and our place in the universe. It's impact perhaps is best summarised by the  Douglas Adam's character 'Oolon Colluphid's - the title as his bestseller - 'Well That About Wraps It Up For God'.  It makes all the current shenanigans about Brexit seem a little parochial we agreed. Interesting as all this speculation was, by now we were drenched; after a quick visit to Sainsburys we headed for the bus.

A rainy day in York did not really compare with what we originally envisiaged - lunch by Lake Garda or the sparkling Adriatic. Even so, it is rare when you explore somewhere on foot that you don't come across something that strikes you as beautiful. As we squelched through the lanes towards the campsite the leaves glistened, the drizzle accentuated their yellowing - sloe berries and rosehips in the hedgerows, twilight by seven - time to follow the sun. Two weeks to go and we will be bobbing between Newhaven and Dieppe; roads south beckon.