Monday, 18 July 2016

A is for alternatives

After two days of extreme relaxation in Edwardstone we decided to move on towards the Suffolk coast. The 'Spanish plume' ensured clear blue skies, hot afternoons in the low 30s and sticky nights. It struck us that for all our thousands of miles of continental wandering, these days in Suffolk were by far the warmest weather we had experienced in the last two years as our recent southern European travels have been outside of the summer months in pleasant warmth rather than searing heat. In fact the van, unlike some, has small windows and by keeping the blinds drawn during the day and the roof -lights fully open, we did manage to get a good night's sleep despite the humidity.

Given that we were just a few miles away from Dedham I convinced myself that it might be a good idea to visit the area immortalised in the work of John Constable. I should know better than to visit anywhere that has been commodified by the local tourist board by being branded as 'Constable Country'. The town of Dedham has a car park on the outskirts which looked big enough to accommodate a motorhome and a quick peek on streetview confirmed it had no height barriers. Even better, Google maps pinpointed a butchers shop on the High Street. Blue skies means BBQ weather and, to paraphrase Ms Austen, we were 'a couple much in want of a pork sausage'.The car park was great, but the butchers shop seemed to have closed and now housed a financial advisor and wealth management company. This seemed fitting. 

Deadman High Street
The architectural historian, Sir Nicholas Pevsner, described Dedham High Street in the 1950s as a 'near perfect example of a Georgian high street'. It still is. Unfortunately in the intervening decades, whatever worthwhile economic function Dedham originally had has been entirely overtaken by its fame as a tourist hotspot, and it now exudes all the ghastly  mortified charm of a giant National Trust tea room. We wandered up towards the river, past Dedham Mill (now converted to luxury flats), peered across the flood plain of the River Stour towards the path to Flatford Mill, and decided to give Constable's birthplace a miss. 

The River Stour valley - now branded 'Constable Country'
In the end, what is the point of making some kind of pilgrimage to the place when you know that its re-invention as some kind of heritage theme park, complete with giftyshoppe and chintzy tearoom, is going to be simply irksome, You have to ask yourself, why is Constable significant?  Because he challenged the conventions of eighteenth century landscape painting by observing directly natural phenomena in a quasi-scientific way, such as clouds and trees. He developed a loose sketchy style that was highly influential, particularly in France. There is a direct link from Constable to Courbet and the Barbizon School, then later to the work of Monet and Pissaro in the early 1870s. You can get all of that in half an hour on-line, and appreciate the influence of the locale simply by walking through a field or staring at the sky for a while. Which is what we did.

If you want to understand Constable, save yourself the cost of a National Trussed cream tea, and try staring at a field...
We now headed north for about 20 miles or so, trundling along the A12 among the trucks headed for Felixstowe container port. We skirted Colchester and Ipswich, both of which seemed to be expanding with large new build estates on the outskirts. The 'new vernacular' style seemed to be much in vogue with rows of three-storey terraced town houses painted in pastel colour-washes and featuring dark clapperboard overhanging gables. It seems a not unpleasant way of masking house-builders' ploy of maximising housing density by reducing building's footprint. The re-development reminded me of Portishead near Bristol.

Our final destination was a few miles from Woodbridge.The Shottisham Campsite is situated on a smallholding on the outskirts of the village. As smallholdings go, this one was quite big, run by a friendly, enthusiastic couple who wandered through the camping field in their wellies, or drove around the place on their mini-tractor doing mysterious eco stuff. Back in the late 1970s when we went through a 'green phase' such a place as this would have been our dream. Our fellow campers had a definite eco-style about them, Vintage VW campervans were more prevalent than our tank, and people drifted about, waif-thin, giving the impession of a lifelong commitment to vegetarianism and a penchant for scented candles and Ayengar yoga. Given different circumstances maybe the pair of us would have been indistinguishable from them. In our late twenties we were really was very eco-minded, fund-raising for Greenpeace, turning our back garden into a big vegetable plot. I went through a folky moment, learned to play the anglo-concertina very badly and grew the kind of beard now fashionable among hipsters. Billy Connolly called them 'Save the Whale beards'. So, as we wandered around the smallholdings's squared-off enclosures, the pigloos and the poly-tunnels, the alpaca enclosures and the free range chickens - I began to speculate what happened to our eco-dreams, what became of the alternative us?

Free range...
The way the smallholding was divided into smaller enclosures reminded me of the illustrations in 'Self Sufficiency', by John Seymour - the essential coffee table guide for armchair environmentalists in the 1970s.


I don't think we ever conciously decided to give up aspiring to some rural idyll, life simply did not work out that way. There was one specific moment, however, I recall questioning my involvement in the green movement. It must have been around 1986, a Friday evening, Matthew, our firstborn was still a baby, we had just finally nursed him to sleep and were looking to get an hour or so to ourselves, both totally knackered trying to juggle work and family. The phone rang. It was a local Greenpeace activist inviting me to dress-up as a Kangaroo the next day and spend Saturday demonstrating outside of the Wigan branch of Dolcis. Nike and Adidas (evil multinationals)  apparently were using leather derived from marsupials in their trainers, therefore placing the entire planet in danger of environmental meltdown. I politely refused,

So, its not that you lose your ideals as you age, I think they get squeezed out by more immediate concerns, like working all hours to afford the mortgage that has sky-rocketed due to spiralling interest rates. Priorities become more immediate, family, job, practical considerations prevail over philosophy. The reason why we abandoned growing vegetables was the result of moving to Buxton. It soon became clear that the only thing that flourished in our garden were astilbes and lichen, which is hardly the good basis for a healthy diet. Then there is the weather, which 1000 feet up in the Pennines is usually chillier than anywhere else other than Lerwick. It rains frequently and drizzles in between. We are people who like living outdoors, so soon after moving to High Peak we started to scoot south at every opportunity. I do wonder if we had not moved to Buxton for work, whether we would ever have developed such an addiction to travel.


So, sitting here in a smallholding in Sussex, it does encourage thoughts of the 'road not taken', a greener, more alternative existence that we once aspired too. It is lovely here, an ideal spot with a gentle climate, a great place to follow your eco- dream.The next door garden has a fig tree, in fruit too, now that's a benign climate!

Shottisham - an archetypal English village
with a local which looks as if Gandalf should be sitting in the corner


Church lane...
The village church - a typical chunky flint built affair.
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