COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
A LOCAL man has written to me asking if I have any special spots for retreat and replenishment in the parish. Used to wilder places, he is finding our increasingly prettified landscapes too suburban. I know what he means, but fear I haven't been able to help much. These places exist, but are deeply personal. From the tone of his letter I know that my own favourite - on the brow of a pre-cast concrete bridge, looking due west along the canal past a Victorian shot-tower and a line of churches and chapels - is precisely what he isn't looking for. But there are moments on July evenings, with the whole of the town's stonework glowing ember- red and clouds of swifts massing round the towers and steeples, when I stand transfixed at this humdrum spot, with the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" echoing through my brain.

But in general I am not a great seeker after views. The last one I really treasured was when I was an over-romantic teenager. It lay on the route I took to cricket three times a week, a winding valley to the south of the parish, edged with woods and meadows and meandering off into the hills. I used to stop my bike and gaze out over it in a state of something close to rapture, without any sense of why it moved me. But the affair ended when the whole area was bought by an insurance company. They then drove the by-pass through it. "Views" can be deceptively superficial and indiscriminate, even treacherous. Two of the most awesome I have ever seen are London's rush-hour traffic seen at night from the air, and an echelon of combine harvesters advancing through two square miles of Common Agricultural Policy-subsidised barley on the South Downs. And the beauty spot variety, especially, can be too redolent of the notion that the countryside can be perceived (ideally from the terrace of the Big House) as if it were a painting, or as literally just a piece of property.

The views that do touch me are those where I can imagine myself being inside the landscape, looking out - finding "refuge" rather than "prospect", to use the landscape theoreticians' terms. I remember visiting the Tortworth Chestnut for the first time a couple of years ago. Its multiple trunks make it look like a rather ordinary copse from outside. Inside, among the trunks, it is like being in the remains of a collapsed wooden cave system. The interiors of ancient yews (most are hollow) are also vastly more fascinating than their exteriors, with the 1,000-year-old heartwood turned to the texture and lustre of mother-of-pearl. I prefer being in valleys looking up than on hills looking down - especially in the Yorkshire Dales, with tiers of sculpted white limestone rising above you - and sitting under trees rather than up them. All these places have the character of amphitheatres as well as refuges.

This is why I also like natural peepshows - especially seeing the back ends of familiar places framed by train windows. I suspect the solution to finding retreats is to take the word literally: stop, turn round, and look afresh at where you've been. 8

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