Psychogeography #84: Far from the madding crowd

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The Independent Online

Chris and I stood in the lee of the perfect little 14th-century church. Its stone walls glowed in the afternoon sunlight and its wooden roof had a distinct sheen. "See that," Chris said, pointing to the campanile, "when the roof was restored recently I came and watched them working on it. It was amazing the degree of craftsmanship, each one of those shingles was individually shaped by hand."

Chris and I stood in the lee of the perfect little 14th-century church. Its stone walls glowed in the afternoon sunlight and its wooden roof had a distinct sheen. "See that," Chris said, pointing to the campanile, "when the roof was restored recently I came and watched them working on it. It was amazing the degree of craftsmanship, each one of those shingles was individually shaped by hand."

Shaped by hand was something that could also be said about the whole, counterpane landscape we found ourselves in. We'd been walking for an hour or so in a slow circuit through the fields, from the beautiful 16th-century, timber-framed house Chris shares with his partner Stuart, to this, the church they attend on Sundays with a congregation of ten. The rounded hills were lightly wooded, the fields had assorted crops - legumes, wheat, some cattle and sheep. There were orchards and fish ponds, sinuous rills and hedgerows sprayed with wild flowers. The ancient, black and white farmsteads hunkered down into the terrain, like giant Friesian cows.

As we'd walked Chris had told me that the local farmer had been organic for 20 years, which explained the low density of poly-tunnels and oilseed rape. There were no main roads for miles around so the silence was complete, save for the sough of the wind and the bombinating of insects. As we encountered men working in the fields Chris stopped to say hello, and these exchanges displayed a forthright amity. All in all this was as ideal a part of the English countryside as you're ever likely to find; except that you aren't going to find it, because I'm not going to tell you where it is.

The idea of keeping Chris's corner of the world secret emerged - suitably enough - organically, as I conducted his psychogeographic audit. This year's highest bidder in The Independent's Christmas charitable auction, Chris had won me for the day, to walk with and talk with, so that I could reflect back at him what his psychological relationship with place was all about. What I'd discovered was that Chris had a conception of both Englishness and the bucolic that was at once straightforward and oddly oblique. Here he was, in middle age, settled in this living archetype, attending parish council meetings, socialising with his neighbours - yet hearing about Chris's life, I realised that his hidden valley was another example of the apparently irreconcilable opposites he delights in juxtaposing.

For the manor Chris had been born to was a north-London suburb rather than a rural parish, and the route he took to his current estate was not an ancient green way, but the information superhighway. Far from being a horny-handed tiller of the soil, Chris was an urbane and sophisticated operator in the Square Mile. Yet his retreat into the country was no mere excursion; in part he and Stuart had fetched up in the hidden valley because their previous home in the Cotswolds "was being overrun by weekenders". He gave a self-deprecating laugh when he told me this - only too aware that he could be accused of being just that man who kills the thing he loves.

But there was nothing affected about Chris's love for the valley, and Stuart - a violently enthusiastic gardener - was knee-deep in bark chips and equally enthusiastic local horticulturists. "You might think," Chris said, "that being a gay couple in the country we'd run up against prejudice, but people here have only been welcoming. I think when you're this remote, neighbours accept you for who you are."

In psychogeographic terms Chris's life had been a move to discover the links between places and states of mind. His bien pensant parents were city-break early-adopters, who took him to Istanbul on half terms - but they went to Frinton as well. As a schoolboy Chris liked to buy a Red Bus Rover and take off to the ends of the bus map, finding himself in such exotic interzones as Epping and Old Ford. In his teens he would go up to the West End and take a cab to Claridge's - just so he could discover "what it felt like to have the doorman usher you in". At Cambridge, Chris and his mates had hung out in the Kite, a distinctly non-studenty quarter of tumbledown houses and sleepy pubs.

But it was in something he said about his business travels during the Eighties and Nineties that I found the core of Chris's condition. Remarking on how much he loved Japan, he said: "You could be outside the main station in Tokyo, then duck down an alley and find yourself among old, two-storey wooden houses. I loved that." And really he's still ducking down the alley now, back and forth between his modern townhouse on the fringes of the City, and this secret garden of England. That's Chris - true to his rootlessness. E

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