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(April 6th 2014)
This morning I drove north-eastwards from Dorset to London, taking one of my favourite roads, the A31. I don’t know when it became one of my favourite roads , but I have driven it many times over the years from north to south and vice-versa, in summer and winter. For me the north to south route represents an escape from London, the great wen, the mighty conurbation that suffocates body and saps the soul. The road unfolds itself like an escape route, like the sun breaking free from cloud. There is something magical in the long easy switchback of the road as it swings its way across Hampshire, sliding past towns or slipping suddenly through quiet villages, places with names that are familiar but unknown, just acquaintances welcomed and forgotten on a journey through life.
Beside the road Hampshire rolls away in taunting vistas, downs and hills, folds and meadows, distant coppices and hanging beech woods. Lanes turn off to the side, leading into unexplored landscapes where, if you had time to stop, you feel that time would slow and a stillness descend that had nothing to do with other life. Near Four Marks, sometimes, a steam engine races the road, kicking footballs of steam aside and streaming smoke along the high embankment to the north, tooting joyfully in its own express.
The road has many colours; gold in summer, silver in spring from the wind-flicked leaves of the willows. Dark brown and black in winter from the haggard bareness of the branches overhanging the road. But today it was grey. Grey from Spring fog. And banks of softness obscured the distant woods and flattened the distance, and changed the passing landscape yet again. And I realised once again, how subtle and varied the landscape was of its own accord, without our intervention, regardless of whether we were there to witness or not. Passing Chawton I thought of Jane, pen in hand, gazing at those mists and conjuring up the voices of her creation. And then Selborne too, where Gilbert White walked and watched and wrote.
And then it struck me. For them, as they ventured through this same landscape, every tree and shrub, every flower and bird-call counted, every fold in the ground and every glistening spring added to the sum of their existence enriching the years of their lives, extending their being by its very richness. For they made their way slowly, each step of their journey contributing something towards their love of life, their sense of being, their wealth of existence. For them, every moment was a full one, each encounter valued so that their days became the sum of a richness which we can scarcely imagine. For we travel too fast through this landscape and through this life. We speed through it all, barely glimpsing what is there to be savoured, treasured, loved and remembered. Our lives are hollow, filled with trivia and artificial pleasures because we do not stop and stare, watch and wonder. Even in the 1930s, people took more time. For H V Morton, touring England in his little open-topped car, the journey was a sedate and slow meander. No urgency drove him on or forbad him stopping to gaze, to sup or sleep. Even Morton was aware of the secret mystery that lay in the shadowed edge of the English woodland. But then he moved slower than we, and was not sealed up in the air of a conditioned box that barred all scent and fragrance.
To slow down, to see and savour our landscape, to let the stillness and silence take us, that should be our goal, our route to meaning and fruition, like the A31, leading us through experience to a self-fulfilment that requires no other explanation.