We miss the essential reason for our being here — to just be alive.
The date is Monday 7th May and the time in eight in the evening. I have spent the weekend back in Huddersfield, the town where I grew up.
The sun decided to break from the clouds after a week of rain and grey skies and so the weather has been warm.
I thought I would return home and try to meet some old friends.
My childhood home sits in a small village called Shelley south east of Huddersfield, about seven miles from the town centre.
The village was founded upon agriculture, but weaving gradually became important during the Nineteenth century.
Abandoned textile mills are littered across Huddersfield. The biggest mills are next to the Narrow Canal, once a relatively prosperous area of commerce. The Canal was in operation for more than a hundred years until it was closed during the Second World War.
Since then, the textile industry collapsed and Huddersfield became a graveyard of rotten weaving mills. I do not know how many there are, but I am sure there are more than one would guess. Some of the mills have been renovated into apartments or offices.
However, most are still as they were, except time and ivy have crept besides their shivering walls and dust layers upon lonely furniture.
These mills have merged with the countryside and a harmony exists between the empty structures and the landscape. Nature has a wonderful capacity to adapt to our ruins.
The mills are reminders of a distant time, of the toil of ancestors. Today they shelter the homeless and provide excitement for wide-eyed children looking for an adventure.
From the living room window of my parents’ home, you can see the neighbouring village called Shepley.
Shepley is on the far side of the valley and is about the same size as Shelley though it is a little more charming and picturesque, especially in the autumn.
It has a history that extends to the Norman Conquest and has a feature in the famous Domesday Book, written in 1086, where it is mentioned as ‘Sceaplei’.
Shepley is about a ten-minute walk from Shelley. There are about six other villages around Shelley with a radius of four miles. Apart from a few differences, each village is almost identical. All have streets of quaint homes, the occasional ancient farmhouse that can be traced back centuries ago and people with gentle, welcoming spirits.
When you are driving through the region, it is difficult to tell whether you are moving from one village into the next because each has the same background and landmarks.
It is a quintessentially English area, something that is becoming rarer these days though I suppose the countryside conserves culture longer than the cities.
Here, at home, I am in the heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire and surrounded by the countryside. Farmers’ fields stretch for miles across the valley, green rolling hills shape the horizon and forests offer a refuge from noise pollution. The spring sunshine breathes cool wind over the green landscape and the trees bud with leaves and blossom. A gentle fragrance lifts from the freshly cut lawns and flocks of birds stream across the skyline. Spring is a restorative season here and you feel that you are moving past the low spirit of winter. I am reminded of a classic poem by Robert Browning called ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad:
Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England — now!
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops — at the bent spray’s edge –
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
– Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
Browning wrote this poem in Italy and it shows a yearning for the English countryside. There is the feeling that he had always taken his home for granted and never really understood the beauty of it until he spent a period in a foreign land.
The images he draws in his mind suggest he is trying to escape to a simpler time. I too have experienced this when I am abroad or in the city.
There is a tendency for those who grew up in the English countryside to romanticise and speak fondly of it. The classic English writers, from Shakespeare to Brontë, have all done so.
This is for good reason, though I do not think it is a preserve of the English. It is seen in most nations.
It is not an appreciation of nature so much as it is of a simple way of life. This is a recognition that we ought to be more like nature. That is, to just be alive. It is quite simple, as is nature.
However, because we, the general masses of people, are constantly in a mad panic trying to reach somewhere that does not exist, namely the future, we miss the essential reason for our being here — to just be alive.
And, this brings me back to the poem. The importance all through the poem is on the unconsciousness of nature — and our unconscious enjoyment of it.
If you were to ask someone why it is that they like being amongst nature, they will likely say such things as “to get away from it all”, “because I feel like I can breathe again” or “because it clears my mind”. In the countryside, your mind can only move as fast as the cool breeze and the pace of the swaying flowers; you cannot help but embrace the present moment.
This is why the countryside is so dearly loved. Because, for the first time, you can allow yourself to just be alive.
I enjoy my returns to Shelley. They are reminders to be gentle and calm and to try to live life only because I am alive.
Thank you for reading my incoherent thoughts.