A public holiday in England seems a good time to share this story.
It’s Wednesday evening and I’m at Canterbury West station, chatting to a railwaywoman while I await my chance to slip onto the platform. Hundreds of people were streaming away from an incoming train.
‘You’d think if they were going home they’d look happy!’ she said, and truly, they did not. ‘I’ll get one smiling’, I said, as I saw M coming into view. To be fair, I’d seen him smiling already. I know he likes his job, and I knew he was not going home for long; he was due to attend a church meeting about an hour later on that cold windy night. But he smiled and chatted and went on his way.
‘Now you can start working in the other 451 of them!’ said the railwaywoman. (With a smile.)
So maybe I’ll share one of the station staff’s efforts to raise a smile at Christmas with this little plum.
Driving along Britain’s motorways, often you could be forgiven for having little idea where you are. There are places like Mill Hill on the M1 or Bury on the M66 where you find yourself rushing obscenely close to people’s homes but often the road runs through cuttings with no view of the surroundings.
Somewhere in Yorkshire on the M62 I spotted a sign ‘River Calder’. There was no other sign of the river; its bridge was barely discernible (to me at least). Although the car is king, for the present at least, there was a nod to the original power of this landscape: the water that formed it and powered the first factories along its banks.
Downstream at Castleford the Calder joins the Aire:
The Castleford lasses are bonny and fair,
For they wash in the Calder and rinse in the Aire.
When I first heard that rhyme, no sensible lass or lad would put a toe into the rivers, heavily polluted as they were by all those factories. Today the water is cleaner, the fish and wildlife are returning, but bathing might be a colder experience than many lasses would go for!
There is another River Calder across the hills in Lancashire; this one spends its whole life in Yorkshire.
September had turned warm again, it was a good day to enjoy a sandwich in sight of the sea near Rye Harbour, and watch the world go by.
There were fewer humans than the last time I was this way, which was in August, but there were plenty of birds, as always. What first caught my eye was a small group of sand martins, swooping and swirling, stirring themselves up for the long flight to Southern Africa. Not quite ready to go yet! Was it a family group, the parents imparting their final advice before taking off in earnest?
A cormorant passed by, purposefully facing the light westerly breeze. A different spectacle altogether: its flying looked like hard work, though we know the grace they acquire as soon as they are in their watery element.
It must have been the frequent sightings of fighter planes this Battle of Britain month that set me comparing the martins to Spitfires, all speed and aerobatics and the cormorant to a ponderous Wellington bomber: killing machines both. So are the martins and cormorant killers, but not of their own kind and no more than necessary to feed themselves and their children.
Not even the birds could persuade us to linger at the motorway services, and we soon found our way to Shropshire, and Ludlow. Where Canterbury has a farmers’ market in the old railway goods shed, Ludlow has a brewery. Even on a Monday morning there were people enjoying the sun and the beer. We saw no reason not to join them.
Impressive plumbing behind the bar, where we bought a sample of three small glasses of different beers; all very good.
From our seat on the mezzanine floor, we were able to appreciate the physical labour that goes into producing the beer. The mash tun was being cleaned out, but was obviously still very warm for the man dismantling the filters. In the old days he would have been allowed beer ad lib; today he had a pint glass of good Shropshire water. Probably as well, all three we tasted were very drinkable, but might leave the drinker a little unsteady on those steps.
The day was warm enough for Mrs T to seek the shade when we stopped at the Oxford motorway services. Perhaps that was why the starling took no notice of us as it sat, wings spread out, feathers fluffed, soaking up the sun, maybe half blinded by it.
The bird was so relaxed that only the arrival of the caretaker, emptying the bins, persuaded it to move into a nearby bush. Had it even noticed the two red kites, skimming the trees, barely six metres above us?
They noticed us humans and departed. He survived their survey,
I was waiting at the seaside bus stop when a handsome young lad arrived, a smile on his face. He was dancing on the spot, though his headphones were off his ears and indeed switched off. He looked crazily happy, but not crazy!
One of his mates got on a couple of stops later, and so we heard just why the firstcomer was so happy. He’d just got accepted at university. ‘I can’t wait to get out of here, man, and get to university. This place is dead, there’s nothing to do.’
I got off at our local university, to walk home in the Spring sunshine across the green of the campus. Two students alighted in front of me; quite a few prefer to live in the peaceful resort rather than the city.
No doubt there will be young people coming to Canterbury from the town where my fellow-traveller is going, glad to get away from somewhere that has grown too small for them. Many come from London, glad to get off their patch and out from under their parents’ eye.
I trust and pray the fire that made the seasider dance will burn within him all the days of his life.