The dawn was grey October, full of bleak promise. I sat up in bed reading, too idle to get up, too restless for sleep. Through a gap in the curtains I could see the mist creeping along the half-light slope of the valley.
I like Somerset. The village which has been our home for thirty years, a thin collection of houses and barns which straggles along the sides of that valley, isn’t postcard pretty. No peacocks strutting over thatch, no honey-mellow stone; just farms and ex-farms and rows of two-up-two-down cottages, a legacy of the time when this part of Somerset was given over to the mining of coal. We turn that absence of the picturesque into an advantage. We live in a ‘real’ village, we say, without pausing to wonder what ‘real’ might mean. In any case, its rural setting makes you turn a blind eye to our over-restored cottages and our cars that line the narrow lanes and block the footpaths.
Bath, museum-city with a past so big that it attracts the world and a footprint so small that the world can walk it from end to end in minutes, lies only six miles away. Sleepy Wells, even smaller, even older, and in its way even more beautiful, is half an hour south. As you drive down to it, looking for that first lift-the-heart sight of the stumpy towers of the cathedral, you glimpse Glastonbury Tor in the far distance, towering over the heron-filled, legend-filled floodplains of the Levels.
I like Somerset. My friends are there. There is an easy sense of belonging which comes from being part of a community of outsiders, people who have paused on our way to somewhere else and never left. Somerset is full of us.
Best of all, I know Somerset, and there is a comfort in that. I know the Quantocks and the Mendips, the museums and the bars, the heaving high streets and the remote places. In the far west, where Exmoor spills out from neighbouring Devon, I can picture the ghost of Coleridge gazing in wonder at the stately pleasure-dome of Butlin’s at Minehead. In the north of the county, closer to home, I know every gentle slope of the Cotswold Way as it winds across Lansdown, past the gilded lantern of Beckford’s Tower and down to its endpoint at Bath Abbey.
This particular morning, though, I was reading about a wilder place. My book was T. H. White’s last, The Godstone and the Blackymor. The place was Erris, the north-west edge of the far north-west corner of Ireland. At the rim of nowhere, Erris is everything that Somerset is not. A poor, hard landscape of bare mountains and monotonous blanket bog. A couple of small towns of no architectural interest. Rocky coast and scattered houses and emptiness. That’s all there is to Erris.
But as I turned the familiar pages, reading how in the 1930s White careered around the Irish countryside in his Jaguar, searching for birds to shoot and a peace he never found, I came across his description of that moment at dusk which sometimes happens in Erris. A moment when the rays of the sun turn everything to gold – earth, sky, white-washed cottages. I closed my eyes for a second and the memory of that lonely desolate country came back to mind, making a chasm in my heart so that before I knew it I was weeping to be back there.
The tears took me by surprise, embarrassed me so that I laughed aloud, grateful no one was there to see. And even as I laughed, still I wished that Somerset was gone, that the 400 miles which separated me from Erris was gone, that I could open the door and walk out and breathe again the air of that blessed country.