Certifiable? Another pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago gets her compostela

Compostela for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimageI’ve finally fulfilled a long-held desire to be a pilgrim and got my compostela (official certificate) for having completed a section of the Spanish pilgrimage route the Camino de Santiago.

I’ve long wanted to do the Camino, a contemporary form of pilgrimage which is undergoing a resurgence, attracting 21st-century pilgrims of all faiths and none. My first attempt at the Camino was deferred by the death of my mother in 2011; its taken me all this time to get back round to it and, since then, the numbers receiving the compostela have gone up by almost a hundred thousand, rising to almost 280,000 in 2016.

In late August I set out for Santiago from Ferrol, having chosen to do the relatively quiet Camino Ingles. The people I met on my first day confirmed the open, pluralistic spirit of the contemporary Camino. On the outskirts of the city I met a local who had done that route ten times because he loved it so much, and then walked a while with a group of Spanish students from Valencia. ‘Are you doing this for religious reasons or for the experience?’ one asked me. The latter, I replied, although I didn’t make a hard distinction between the two. It was the same for him, agreed the student; while not a religious requirement, the Camino is more than just a hike. That evening I had dinner – a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ for nine euros – with a Catholic priest from the Netherlands.

But the growing popularity of the Camino is also giving rise to a new type of pilgrim that I liked less. These focused, driven walkers tend to get up soon after five, filling the dormitories of the pilgrim hostels with flashlights and the sound of hurried packing. Then they take off into the dark, often arriving at their next destination by the middle of the morning. Those doing the ‘sports camino’, as a like-mind amiga de camino put it, are determined to win the race for beds which in the summer months, even on the Camino Ingles, are in increasingly short supply.

The other side of the Camino revival is the degree to which it is embedded in modern Spanish culture. Almost half the pilgrims are Spanish and, I heard it said more than once, that ‘most’ Spaniards are expected to do the pilgrimage at least once, while for the young, gaining a compostela is akin to getting a Duke of Edinburgh award.

For the pilgrim, this translates into a great sense of being supported along the way. Locals, seeing you plod past their house with your rucksack, often wish you buen camino, sometimes shouting to correct you if they think you’re about to take the wrong path. Much is made, in the literature about the Camino, about the sense of history you get from walking the paths trodden by the pilgrims of millennia past. But for me, the sense of being part of something bigger came more from having a living connection to the place I was in, one largely created by the understanding and acceptance of the people around me.

One Spaniard I met in a bar – a bicycling pilgrim from Valencia – attributed the success of the modern Camino to the Galician people. ‘Galicians are polite’, he said, adding that if the ancient pilgrimage route had lain in the south of Spain he doubted whether pilgrims would have received the same warm welcome. He attributed the Galician temperament to the region’s remoteness, which had shielded it from some of the perils of modernisation and the trauma of the Spanish Civil War.
Stone tumble-down house on the route of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Galicia
And there’s no doubt that Galicia – which, like many rural regions of Europe, has suffered mass emigration – can do with the economic benefits of the Camino. Many empty houses litter its landscape, some bearing hopeful ‘SE VENDE’ notices, while others are fast going back to nature. Coming from a crowded, property-mad island, it made me sad to see so many idyllicly-situated homes being abandoned. So the fact that the modern Camino is a business which benefits the locals cheered me: what better form of tourism than one which feeds both body and soul in a way that stays true to the character of the place?

Arriving at the Cathedral in Santiago did, briefly, remind me of tourism-as-usual. In the early afternoon, the Praza de Obradoiro was awash with groups punching the air and cheering. An American woman next to me kept playing back a video she’d just made of her own arrival. The script went: ‘Wow. Wow. Wow. Amazing. Wow.’

But I wasn’t disappointed by the show the Cathedral put on at the twice-daily Pilgrims’ Mass. The music, provided by a powerful organ and some very good soloists, was the best I’ve heard in a Catholic church, and the priest officiating communicated a real sense that we, as pilgrims, had achieved something meaningful. Watching the botafumiero (giant incense burner) swing dangerously above the congregations’ heads to almost touch the ceiling – it took eight priests to pull the rope – was genuinely exhilarating.

Collecting my compostela in the Pilgrims’ office, I had to choose a column giving my ‘motivo’ for doing the Camino. On the page I filled out, eleven people had ticked ‘religious’, eight ‘spiritual’ and one the ‘tourism/sports’ column – further confirmation of the range of reasons for doing the Camino. So it was a shame that the alternative pilgrims’ ceremony I had been invited to en route didn’t, in the end, take place. Organised by a Franciscan monk in a spirit of ecumenicism, it seemed the right way to end a 21st-century pilgrimage.

Walking El Camino the English way

Scallop shell embedded in wall which bears the words, in red, Camino de SantiagoNext week I’m planning to fulfil a long-held ambition to walk a section of the pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

In its heyday, the Camino was one of the great pilgrimage routes of the western world, with the Spanish city of Santiago joining Rome and Jerusalem as one of the three holy destinations for good medieval Catholics. Santiago acquired its special status after the apostle St James reportedly travelled to northwestern Spain to found the new church there, miraculously re-appearing centuries later to help save the country from invading Muslims, In the process, he won himself the title of ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – St James the Moorslayer – and the Cathedral of Santiago became his reputed burial place.

No one knows how a Galilean fisherman might have got to Spain, and no evidence of his remains were found there: probably the Spanish wanted a bit of early-church action on their soil, much like the English when they claimed that Jesus’ feet had trodden its green fields on the way to Glastonbury.

Of course, as a 21st-century pluralist, I’m not embarking on the Camino in the spirit of a traditional Catholic, much less one endorsing a Christian jihad. Instead, I’m taking part in the modern revival of the Camino that speaks to the rise of a more experiential spiritual sensibility, akin to the one chronicled in The Secret Life of God.

The numbers walking the Camino have risen dramatically over the past couple of decades, from a couple of thousand in the 1980s to almost 280 000 in 2016. Modern pilgrims walk for a variety of reasons: surveys attest to a whole gamut, from a need for exercise to the desire for a personal challenge.

Yet when broken down so starkly, the reasons seem not to capture the spirit in which people embark on the Camino. Comments by pilgrims in the growing Camino literature and fora suggest that the motivations are broadly psycho-spiritual, and centre on the resolution of a problem or the search for healing. It seems clear that even in its modern form, there is something special about a pilgrimage, a journey to a particular destination with no practical purpose, which costs the undertaker considerable effort but often brings an intangible benefit.

I suspect that the enduring appeal of pilgrimage has to do with the human need for movement; the fact that we are, as Bruce Chatwin wrote in The Songlines, ‘a migratory species’ which has the experience of walking long and far mapped deep into its DNA. It was probably this impulse that Chaucer was referring to when he described the longing of ‘folk’ to ‘goon on pilgrimages’ that overcame the English in spring, an atavistic longing that pre-dates the traditional Catholic pilgrimage and is now evolving beyond the social and religious framework that gave it form in the Middle Ages.

My own pilgrimage will be modest. I’ve chosen to do the Camino Ingles, one of the lesser-known routes which, at about 120 km, has the advantage of meeting the minimum requirement of walking the last 100 km into Santiago to qualify for a compostela all by itself. It’s also reportedly much quieter than the last stretch of the popular Camino Frances, which has become busy with coach parties and tourists in recent years.

I like the fact that the Camino Ingles is the route that English pilgrims would have taken until the break from the Catholic Church put an end to pilgrimage as a socially acceptable activity. In times gone by, the ‘seafaring pilgrims from northern Europe’ would have sailed to Galicia’s northern coast before walking to the tomb of St James.

Path through trees on the Camino de SantiagoAfter arriving via Ryanair, this pilgrim will be taking it slowly. While an enthusiastic day-walker, I’ve never attempted continuous walking day after day, and have only moderate levels of physical energy. While I mean to complete my mission of walking to Santiago, I’m also aware that the Camino poses challenges in all sorts of ways, not least to our expectations and sense of being in control. (I’ve just read Rosemary Mahoney’s account of her Camino in Singular Pilgrim, in which her driven approach to walking is arrested by searing pain in her legs.)

So over the next week or so, don’t wish me luck, wish me Buen Camino.

A Buddhist monastery? Oh, the secret life of Bradford-on-Avon!

Sun streaming through wood-framed window onto a wooden desk in the Buddhist monastery in Bradford-on-Avon You’d never know. An unobtrusive Georgian townhouse on one of Bradford on Avon’s busiest roads, where the cars back up to squeeze through the town’s narrow streets, is home to a Buddhist monastery.

Founded in 1986 as part of a monastic order called the Aukana Trust, the monastery is only open to the public for an afternoon every other year. The house on Mason’s Lane, now called the Monastery of Absolute Harmony, is currently home to three monastics, with their spiritual director Paul Harris living next door. Having visited many Christian monasteries in Lebanon and Britain, I was curious to see what their Buddhist counterpart would be like.

So, on a sunny afternoon in June, a friend and I make our way down Mason’s Lane. The double doors that must originally have made way for a carriage have been thrown open, and the place is full of people. The first surprise is the extent of the sloping gardens that fall away from the house, divided by hedges to form ‘rooms’ for various purposes from meditation to vegetable-growing. There are clear views over Bradford’s distinctive townscape, and the onion-shaped dome of the Catholic Church seems only a stone’s throw away.

The other surprise is that among the many, largely female, helpers and greeters, my companion and I have quite a few acquaintance. They’re part of the monastery’s wider community who come to weekly meditations and on retreat; some have been doing so for decades.

Our shoes are collected through window as we go into the house, which is fully carpeted in a series of soft, warm colours – soft gold, muted pink and deep blue – to minimise noise. We are greeted at the top of the stairs by Sister Sarah, a smiley woman of perhaps fifty, with close-cropped hair, dressed in a navy karate-style trouser suit. I ask her about the monastic day.

‘Mornings are quiet, starting with a group meditation – one person takes it in turns to get the breakfast,’ she smiles. In the afternoons, the work of the house and garden is done, still in silence – a kind of ‘working meditation’. The evening meal is the talking time of the day. ‘Structure is essential,’ she adds. ‘It’s difficult to meditate on your own. There’s a part of us which is lazy and will always find something else to do’.

A gate and archway revealing a vista of tree, garden and house that is the cover of The New Monastics by Alex KlaushoferSo far, so like the division of the day into work and prayer followed by the order of Benedictine nuns that I stayed with when researching Christian monasticism.

As we move through the retreat wing, we are impressed by the rooms offered to retreatants: generous-sized and simply but comfortably furnished. Each has a single colour theme: apricot-gold, pale green, powder blue, and can’t resist choosing our favourite room. Mine is the Crane Room, a large room decorated in shades of gold and with a triptych of windows overlooking the town. It reminds me of my own home but without the (psychic) noise created by my busy mind.

The attic rooms where the three resident monastics live are smaller but furnished along similar lines. There is no sign of personal possessions, apart from a few carefully-chosen Buddhist images and statues.

The interior of the monastery, we learn, is maintained according to the Buddhist principle of impeccability, which rules that everything must be kept simple and clean.

Barbara, a mutual acquaintance, a long-standing friend and beneficiary of the monastery tells us about the week-long retreats she does: there’s silence all day, including at meal times (retreatants are given a tray to take to their rooms). But there are three, pre-arranged sessions of twenty minutes with Paul during the week to discuss any concerns that come up through meditation.

Golden shrine in the Buddhist monastery in Bradford-on-AvonLike children, we ask her which room she likes best. The blue one, she replies immediately. But, she adds, to avoid creating an ‘attachment’, retreatants are not allowed to stay in the same room twice. Emanating pride, she shows us the shrine which, she says, is ‘the centre of the monastery’. It’s a large room, almost a small hall, carpeted in rich blue, with rows of chairs facing the golden shrine.

Personally, I prefer my shrine carpeted with grass and with hedges for walls. We sit in several of the monastery’s garden rooms, ending up in the shade of some trees by a large leylandi hedge. On the other side is Mason’s Lane, with its never-ceasing traffic. An emergency vehicle screams past and makes the point about two worlds co-existing side-by-side. When I’m next in that traffic I won’t see this road in the same way again.

No room for displacement: the language of moving

Cardboard box with picture of house on it

They say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. It’s up there, in the research, after bereavement and divorce, as one of the great life-events that shake your world. The articles list the sources of stress with empathic relish: the buying and selling of houses, the packing of boxes, the misplaced possessions, the domestic disorder that stretches into months, even years … The way we describe and frame this experience says a lot about our priorities and concerns in twenty-first century Britain.

My move last year from London to the West Country got me
thinking about the language of moving and what it reveals, often through omission, about our relation to place. Its vocabulary demonstrates an overarching concern for the concrete, the financial, the organisation of possessions, the paramount importance of our (dis)comfort and (in)convenience.

Yet it omits the fundamental process of dis-placement and re-rooting that moving involves, how our surroundings imprint in us mental images of place that endure long beyond their physical presence, the way that geography and environment shape our daily routines. The dominant discourse about moving betrays a partial, atomistic way of looking at what is an important rite of passage in our relation to place – the ending of a relationship with one place, and the slow process of forging a new relationship with another.

Born in London but having grown up in a Gloucestershire village, I am topographically schizophrenic. The choices of my adult life represent an attempt to bring some sort of resolution to these two formative places. For almost a decade, I found a compromise in Crystal Palace, the Janus-faced hill-suburb that looks to the centre of London one way, the green of southern England the other. Its garden, bordering allotments and neighbouring gardens, was a haven for local wildlife.

My cottage in Bradford on Avon at the southernmost tip of the Cotswolds close to the Gloucestershire border represents a reversal of my previous compromise: instead of inhabiting a patch of (relative) wild in the city, I now live at the edge of a town set amid hills and fields. But the move to the other side of my topographical self has brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since they come from a time when life was less atomised, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place. My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange? A psychotherapist friend of similar age elides from talk of gardening to the planting of me:

‘Transplanting us is not so easy,’ she writes. ‘It is full of surprises, however well we prepare for it, and it is by definition unsettling! Everyone seems to experience it differently. When we moved I found myself going through an amazing range of feelings and moods. Our invisible roots need rest and the comfort of familiar, beloved books and music for several weeks before they can begin to find their way into new soil. You must be prepared for that and look after them.’ Psychology, with its focus on relationships between humans, doesn’t pay enough attention to place, she thinks.

I’m coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: ‘homesick’. The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place.

Welsh has ‘hiraeth’, a word that connotes a yearning for a place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be ‘at home’ in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate ‘cynefin’ denotes ‘habitat’ or ‘customary abode’; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as ‘the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.’

The Scottish Gaelic ‘duthchas’ conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called ‘bàrdachd cianalais’ is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression.

I apologise to speakers of these languages if I’ve mangled the meanings of these terms, untranslatable as they are into Standard English. But my lack of fluency with this kind of language is part of my point: as someone who has always lived somewhere along a horizontal line of southern England, it’s not part of my natural vocabulary. If I want to describe the psycho-spiritual and experiential elements of my relation to place directly, rather than through the more oblique forms of fiction or poetry, I have to have recourse, clumsily, to a vocabulary outside native tongue.

This helps to explain why, despite the conscious choosing of my move westwards, I sometimes awake with an image of a Victorian streets imprinted on my mind, or catch myself wondering whether a particular plant is in bloom in south London. In these moments I’m aware that I haven’t quite hefted, that I’m in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving. ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’ writes A E Housman, in a poem that is generally taken to be about the fleeting nature of human existence. Our culture is very good at talking about our relation to time, especially our varied and conflicting feelings about the past, but neglects the kindred feelings about place. And yet the blossoming cherry tree that Housman’s speaker resolves to see is a particular tree in a particular place: ‘the cherry’ (emphasis added) … ‘stands about the woodland ride’.

And so, as I cross the liminal territory between moving and settling during my first adult year in the West Country, I wonder how particular cherry trees in Crystal Palace are doing. I’m also charting the profess of my newly-planted apple trees which, grafted from local parent-trees and donated by neighbours, are uber-specific to my area. The element now needed to cement my relationship to my new habitat is the seasonal cycles that will bring the familiarity captured by the word ‘cynefin’.

This is an extract from an article published in issue 15 of Earthlines.

The Autumn equinox and the symbolism of the apple

Red and green apple held between fingers and thumb against a blue sky

The autumn equinox – one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal length and which, in the pagan tradition, marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, comes as Christian churches celebrate the gathering in of the crops with the Harvest Festival. This year, for me, it’s all about apples.

Six months ago, having moved to an area of the West Country
historically dominated by orchards, I took the first steps in creating my own garden-orchard by planting some saplings.

And now, the light half of the year later, the first fruit of my orchard is a single, golden Russet. It’s Applewatch! If I allow it to fall, it will bruise and get eaten; if I pick it before it’s ready, I will have bad luck till Spring!

Apples have a rich and complicated symbolism across spiritual and religious traditions. For the Celts, apples had the power of healing and rebirth; for the Druids, as host to mistletoe, it was a sacred tree like the oak.

But of course, in Britain, the most powerful story about the apple is the Biblical one, portraying it as the fruity incarnation of forbidden knowledge. The cause, along with the serpent and the weakness of Woman, of The Fall, the apple represents the power and risks inherent in knowledge. In other words, it’s the Freewill Fruit.

The idea of the riskiness of apples permeates western culture. The apple in ‘Snow White’ is the container of poison, the vehicle of the evil stepmother’s magic that places the girl into a death-like state. In ‘Cider with Rosie’, Laurie Lee chronicles his sexual awakening thanks to an illicit jar of cider under a hay wagon in a chapter entitled ‘First bite of the apple’.

I’m not sure what the apple represents in contemporary British culture, but I suspect it may something to do with an attempt to preserve community and local character in the face of
homogenizing, impersonal modernity. In a couple of weeks, my local community group is holding its annual apple pick in the community orchard, a child-focused afternoon which will result in apple juice for the rest of the year.

And it’s a quarter of a century since Common Ground launched Apple Day on 21st October,
suggesting that the apple be used as ‘a symbol of what is being lost in many aspects of our lives and shown that anyone can take positive action towards change’.

My final thought about apples takes me to Lebanon, where I once went on an apple-picking weekend with a local eco-tourism company. I was a lone foreigner among a group of Maronites, and we picked apples for a leisurely while before having lunch and a lie-down in the orchard. The Syrian seasonal workers – living in nearby tents – were the best pickers, scrambling fast up trees to protect the apples from a bruising fall. There’s a symbolism in that, too.

No presenters were sacked in the writing of this blog

To be a British pilgrim, 21st-century style

Weary pilgrims rest against the yew tree at Wilmington Churchay-pilgrimage/pilgrim-numbers/” target=”_blank”>Camino de Santiago which is now drawing an average of a quarter of a million pilgrims a year. Like the stewards of the Camino, who are argue that pilgrimage is for those of ‘all faiths and none’, BPT founders Guy Hayward and Will Parsons advocate a ‘bring your own beliefs’ approach.

I was curious about this new form of pilgrimage. It seemed to me a prime example of the kind of emerging, evolving British spirituality I documented in The Secret Life of God, in which the spiritually serious go in search of a form of faith based on experience and authenticity rather than doctrines or rituals handed down to them. While this quintessentially 21st century way of making meaning may still include organised religion, it involves reworking relationships with traditional institutions, along with an openness to other faiths and paths. I wondered whether I would meet the counterparts to the pioneering individuals and communities I’d found in the course of my research, ordinary people quietly discovering their own verions of the sacred while living normal lives.

And so it proved. Over two and a half days, two dozen people from a variety of backgrounds traversed the rolling Sussex hills, appreciating the beauty of churches – and the utility of their standpipes – honouring the ancestors of the land and doing a spot of yoga on a long barrow. Our guides sung to us – hear this ancient piece of British plainchant here – and led us in the singing of rounds they’d written to mark the connection between people and place.

New rituals emerged: drawing on eastern and Islamic traditions, Guy and Will encouraged the circumambulation of every church before entering it as a way of pre-empting the colonial ‘greed’ of marching straight in. And, as I write, there are probably some Japanese tourists telling their relatives how the British worship the cliffs edging their island in the way that Jews honour Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall – the fruit of Guy’s accidental discovery that placing your forehead against the east wall of a locked church can give you a powerful sense of the whole building.

I was surprised and yet not how readily the motley group embraced this easy syncretism: it clearly draws on a range of ideas and practices that have become commonplace in religious and alternative circles in recent years. I was entirely surprised by the way passers-by seemed to understand what we – identifiable as something more than a walking group by our pilgrim staffs – were doing, greeting explanations of a modern, non-dogmatic kind of pilgrimage as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I think the fact we were doing the most British of things – walking about the countryside for no practical reason – helped. (As we left the South Downs, we were awarded an impromptu medal by an YMCA worker, who said that collectively we’d done the same mileage as the walker who’d just spent four days walking from Winchester to raise funds.)

The vestry at Firle. That's my sleeping bag.
The vestry at Firle. That’s my sleeping bag.

As nature-loving inhabitants of a chilly island, we perhaps have a instinctual understanding that forging a relationship with the place which harbours us involves a degree of effort and travail.

For me, the experience fulfilled a lifelong ambition I never knew I had – sleeping in a vestry, in this case that of extreme pilgrim Peter Owen Jones at Firle. It’s also crystalised my intention of walking the pilgrimage routes that traverse Wiltshire: what better way of getting to know my new county than to be a pilgrim? Watch this space.

What Brexit Britain can learn from the Middle East

secret life god
Photo by Eddie Awad
El Hoda Coop

Like a lot of folk, I’ve spent the past few days wondering how I’m going to deal with the turbulent realities of living in Britain in the coming months and years.

Recessions aside, the recent history of Britain has been remarkably free of conflict and upheaval; my generation is unused to prolonged political uncertainty and deep social divisions. In this respect the British mindset reminds me of what a Gloucester shopkeeper said after we’d both waited some time for a particularly anxious customer to finish worrying out loud about non-problems: Not Enough Tigers. Local people, she explained, tended not to have the day-to-day experience of danger and threats experienced by those elsewhere in the world.

So it’s a shock to wake up and find that, overnight, our country has lost its key allies and lacks an effective government and opposition, while racist incidents seem to be springing out of nowhere. (Today on Twitter, someone with a German name said a shopkeeper told him he’d be going home soon. Since I have a German name, that could have been me.) And there is no clear way forward: what will be, at best, a period of protracted change and uncertainty will go on for years.

Rummaging around in my experience for resources to make an urgent psychological adjustment to this new Britain, I’ve been remembering the feel of everyday life in the Middle East. In both Lebanon and Palestine where I’ve spent a lot of time, what struck me forcibly was the resilience of ordinary people to chronic instability, their ability to live their lives in a positive way despite ongoing disruption and uncertainty.

In the Palestinian refugee camp I knew best, people held jobs and businesses, got married and had children, building their houses upwards to accommodate their growing families. They took pleasure in all these things while at the same time dealing, often on a daily basis, with checkpoints, incursions and worse; it was almost as if they were leading parallel lives.

In Lebanon a month after the 2006 bombing by Israel, I couldn’t sleep at night for the sound of partying. In the wake of the latest war, new clubs had sprung up around Beirut to meet the new level of demand for a good time. This heightened hedonism was an extension of the determination I’d seen in Lebanese generally to direct and enjoy their lives despite living under what aid agencies call low-intensity conflict.

It’s more than a dozen years since I saw my Palestinian friends. A few weeks ago a message turned up on Facebook accompanied by a picture of me on a beach with a small boy. The writer had now grown up and become the best English speaker in the family. All the children I’d known now had degrees and jobs in the professions, he said; the adults were ‘doing great’ too. There was no mention of The Occupation.

Don’t think that my Arab friends are in denial about the political conditions under which they live or the most likely future scenarios. They are coping with tough times in what seems to me a sensible, healthy way, by engaging in a kind of constructive double-think. That’s something we’re now going need to need to do in Britain.

Barely rooted: on planting apple trees

'Discovery' by Cob Lands
‘Discovery’ by Cob Lands

It’s apple season again! No, I haven’t lost the seasonal plot – I’m refering to the brief window of winter for planting bare rooted trees, when the ground is no longer frost-hardened but before the spring growth kicks in.

This year, with a new garden staring needfully at me, I’m doing just that. Fruit trees are the perfect solution for a lazy gardener like me: low maintenance, hospitable to summer snoozers, and productive of food that can be stored through the winter. They’re also traditional to my corner of Wiltshire, a hamlet that used to be patchwork of orchards and now host to a community orchard that is part of the national orchard revival. I’ve been given three by the local community association, carefully grafted from parent trees in the surrounding gardens, so my saplings are truly local.

Traditional orchards have long been on the decline, with the National Trust estimating that at least 60% have been lost since the 1950s. The loss of the fruit trees that used to cover much of Britain’s southern lowlands are at the core – sorry – of our changed relationship to land, in which most people have lost the connection to the places around them that comes from growing and harvesting our own food.

Planting a fruit tree is an easy way to restore a bit of that connection, and can be done anywhere there’s a bit of green space, including cities. And apples are a most versatile food: portable and longlasting, ready-to-eat and a key ingredient for pies, cakes and tarts, juice and cider. (Confession: as an everyday hedonist, I’m not that keen on apples in their raw form, prefering them accompanied by sugar, carbs and creamy substances).

Apples, like so many other things, carry stories about time and place. This rather charming list tells of Gloucestershire varieties such as the ‘Gloucestershire Underleaf’, loved by locals for its versatility as an eater, cooker and cider-maker. Or see the ‘Green Underleaf’ which, ‘according to Pat Turner, in the old days .. would be “wurded” or ripened in heaps under “boltings” (big thrashed sheaves) of wheat straw.’

The great thing about planting your own tree is that you’re creating a story, as well as a fruit crop, for tomorrow. Choose one of the old varieties, and you’ll be planting a link that extends from the past into the future.

Libraries and the sense of place

The Westbury Horse by Henry Burrows
The Westbury Horse by Henry Burrows

With National Libraries Day and the Speak Up For Libraries parliamentary lobbying day upon us again, I’ve been thinking about a
little-recognised aspect of public libraries and what they do for us, in housing resources that contribute to our sense of place.

Google ‘library’ and ‘local studies’ or ‘local history’, and you’re likely to find references to caches of archives, records, photos about the place you’re interested in. If you’re lucky, you may find there’s also a professional to help you navigate your way through obscure documents and yearbooks in the form of a local studies librarian. Libraries, as campaigners are pointing out, are about staff as well as buildings and books.

I’ve called on that kind of help myself in Crystal Palace, as I sought to find out more about the ancestors who, I discovered after moving to the area, had lived in the surrounding streets. In his last few weeks before his redundancy from Upper Norwood Joint Library, local history librarian Jerry Green directed me to the materials that contained photos of the church where my great-grandparents got married and other details of the lives of my local forebears. Not being a trained historian or archivist, I’m grateful he was around: there’s no way I would have been able to do that alone.

Now Upper Norwood Library faces an uncertain future when all its council-funded staff lose their jobs in April. The local history society may step in a provide some help in training people how to research local and family history. But, like all grant-funded projects, it is likely to be short-term.

It’s also thanks to a local studies librarian that I’m getting to know my new home of Wiltshire. This week, county local studies librarian Mike Marshman gave a well-attended talk in Bradford on Avon Library on the white horses and other hill figures for which Wiltshire is so well-known. I learnt that the white horse I can see from my road is the Westbury horse, cut in 1778 and possibly replacing an older horse looking the other way, and that the better-known new Pewsey horse was cut by the fire brigade in 1937. The Devizes Millennium White Horse, cut in 1999, gets his own birthday parties, complete with cake.

Other, more established, residents were learning things too. ‘You need to get out more in Wiltshire’, Marshman told us sweetly when we failed to have heard of a horse.

Topographical trivia? I don’t think so. Cumulatively, collectively, this is the stuff that binds people to place and helps us to know and love the settlements and landscapes that hold us. Local libraries – the clue’s in the word ‘local’ – have, in their hundred-and-fifty-year history, have played a vital role in doing this. My great-great grandfather saw this when he campaigned in the century before last for a publicly-funded library in the heart of every community; the 1964 Public Libraries Act placed an obligation on councils to provide all residents with access to a public library.

It’s disappointing – no, it’s tragic – that central government, with its recent guidance that the statutory obligation on councils to provide a public library can be interpreted in the loosest terms, replacing proximity to a library with access via digital technologies. For libraries are not just there to promote reading, education, culture and community – they are also about our relationship to place.

Confessions of a suburban naturalist

Photo by Jes (Flickr)
Photo by Jes (Flickr)

It’s ironic that, having grown up in the country, my love of nature has most recently been fostered by life in the city.

My suburban garden in Crystal Palace has brought me into greater proximity with wildlife than I ever thought possible. The back garden adjoins other gardens and allotments bordering a pocket of woodland, a residue of the Great North Wood that used to cover the hills south of the capital.

Part of a patchwork of semi-neglected gardens linked by a network of runs and entrance holes, it’s an area that the
local animals treat as their own, a place where they can pursue their interests relatively free of human interference. And yet they’re also there for what people can provide, seeking me out for food, protection and, it’s sometimes seemed, company.

As a result, birds follow me around, some even coming at my whistle. A couple of years ago,
a lone fox cub chose to do his growing up in the garden, joining me at lunchtimes, coming to watch me hang out the washing or cut back the ivy, giving me a rare opportunity to observe the habits and behaviour of a creature famously shy of humans.

Growing up in the country never yielded such experiences. There, the animals tend to keep their distance, presumably having learnt the lessons of millennia trying to co-exist with farming, hunting humans.

I’m a beneficiary of suburban naturalism, a modern phenomenon which is a product of the modern move to the cities. As more of the population gathers in urban settlements and the wild spaces around them shrink, the local animals have also changed their habitats and lifestyles. Foxes are perhaps the best example of this trend, establishing thriving populations in the cities from the mid-twentieth century onwards. And it’s easy to forget that garden birds, now taken as part of the fabric of everyday life, are a recent phenomenon, being essentially woodland and field birds attracted by the dense supply of resources available in back gardens.

To me, this kind of coexistence and relationship between animals and humans enabled by the city is as much a sign of our need for nature as nature’s exploitation of the resources provided by humans. As fewer people farm, more keep pets; while more of us live in the city, more than ever feed the birds.

Now, after nearly a decade in Crystal Palace, I’ve moved to the west country, a little south of where I grew up, impelled by a longing for more nature, more space. I am sure that the rolling hills and fields of the south Cotswolds will fulfill this longing for a bigger, greener landscape. But will it give me the same contact with its non-human inhabitants as my suburban idyll?

The jury’s out.