A diary piece from the writer Sara Hudston.
Three days before the UK government announced social distancing measures, I had an email from a friend in London. It said:
“This morning an inkling has emerged that I might need to be in Dorset if there is a lockdown. Do you happen to know of any magic places where that could happen?”
The message arrived as parts of the South West began to plead with people not to visit. They came here anyway that weekend, occupying practically every holiday cottage, campsite and airbnb in the region. The weather was gorgeous, the first warmth and sunshine after a long, wet winter and everyone was hungry for the outdoors. All the beauty spots were packed.
What urged us to flee to the country in such numbers? I think it was more than sunny weather and a bizarre sense of holiday. Perhaps we all wanted a “magic place” where the rules of usual life – and the threat of what was coming – could be suspended.
My friend explained further: “Maybe that’s a clue that I should be rooting in my homeland … I know I have work to do in this time and I want to create the conditions that will suit that best. And I don’t think there’s a clear right answer.”
Rooting and homeland: two words with a nuclear weight of meaning in our fragmented age. Behind them sometimes lurk poisonous thoughts about origins and kinship. “Celtic” landscapes can be especially seductive, drawing us into suspect narratives about blood and soil. My London friend isn’t in that basket, but their yearning for a “homeland” they abandoned twenty years ago is on the far distant end of the same spectrum.
Even if you live somewhere dry and warm, with kind housemates, benign neighbours and a garden, chance is that you always thought life was elsewhere. Maybe in a cheaper, prettier, more inspiring place, without such annoying people next door.
There’s an enchanting idea that we might find a special place and feel claimed by it – or even several places (as if we could pick and choose them).
Now that we find ourselves locked into place, perhaps we’re realising we’ve been claimed already. It happened while our backs were turned, while we were busy with other things. Where we find ourselves now is the place we’ve been making all along. It may be an unlovely landscape of stinging nettles, empty plastic bottles and shady holes, like much of the countryside.
Magic has many aspects. At times, my home has been horror house of rats, leaking roofs, injury and decay. I have cursed the place, and felt that it’s cursed me. I’ve sat down on the earth and cried as it broke one hope after another. I tried to sell up and go, but it refused to let me.
Underneath my worries about family and income, my main reaction to lockdown has been one of enormous relief. I love the particularity, the sense of limitation, the feeling that at last we can stop pretending we’re becoming better and more successful all the time, and simply be. I keep thinking of the motto Ben Jonson put on the title page of Timber, or, Discoveries, his book of meditations. Translated from the Latin, it recommends, “live in your own house and recognise how poorly it is furnished.”
Containment can be liberating (I’m not talking here about people detained in abusive circumstances). I once wrote a book about islands called Islomania, focused on the Isles of Scilly, that outpost of insularity off the coast of Cornwall. I was interested in the way people are shaped by place and how scarcity can sometimes unfetter us and nurture independence. These words from that book are running through my head:
In some shoreline field a girl sets up obstacles on the impossibly springy turf and rides her horse over them. Higher and higher she raises the rickety pole and there is no one to tell her that she is leaping her own height, that what she is doing is amazing, is dangerous. She would not believe them. There is only the sweating horse, her excited heartbeat and the seawind pouring over them. She is able to be exceptional because she doesn’t believe she is.
I know I’m hugely lucky. I’m in my magic place, and it is wonderful to have time to pay it full attention. I look up from my desk now and see a male bullfinch nipping blackthorn buds, his smart coral and charcoal plumage vivid against white blossom. His roan-pink mate is a few yards away, picking buds off an apple tree. It’s the blackbird hour, that time in mid-afternoon when the males start singing, calling for rain.
Seven years under the (recently mended) roof and I’m beginning to feel like the ash tree by the gate, which has undergone inescapable twists and knottings, lopped limbs and binding ivy. It is flowering now, putting forth purplish-brown fuzz at the ends of leafless twigs. By the autumn it will be laden with green seedcases. I hope to keep one, my key from the leap year when lockdown set me free.
Sara Hudston is a writer living in rural Dorset. She is a Guardian Country Diarist, TLS contributor and also writes fiction.
Photograph (showing a long tailed tit gathering spider cocoons for a nest) by the author.