Bohemia Village Voice  Bohemia Village Voice

For bohemians everywhere

Louise Elcoate

A New Year’s Walk

It is New Year’s Day and I am doing what I have always wanted to do on New Year’s Day. I am striding across the South Downs in a blustery wind, under heavy grey skies.
For thirty-six years I longed for this freedom to walk in the English countryside. I longed for footpaths winding ahead, stiles to climb, trees arching above. I longed for the guilty pleasure of crossing farmland or skirting a vegetable patch. For the smells and colours of the countryside. Instead, I walked around the lake near my home, a pleasant suburban walk in my New Jersey neighbourhood with ducks and geese and the added noise of planes low overhead as they made their final descent into Philadelphia International airport.
I had realized long before that if I wanted a walk in an unspoiled landscape, it was a plane journey away in a National Park. I had learned, when I went to America that there was little local countryside, certainly none within walking distance and little that wasn’t privately owned. I found that I could walk on the beach, which was sixty miles away but – yes, there was a fee to access the beaches in New Jersey.
Living in America sharpened my awareness of what I missed most about England. When I would visit family here, as I flew into Gatwick I would look down at the green fields and neat hedgerows that surround the airport and marvel that there could be so much countryside so close to a major airport.
I would feel a tightening in my chest at the greenness and smallness of it all. I was conscious that I felt safer within these confines of neat hedgerows and small fields and in comparison, America, because of its great distances made me feel unsettled, disconcerted.
I would wonder and still do, if the freedom, the accessibility, of the countryside here is taken for granted by those who have always lived here. Is there a surrender to the humdrum nature of everyday life that leaves no room for a simple awareness of our surroundings? I don’t know.
Because I lived in America for so long, I learned how to be comfortable in my environment there. Soon after I returned to live in England, somebody asked me what I missed most about America. The answer was simple. The ease of it all. The example I gave was this. Every morning on my way to work, I would stop at the local convenience store.
Within three minutes, I had parked, poured myself a coffee from the many flavours available, paid my dollar and was on my way, coffee in hand. Parking was effortless and free, the roads wide and uncomplicated, access to stores immediate. Here the roads are narrow, congested, difficult to negotiate. There has to be a plan to get a cup of coffee and room in the budget.
Yet all of this inconvenience for me becomes an easy negotiation when I walk across the South Downs on New Year’s Day. I smell the salt air and feel the wind on my face and experience a freedom that I had forgotten was possible. And I am grateful.

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