Alexandra Harris tells us about her favourite place, though she struggles to choose just one…
What and where is your favourite place to be?
Places are a huge source of pleasure in my life: mostly rural, mostly English, not too wild, preferably with signs of the past close to the surface. I know there are people who skim through Thomas Hardy’s descriptions of Wessex in order to get to some plot, but I’m the sort of person who skims through the events in order to get to the descriptions. I think I’m happiest when looking at a view. But how to choose a favourite place? They all have their moods and seasons; recent discoveries can be thrilling while the old haunts do their fair bit of haunting. Here’s my shortlist:
- My garden (which isn’t mine at all), especially when the aquilegias suddenly shoot upwards and burst into flower in May.
- Oxford Botanical Garden, where there’s something new in flower every week of the year.
- Going West on the A35 – not the road itself, obviously, but the sense of moving through that ancient, secretive landscape, with Wareham and Purbeck away to the South and with barrows and tumuli on either side.
- A small corner table in a noisy café with good coffee and all the papers, particularly The Quarter in Liverpool where I wrote most of Romantic Moderns, thanks are owed to everyone there.
- Pulborough Wild Brooks, close to where I grew up in Sussex. That’s the oldest and the strongest allegiance, so that’s the place I’ll choose.
What does it look, feel, sound and smell like there?
The Wild Brooks to the south of Pulborough (and stretching across to Amberley) are part of the flood plain for the River Arun. When the fields flood in winter they become a serene, unknowable expanse, cool and white under grey sky. For most of the year you can walk across the fields and through a complex system of banks and ditches, trying not to disturb the cattle.
Do you go to this place for a particular purpose? What do you do when you are there?
This is where I walk with my father, whenever I’m in Sussex. It’s also where I used to walk with my best friend as a kind of ritual every summer, Easter, and Boxing Day.
There are hundreds of variations on the basic route (my father knows them all), but my favourite begins by the tiny church at Wiggonholt. The name means Wicga’s thicket in Old English, and there’s still a bit of a thicket there, though the path drops down through a lovely open field studded with Ragwort which attracts the moths. This area has been tamed and inhabited for a very long time. There was a Roman villa at Wiggonholt, and several larger ones close by, along the course of Stane Street.
The land is now managed by the RSPB, and you can make detours into the hides, but I’m more a land-watcher than a bird-watcher. I like breaking through from the hedged paths and farmland out onto the bare marshes, and hearing a cow cough in the distance. That sound means peace to me (though I’m quite frightened of cows when they’re standing across my path). A cow coughs in the evening air at the start of Between the Acts; I’m not sure if that novel made me love the sound, or whether the sound drew me into the novel.
What is it about this place that makes you love it so?
It’s the grass as well as the cows, especially in low light which throws into relief the different textures. Rabbit-chewed hummocky ground gives way to the tall grass and reeds along the river. There’s the sense of expansiveness and vast sky which you get in the fens, but here it’s on a more domestic scale. You can look across the plain towards Pulbrough, where the houses climb a little way onto the hill. It’s like the harbour for an inland sea. And there’s that magic time heading homewards in the late afternoon when you see the first few lights coming on.
Photograph by Tristram Biggs, found via Flickr.