Apple Tree Cottage
1 August 1978
It is a fine evening, and I am sitting in the garden just outside my porch. The sun has not yet set, and I can see the rows of runner beans that have climbed to the top of the high hazel poles. That reminds me. I must keep some of the bigger bean pods for seeds to plant next April. I’ll keep them in a jam jar, and then I must remember where I put them for the winter. This spring I had to hunt high and low before I finally found them. It is good to see the beans that I planted a couple of months ago now grown high. When I was younger and taller, I planted the row of beans here, but I never saw them flower. I was on the road to India as the beans were climbing the poles, and I reached India when they were ready for picking and eating. At other times I would come home from a journey and then help to dig up potatoes that I had never planted. I travelled much in those days. “You have a bottom that won’t sit down,” Carmen used to say.
“For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” So said Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Travels with a Donkey’.
Stevenson was right, wasn’t he. I’m not too sure about the donkey part, but the rest of it is correct. When we are moving, when we are on the road, all our niggling problems fall from us. We forget our concerns: the electricity bill that seems too high and the fridge door that won’t shut properly (and which perhaps caused the electricity bill), the best place to keep the front door key, the noise the neighbours make on Friday nights, and the nagging thought “We should be asking Bill and Freda over to dinner next weekend”. When we travel, our only worry is to get from A to B before night comes. Our bag holds all we have. When we have little, that little gives us few problems. The job and the house and the car are forgotten. All we think of are the needs of the day, and those needs are easily satisfied.
Starting is all. “Aller Angfang ist schwer” said Goethe, and this is true of travelling. Once you have shut the door and left the house, it is easy. It is the packing of the toothbrush that is hard.
Memories come back, for I’ve stopped my travelling now, memories of our journey through Asia, the six of us. The routine of striking camp, a quick breakfast with the day still cold, the tents rolled up and stacked on the roof of the van, the stove put in the back, everything in its place, all stored away and roped up, a quick look to check the site, the engine started and moving off again. “The great affair is to move.” Tedium cannot catch us while we are moving. We cannot be bored, and what a waste of time boredom is. But then, later, the movement itself becomes addictive. We have to move. It is the great escape. We arrived in India, by the way, and then carried on further east, but that’s a story for another evening.
Africans can give us a lesson in travelling. They live on the journey. They continue their lives while on the move. We, on the other hand, journey in a vacuum and pick up the threads when we arrive. They are patient. If the journey takes two days, so be it. If it takes three days, well, so be that too.
Some people’s whole existence is travelling. Their life is a continuous movement to this grazing ground or to those wells, to that festival or to this great meeting place of the families. Think of the great tradition of travelling to Mecca, to be undertaken once in a lifetime by every Moslem, and a whole lifetime some people took to do it. Inching onwards along dusty, sandy roads to the next poor village where the people took them in with their tradition of kindness to the traveller. Think of the pilgrim routes to the shrine of St James in Santiago or the road to Canterbury when a motley group left the Tabard Inn one April for “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”
Excuse this paragraph. Skip it if you wish. That sentence from Chaucer´s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales means ‘Then folk long to go on pilgrimages’. I must now take you back to our classroom in Wells. We were 15 years old, and this was our first Chaucer. The teacher, Mr Rome, read the original text, and in turn we did our best to translate it into modern English. I remember the boy who was given this line, “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” . He said nothing for a moment and then came out with, ‘Thin, tall people go on pilgrimages’. Well, it was a fairly logical effort! Why not!
What great travellers there have been! To the east, to China, up and down India, across the burning heart of Australia, following tracks criss-crossing the Arab world, riding over long, dull plains, lonely and against the odds. When they returned, they knew that if they told their story, their tale of the hardships of day to day, they would never be understood by those who had remained safe at home with the curtains closed and the fire burning in the hearth.
Aunt Jane has a chronic case of the bug. My younger brother Robert is on the road too, and he is in Australia at the moment. But there is a time for everything, and it is also pleasant to come to rest, to see the runner beans I planted climbing to the sky, and to watch the sun setting in the same place two nights in a row. The sun is setting here now, behind the pine trees in Uncle Jasper’s garden, with a glimpse of the sea in the distance. It is cooler now and soon I will put away the fork and the brush and go inside and find something for supper.