John Helmer: An area of outstanding natural beauty

September 4, 2017


“Where even are those bells?”

I’m sitting on a bench above a valley so closely fitting everybody’s mental picture of The Green and Pleasant Land that it could easily have been the model for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the 2012 Olympics. I’m with my wife and eldest daughter, Grace, and we’re hopelessly lost; cockneys in the countryside.

“You see that field full of sheep,” I say; “the black ones with amber eyes that wouldn’t stop staring at us? Well look up from there to that big tree, OK? Then just above them is a crenelated tower – could that be a church?”

“That’s a church.”

“OK, so it must be bell-ringing practice.”

For a cockney I’ve been spending a lot of time in rural parts recently; in Gloucestershire, Norfolk, and now here in Devon. (I say cockney; technically speaking the part of London where I was born is not quite within the sound of Bow Bells, but I got pissed with the Vicar of St Mary-le-Bow once and he gave me honorary status.)

“It’s just two notes,” complains Grace, “and they’ve been playing them for half an hour… Get another tune, mate.” Grace was born in Brighton, miles from Bow, but eight years of living in London have made her more of a cockney than I will ever be.

“So is that village Northleigh,” I wonder aloud, “or Southleigh?”

“A bit of 4G would help,” says my trouble-and-strife, the only true cockney among us, having been born in the old Charing Cross Hospital – though you couldn’t tell that from her accent, which would put a BBC continuity announcer to shame. “Let’s try that way.”

We set off down a narrow road between hedgerows heavy with honeysuckle and bindweed. Devon is lush; the air narcotic, stultifying. I spot a movement in the hedgerow. Something small and brown crawls jerkily out onto the road.

“It’s a thrush,” says Kate; “but oh no, look, it’s hurt!” The bird is unable to fly, or even to hop about on its legs, which don’t seem broken so far as she can see. “It must have been hit by a car.” She picks it up and cradles it in her palm as we walk on.

“Are you going to take that back with us?”

“Of course.”

“And then what? Feed it worms and flies and milk through a pipette and stuff?”

“Does everything you know about living things come from TV?”

“If only it could speak,” I say, “we could use its natural sense of direction to guide us.”

“It’s a bird, darling, not a satnav.”

Unexpectedly, we find our way back to the cottage where we are staying, and between ringing the doorbell for our hosts, and the doorbell being answered by our hosts, the thrush dies.

I watch Kate place it, respectfully, back in the hedgerow.

The bells ring on.


Illustration by Chris Riddell


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