‘Reading Week’ in France

I was lucky enough to be given a week’s holiday for reading week by my parents (well I jumped in their holiday anyway), not a lot of reading was done I must say. We stayed in an area called ‘Suisse-Normandy’, a small patch of Normandy near Caen which sticks out from the rest of the region, it is a small area of hills and valleys, completely different to the flat expanses of farmland surrounding. It has a unique beauty.

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View from our drive

We woke up every day shrouded in mist and fog which rested heavily on the quietened land; it was as if this area had its own routine. 8-11am, a settled mist; 11-2pm, the sun climbed and broke through waking the land up; 2-4pm, there was a subdued presence of light and warmth, tempered by the autumn coolness; 4 onwards the day began to darken and grow crisp, pushing us inside to the fire. Almost every day we spent here, without fail, unfolded like this. There never seemed to be a huge change in temperature or light, instead a steady coolness persisted.

On the first day we drove through the wholly idyllic countryside, passing field upon field with reddening trees and strange piles of boulders, seemingly placed by giants. We climbed to the seat of Normandy, looking down on the vast space – this was where the beauty lay. All we could see were vast rooves of forest; red, yellow, orange and green – a painting conceived by nature, enjoyed by us. We heard nothing but water, wind and birds. The silence which faced us was exciting; no distant roar of a busy road – a rare occurrence today. Instead we heard only the thunder of our thoughts; momentarily allowed to wander through silent glades of imagination and thought, reclaiming reaches long forgotten. Our walk was short and unspectacular, which was where the charm lay. Every new view was a picture to be taken; the autumn sun glinting through golden leaves, the thin path disappearing through a carpet of colour, the field painted gold and yellow. I drank it all in, reluctant to try capture it as a photo lest I do an injustice to its majesty. The moment was all to delicious to try and tame for my memories sake.

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A glimpse out of the woods into the fields

Everything about this day felt familiar. The sharpness of the autumn air, the desperate sun, the natural and full pallet of colour. I had wandered through this wood a thousand times. I simply felt connected and fully at home. Some places seem to hold a piece of you, we all remember a holiday somewhere or a place which can only be thought of with a fond and nostalgic sigh, and a rooted longing. If you haven’t, get travelling and find somewhere. I have never been to this part of France yet I felt violently nostalgic when wandering through the natural beauty which was on display, it was as if the soul of the land was wafting into mine, gently blending and dancing in a sunny medley. Perhaps everyone who stumbles into this little patch thinks that, perhaps the golden-green rolls of hill speak to all passers-by, the wind in the trees whisper into all the cold ears that stop here, the subdued rays of sun warm all necks. The people who live here are visibly deeply connected, their roots drink deeper than the oaks themselves. When we passed by two older men fishing on a bridge, their browned and chiselled faces seemed as old as the granite cliffs towering above us. Their conversation flowed as freely as the water below us. Their presence was part of the landscape; they were not intruders in this country but extensions of it.

A few days later I found myself wandering (yet again) through the French countryside, I was undoubtedly where I wasn’t supposed to be (some Frenchman’s farm). I followed meandering and seldom used paths through regiment upon regiment of tall and beautiful trees. The hum of a tractor collecting apples from the orchards was ever present but strangely unobtrusive – my ears were tuned more to the melodious drip of rain water on leaves and the grand song of the birds, neither overpowering the other, only the occasional call from an owl was enough to rupture the serenity.

This ‘small-boyish’ adventure was like the last, but different. The feelings evoked from the beauty of the country were the same, I felt a longing to just be here, I had no idea what I wanted to do except that this felt like the place to do it. But it was different in the landscape which greeted my eyes, I was no longer in an ancient valley. I found myself amidst oak, pine and apple trees – until I clambered over a ramshackle fence into wide expanses of field. I found some old ruined barns, reclaimed by nature and the more picturesque for it. The fields were enclosed with golden banks of trees illuminated by the afternoon sun, rolling hills obscured areas of land, meaning every 100metres or so ventured opened new landscapes to gaze upon. I rested by a solitary oak, shaded from the sun momentarily. Now the tractors had faded and all I heard was my own steady breath and the chorus of birdsong, again I was left alone to think in quiet. This sounds like something silly and insignificant, perhaps it is, but try and remember the last time you were in silence outside, the library doesn’t count. When could you hear only your thoughts? We live in a world of noise which has little time for quiet, this isn’t something particularly profound – but sometimes we forget what nothing sounds like, we forget that there is a world about us which simply isn’t effected by what Trump says, or whether the pound is weak or strong. We visited some friends not far away this week, who are clearly effected by the implications of a weakened pound post-Brexit, they simply said ‘I can still sit out in my garden and hear the birds sing and enjoy a sunset’. When we reconnect to the wider world (not the ‘www’), it does put things in perspective. The shadows of fear and worry do withdraw for a time and all we can focus on is the sun which invades. It pays to disconnect, if only for 20 minutes, just to remember that the world will go on regardless of the changes we face, regardless of the hate which seems to be growing everywhere, there are patches which won’t be harmed or tainted. This seems like one of those places, time has stopped here for the visitor.

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The carpeted track through the local forest

The lifestyle is like moving back in time, a simple and agricultural region. It is poor here, and the deprivation is clear. However, the people don’t seem bitter about this (on the surface anyway), they are all friendly and warm. Perhaps they are aware of the rare beauty they live in. Either way, there is something in the air or the water which has a healing quality, a regenerative power (I’m not being mystic before you say). There is just ‘something’ that I’m struggling to articulate, that can’t be nailed down. Maybe if we could nail it down we would ruin it, it’s the magical and quiet atmosphere which is special, something we can’t put a price on or commercialise. Maybe that’s the key – we can’t buy or sell it, it is its own master. We can’t philosophise (that is a word apparently) it, as much as I’m trying to. We are just free to enjoy. So, find something which needs only be enjoyed, nothing more – simplicity is hard to come by today, but it has immense value in its power to silence a loud world.

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