The Cathedral in the Woods

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I reread a favourite book recently, and as well as being immensely enjoyable, it was interesting in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. ‘After You’d Gone’ by Maggie O’Farrell is a searing and beautiful story of loss and if you don’t know it, I thoroughly recommend it.

On one level it was reassuring to find constancy—despite growing older I still love this book. At another level it reminded me that I’ve changed—life pummels our empathy into altered shapes and gives us new, raw rims. I was moved by it fifteen years ago, and now in a much changed life, it moved me again. But the resonance was different because some of the things I care about are different—it was good to revisit, and to update my relationship with it.

I’ve done another bit of updating recently as part of my walking treat – the 630-mile South West Coastal Footpath. This time it was the stretch between Exmouth and Brixham. It took me to childhood days, and I wondered how it would feel to go back. I’ve visited plenty of times since I grew up and moved away, but this time I knew I would be engaging with it in a different way. Walking is immersive—you see, hear, feel and smell things you would otherwise miss. And it was the first time that I’ve explored the area with my husband, Mike.

The first day was sunny as we crossed the wide Exe estuary by ferry and then walked for miles beside the beach. But the second day was extremely wet and we started with a short ride across the Teign, in a small wooden boat—it’s believed to be the oldest ferry service in the UK.  We were the only passengers and the ferryman handed us a shower squeegee so that we could dry the slatted, varnished seats.

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After the recent heatwave, the rain made everything clean and it felt like we had this fresh, new world to ourselves. By lunchtime we were drenched and dripping. We sat high up on the cliffs and had damp sandwiches and lukewarm coffee whilst looking down over a pale elephant-grey sea. Later, we reached a clearing surrounded by tall thin trees. The branches were like rafters and joined above us in a makeshift roof. “It’s like a cathedral in the woods,” said Mike. “…and listen to the music of the rain.” It was the day before our first wedding anniversary and I’d been feeling slightly guilty for loving the rain and dragging him out in it.  But if I needed any reminder that he is the man for me, then this was it.

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On the third day we walked for several miles through dense pine woods, catching occasional glimpses of the sea. We emerged at a tiny bowl-shaped cove where we spotted two shiny black heads bobbing about. Despite having lived in Devon for my first eighteen years, this was the first time I’d ever seen seals and a local told us that during the mating season the male nips bathers. In the evening, we sat above Brixham harbour as the sun went down and the streetlights came on. We watched a trawler getting ready to creep out for the night. I’ve always thought Brixham a rather downbeat place—to my teenage self it smelled of fish and seemed to have little going for it. But this evening Mike said, ‘It’s charming,’ and I saw it through new eyes.

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At another point on our walk we went under a huge viaduct and a steam train whistled and clattered above. Once again, my husband was charmed. I could see that it was picturesque, but I wasn’t won over so easily. This was the line that I’d taken to school every day. It belongs to the Dartmouth Steam Railway Company who run it as a heritage service. My school was half-way along the line and so we teenagers, travelled by train. For a few weeks in 1973 we went on the Flying Scotsman.

“Shall we go on it tomorrow?” said Mike. “Why would you want to do that?” I thought, remembering the infuriating train enthusiasts who would hang out of the windows with their cine cameras, and get in our way as we focused on making our escape from the tedium of school. But it’s good to challenge our prejudices so the next morning we parked in Paignton and queued at the ticket office. “Two returns, please,” I said. “That will be £31,” said the ticket clerk. “The engine pulling your carriage this morning is 75014. She was built at Swindon in 1954.”

We were a bit early so I sat on the platform reading my book. Mike paced around impatiently before announcing, excitedly, ‘There’s some shunting going on over there,’ and disappearing off to watch.

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It wasn’t long before we were sitting in a chocolate and cream carriage named Sarah. As we chuffed out of the town, we stuck our heads out of the metal sliding window and gusts of coal smoke caught in my throat. We passed Goodrington Sands which brought back memories of melting ice-cream, sand in my toes, and the desolation of my big sister losing me. Then we passed my school and there were more mixed memories—the old plimsoll smell of the echoing gym; the excitement of being given first-year English books; the boredom of religious studies lessons with the ancient teacher who couldn’t keep order; being lovesick; being terrified of the sadistic PE teacher, and the dark corners at Christmas discos.

We went through a long tunnel. I must have been through it hundreds of times, but this time I thought of The Railway Children and watching the film with my children. Next, some passengers got off at Greenway Halt from where you can walk through the woods to Agatha Christie’s house. I thought of my elder daughter and how she loves all of her crime novels. Then the River Dart started to flash through the trees, and eventually the town of Dartmouth came into full view on the opposite bank. “It’s so pretty,” said my husband and despite the troubled times I spent there, I had to agree that it is. We hung out of the window taking photos.

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As with rereading the book, it was good to revisit past memories and to make new ones that are relevant to the present. Books, films, places, people…do some revisiting. You never know what you might find.

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The Cathedral in the Woods

  1. I have not been back since Mum died but got as far as Torquay last week. Perhaps your lovely essay will encourage me to revisit the area. I remember catching the train to school but in my day it was still a scheduled service with a steam engine I and my friends were so excited when the occasional diesel turned up. Sorry i lost you! X

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  2. Another great piece of writing.
    I have never thought of “revisiting”-places or events- before-maybe I would be surprised-at my reaction;-)
    Might give it some thought.
    Your walk sounded wonderful -the companion of your choice -made it even better.
    Oh for a pair of younger legs!!!!
    mxxxxx

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