It’s one of those cool, damp, dreary days that I might find delightful, if I was walking on the Cornwall coast.
However, when I am in my back yard, I only get inspired to return to the house and make a cup of tea. The garden is beautiful but overgrown. Any motivation to perform some maintenance is diminished by the combination of overcast sky, drizzle, and wind. Even so, I would be completely remiss, if I did not at least go outside to see if there were any olives ready to be harvested.
It has been nearly three weeks since I salted some ripe olives, and they are curing nicely.
Although most of the olives on the tree are still too green, I was pleased to see that the guavas are falling. This was an unexpected surprise. I collected a good load of them, but left most of the smaller ones on the ground for now. Picking them up is just one more task to do on a sunnier day. In the meantime, there are some ants crawling about, trying to figure out if there is a meal here that is worth their effort.
It was exciting to be back in the amazing city of London. The last time I had been there was in the winter, mere days before the lockdowns went into effect. Never having been there in summer, I didn’t know if the large crowds I was seeing at my usual haunts were normal for this time of year or a pent-up response to the end of quarantines, social distancing, and masks. Maybe it was the hype from the Queen’s Jubilee, even though those celebrations had already ended.
Wouldn’t you know it, England was having a heatwave and a drought. No matter. I did not let 90℉ (32℃) temperatures slow me down. For centuries, St. James’s Park has been the place to go to see and be seen, and in all of the world, it is one of my favorite green spaces. When I first got to London, it still had temporary fences, walls, and partitions set up from the Jubilee events, restricting access to the roads and paths, making them feel especially jammed with tourists. The water in the ponds was overgrown with algae, and some of the gardens and lawns looked to be stressed from the lack of rain. But the birds and waterfowl were friendly enough.
On my last night in England, I happened to click on the Health app icon on my iPhone. I had never looked at it before and certainly had not set it up. To my surprise, I discovered that it had been tracking my steps. My first day in London, I had walked more than eight miles, and on the second day I walked more than nine! On average, I had walked five miles a day, and that included some entire days when I was sitting in the reading rooms at the National Archives, doing research for the biography I am writing about a British soldier.
There is something extraordinarily energizing about London. My normal routine at home is to get out and walk several days a week, just to stretch my legs, while getting some fresh air and a little exercise. As much as I enjoy walking, after about 20 minutes I have usually had enough. Twenty-minutes in London is barely even a start. The streets in the central city are not laid out on a grid, so I have a tendency to get lost. Then I double down by indulging the urge to see what is beyond a gate, or through an arch, or at the end of a tunnel, or in the middle of a town square.
One autumn, I was in London for a few days, and I realized that I would not be able to go to the opera performance that I had a ticket for. I went to the Royal Opera House box office to exchange it. The young man who helped me told me that I was in luck. The best seat in the house happened to be available for the night I wanted to attend. He had no idea why it had not been snapped up, because usually the theatre executives would clamor for it when they saw it had not been sold.
The night of the opera, I found myself sitting next to a very elegant older woman, whose companion was a handsome young man. We spoke to each other during the intermission, and she mentioned that she was a season ticket holder. I told her I was visiting and that I loved London. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy. “Why?” she asked. Her question caught me off guard. “Because of all of the parks,” I replied. That really was the first thing that popped into my head, but I got the feeling that I passed a test. She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” she said. “I live near Regent’s Park.”
London, like any big city, has its flaws. But it has the River Thames, the Royal parks, the Palace of Westminster, the Horse Guards, the National Gallery, and innumerable streets and squares and historic buildings that call to me. Every time I am there, I return to them. Life is what we make of it. A two-and-a-half year pause can never be reclaimed. I was fortunate to be able to go back to a place I longed to see again. Perhaps I am luckier than many.
Buying books is one of the pleasures of doing research. Of course I use digital resources, and visit libraries and archives, but sometimes there is a book that I want to hold in my hands and refer to over and over again. As I delved into the history of colonial America and Georgian England for background to my novel A Moon Garden, my personal library expanded a bit. The social, industrial, and geo-political transformations of the late 18th century intrigue me, and I am currently writing the biography of a British general who lived and died during this time. My quest for books about this period continues.
Recently I acquired The Story of the London Parks by Jacob Larwood. It was published in London and has no copyright date. There is, however, a hand-written inscription inside the front endpaper, indicating it was a New Year’s gift to Mrs. Goodings in 1888.
It’s a beautiful book, which includes several illustrations, including some in color. It is in remarkably good shape, thanks to the fact that it has never been read. This is apparent, because the pages must have been printed two-up or four-up, and they were not trimmed. Many of the pages would have to be cut apart in order flip through them. I prefer to leave the book the way it has been for over 130 years.
My knowledge of book printing and binding techniques of the 19th century is very limited. If anyone reading this can provide an explanation, please feel free to leave your comments.
I wonder if Mrs. Goodings’ admirer ever asked her opinion of the book. What would she have said?
It’s raining in California. Perhaps we need it, but if I had a say there would be a mix of warm sun and scattered layers of bright white clouds, with a cool breeze. My garden requires care, to check the rapid spring growth of weeds and new shoots on trees and shrubs. Even so, there is beauty in the wildness. Gradually, I will bring it to a more managed state.
The sun is shining in London. If I could, I would walk in Green Park. The old trees stand in silent witness to the generations that preceded us and endured. The daffodils display a legacy of renewal. Quiet and stillness belong here, under the sun, under the clouds, swept by the cool breeze.
As much as I love the energy and bustle of New York, at some point in my visits to that great city, I inevitably seek the quiet spaces. In this time of forced isolation due to the pandemic, many of us are looking for ways to safely connect with one another. Yet perhaps because so much of my lifetime has been spent in the mostly solitary pursuits of painting and writing, I still take comfort in solitude.
When walking in Central Park in autumn, it is easy to get away from crowds. It may not be the wisest thing to do, but I take the precaution of making sure there are a few other people about, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature in the urban oasis.
Neither the photo of Central Park nor the one of West 76th Street was taken in the midst of a quarantine. The day was a cool, sunny, pleasant one in mid-October, when a late morning stroll on Columbus Avenue meant being swept along in a current of a moving throng. By just turning a corner, I was suddenly in a different world.
The world in which we now find ourselves is a tricky one. As I sit at home, doing research for my next book, organizing data, writing, editing, reading, I still think about those quiet spaces, and wish with all my heart that we may all soon safely travel to them.
The East Webburn River flows through the ancient, picturesque village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, past the Rugglestone Inn, and through the vast land holdings of the fictional family of Joseph Buckleigh, the hero of the historical novel A Moon Garden, by Roxane Gilbert. When his tour of duty in the American War for Independence comes to an end, Joseph returns to his ancestral home in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to heal and resume his life.
Joseph’s eyes sparkled as he smiled. “I will tell you something right now that is as sincere as anything you will hear today. I am going to strip off all of my clothes and plunge my body into that very cold stream over there on the other side of the hedge. There is nothing I would like better than for my wife to get some clean clothes from my brother, and a sheet in which I may wrap myself when I come out of the water. Now, if you can present these to me in five minutes, I would be most appreciative.” With that, Joseph pulled off his shirt, dropped it on the ground, then ran in the direction of the creek.
It was not Grace who stood on the bank when Joseph finished bathing. He laughed when he saw Russell Jayne, now a captain with the Royal Army, sitting on a moss-covered rock. Russell threw him the sheet. “Good Lord, Buckleigh. What I must endure for King and country.”
Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, England, is a village of fewer than 200 households in the middle of Dartmoor, which has been protected by National Park status since 1951. Many of the hedgerows and stone walls that divide the landscape date back hundreds of years. The walls have become natural rock gardens, covered with stonecrop, navelwort, maiden-hair ferns, and lichens.
“The edge of the gentle downward slope was anchored at its base by a giant yew tree. From there the lane gradually rose again for about 30 yards. Another low, decaying stone wall adjoined a weathered wooden fence, blocking the entrance to the courtyard of a two-story stone cottage set back against rolling green hills. A decrepit stone barn stood to the east, and an overgrown garden was to the west. Aaron dismounted his horse and opened the wide, slatted gate. Its large rusted hinges were generously greased. Despite a high-pitched scraping sound, it swung open with ease.”
It is July 4, 1778. The British Army’s 33rd Regiment of Foot has returned to the New York colony, after sustaining heavy losses in the horrific Battle of Monmouth.
“It was a warm day with a mild breeze in Manhattan. Joseph sat under a tree in the meadow at the end of Broadway, cleaning his musket. As Colonel Eades had foreseen, now that Joseph was back in New York, he was finding time to rest. He reflected on the tough battles he had been through with his regiment. When they left England and arrived in the colonies in 1776, they numbered nearly 500. In two years, the 33rd had lost close to a quarter of its men.
“… Joseph closed his eyes and envisioned the raven-haired beauty with the pale complexion, clear green eyes, and bright smile. The two of them were together, laughing, walking across the ancient rough-granite footbridge over the rushing River Dart, then running up a hill to stroll hand-in-hand on the vast, misty moor.”
The construction of Rougemont Castle was begun in 1068, sometime after William the Conqueror laid siege to the city of Exeter in Devon, England. The walls that remain today are surrounded on three sides by public gardens. In the year 1785, the broad walk through those gardens would have been lined with towering elm trees. On my visit to Rougemont Garden a couple of years ago, the elm trees were gone, but it was still easy to envision the interrupted romantic encounter that occurs at this place in my debut novel, A Moon Garden.