England is one of the smaller European countries with a dappled patchwork of cities, suburbs, towns, villages, hamlets, farms, fields, cliffs, beaches, moors, mountains and forests, cross-hatched with curling country roads, lacing lanes and long stride motorways. Somehow each area manages a clear definition without jostling into a never-ending smudge of sameness.
The scenery is not Grand Canyon-dramatic nor prairie sweeping. It doesn’t speak to the awe or amazement of surprise. The southern English countryside insinuates its way into your senses gradually. As you drive along country roads you don’t notice anything except trees, bushes, trees, no pavements, more trees. Until slowly in the hypnosis of sight, the banks of grass along the lanes reward you with flailing branches of shrubbery; the creeping surge of ivy along the flanks; and the prickle of small flowers striving within the tufts of scrabbling grasses. Turning a curve in the lane, you arrive on the crest of a small hill to see, from this gentle elevation spread before you, a calm magnificent green map of fields, hedges separating little clogs of barns and a farm house or two with sheep clustered in family groups ignoring the world beyond grazing and cows crumpled on the ground mash-mincing their cud endlessly. You recognize this: it is Constable and Turner spread before you.
Another picture is a sprawling Council Estate of one and two story individual, neat, low income houses without garages, built in the 1950s, after much of the East End of London was bombed during WWII. Each had its own little patch of front garden surrounded by low white wooden fences and a latched garden gate opening onto a path to the front door. All the houses looked the same. The only difference was the curtains in the windows or the way each renter grew their garden: little hedges or bushes, flower beds, a patch of lawn – or not.
Somewhere in the midst of the lattice of quiet roads was a section of small shops: green grocer, butcher, fish monger, and post office if you were lucky. This was before the grand modernity and convenience of the supermarket, when you were waited on by the butcher behind the counter or the grocer weighing and bagging onions or potatoes for you.
On the edges of the council estate are the outer, pre-existing, more salubrious suburbs that are owned by residents. The houses are larger, differing in design with garages and larger front and back gardens. On the fringe of these more monied, wandering, quiet tree-lined roads is a “Grammar School”– the top echelon of state schools, until they were merged with “Secondary Moderns” to form “Comprehensive” schools in the early ‘70s.