Saturday, 21 May 2011

Stowe walk

I take it all back. Everything I ever said about the National Trust.

This is all thanks to Sue.

Sue is brilliant. Sue is fantastic. Sue is an ordinary, everyday person. Today she leads a story walk and talk with the National Trust, guiding us round the history of the fields at Stowe Landscape Gardens.

She takes us on a six-mile hike towards the outer reaches of the estate. I would show you a photograph of Sue, and the far-flung fields of Stowe, but I forgot the camera.

I am cross about that. I rely on my camera. Without it, I can't show you a picture of Sue, who brought all this land and history alive with her lovely oval smiling face and fair wispy hair. And I don't have the poetry to convey to you how barley moves with the wind across a field, rippling and swaying, like a green living sea. Except for the cut through the centre. I like to think that before we came, a giant hand took a pair of scissors to the field of bristling barley hairs and snip-snip-snip cut a wobbly swathe from the stile at the bottom of the hill, all the way to the five-bar gate at the top of the hill.

How I wanted a photograph of that moment, on the path between the green barley and tan earth, topped by a bright blue sky. Shark, following on behind me, charming another gentleman with her tall Chinese tales. Squirrel, walking silently by my side, her face a picture of concentration on her outstretched hand, feeling the stiff prickling hairs of coarse barleytops on the skin of her fingertips. Tiger, striding ahead. Unusually for Tiger, telling someone she's never met before about all the important things, like how horses trot, canter and gallop.

That is how much this walk brought out something in all of us. Past the farm, by the pond, through the village, down the dip and up the rise, then through the rippling green barley field. As we walked, Sue talked about people near and far; people in the past, people she knew, people she'd heard of. She told us about the year the reggae came, the pearls and the twinset, the farmer's compromise.

She had plenty of stories to tell: a history of powerful, wealthy families wielding great political power along with their estate. Ordinary stories like that. You can see the remnants of the dynasty in the ambitious and ruthless landscaping here; labourers dug a valley out by hand to achieve a perfectly composed, idyllic vista of England.

Extraordinary tales too, of night-time poachermen, wives waiting at home for dead husbands, silent cousins brought into the family, and all the everyday people who were swept away from their homes hundreds of years ago in order to establish a great landed estate with a perfect view.

Yes, go on this story walk and talk, when Sue takes you round again in autumn. We won't be there, but I'll remember how the people I meet make all the difference: they can bring a history to life, show the children new horizons, change my opinions, refresh our ideas, swap the ordinary for the exceptional, and make our everyday timeless.