We marked the date in our diaries over a month before: Saturday November 26th, we’d meet somewhere roughly in between Norwich and London, after far too many months apart. Long-time readers of this humble blog may remember my friend P from the days when we lived, quite literally, beside the Danube and saw each other almost daily. We miss each other now we live in different cities – so November 26th it was!
Little did we know what a glorious late autumn day it would dawn, the air cool but not biting, the last burnt orange leaves clinging tightly to tree branches. I rose early, munching jam on toast and almost-black coffee before hightailing it to Liverpool Street to catch the train outta dodge. I spent the hour’s journey knitting happily away, bathing in the golden sunlight streaming through the windows and listening to my sweet father-and-son seatmates discussing the respective merits of liquorice laces vis-à-vis liquorice pencils. Current affairs, ladies and gents.
I met P (dressed in pink shorts, hardy boy!) at Manningtree station; a great base for walkers, perched on the sleeve of Dedham Vale. After snapping a few photos of the map at the station we started walking, chattering away as we caught up on many months of news, trailed by a particularly rowdy group of young, raucous ramblers. I quietly admired the shy beauty of late November and its overgrown brambles, brittle burdock seed heads, footpaths laced with muddy puddles and rusty grasses cloaked in caramel light. It was especially beautiful in the gorgeous, blond, buttered sunlight of early afternoon.
After a little way, we stopped to admire a particularly dense, sunlit thicket of brambles, naked branches and shivering twigs. To our delight, the branches were dotted with deep purple berries – sloes. On closer inspection, the wild blackthorn trees were aching with fruit. We couldn’t have picked them all if we’d tried! But we gave it a good go, hastily fashioning a bag out some brown paper and getting to work.
Sloe berries are best picked after the first frost, when the berries are yielding enough to be easily squeezed between finger and thumb. I wouldn’t try one straight from the tree – an unfortunate young man (one of the rowdy ramblers, aforementioned) ambled by and decided to sample one, believing us to be picking fruit to eat fresh. “They’re…erm…really….quite…tart,” he managed to mumble, cheeks hollowed out, all colour drained from his face, looking as if his very head had been sucked inside out by a hoover. Poor man! They’re best used to make sloe gin, pickled or made into preserves. I know which one I’ll be plumping for…
Our paper bags full to bursting, we left the sloes behind, building up a brisk pace as we talked about work and cities, politics, family and the future. There’s something lovely about walking and talking, isn’t there? Such natural partners, and the introvert in me (all of me) savours talking deeply in the outdoors, tailoring the rhythm of the conversation to our footsteps, eyes trained on the path ahead.
After what seemed like not very far at all, we took a sharp right turn and officially set foot in Dedham Vale – an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Essex-Suffolk border. It’s a truly idyllic part of England, known for its rolling hills and flint-faced churches borne of the age when the burgeoning wool trade brought riches to the vale’s small towns and villages, almost overnight. It’s also a place full of memories for me. My mother grew up here, and I spent many happy hours of childhood running wild along these paths, getting stuck in the mud, holding my grandmother’s hand, being carried home sleepy on my uncle’s shoulders. John Constable’s famous paintings depict it beautifully, with such accuracy of light and shade, if you can’t get there in person.
Before long we arrived in Flatford, of Constable fame, of course. In summer the little settlement on the banks of the Stour teems with pleasure boats, families rowing down the river and tourists snapping Willy Lott’s famous cottage. In November it is a much more timid affair – we caught sight of a vividly blue kingfisher fluttering amongst the branches of a beech tree, the water at this time of year populated only by ducks in their lustrous winter finery.
From Flatford (a lovely place to stop for tea, had we not been racing the daylight) we walked up the long, steep hill to the village of East Bergholt. My grandfather lives in a little house on the edge of the village and that was our final destination. Having telephoned only hours earlier, it was delightful of him to accommodate us young spontaneous people at such short notice! On our walk through the village, we admired the pastel-fronted cottages, the flint church built in 1350 (home to the heaviest bells in England) and a particularly doting tortoiseshell cat. So doting it begged for a picture with P!
As we neared my grandad’s house, the handsome chap below trotted over to say hello – curious and watchful. P held out his hand with a little grass and we both stroked his soft downy mane, trying not to feel too bad about our lack of food offerings. (We really should have run back for one of those apples for the poor fella.)
Walking on, we quickly arrived at my grandfather’s little house, where we were greeted gladly after a similar months-long separation. His wife had baked her signature 20-minute cherry buns for the occasion and we were treated to two cups of tea, our first mince pies of the season (it is Advent tomorrow, after all…) and a cosy drive back to the station in the fading light with full stomachs and rosy cheeks. Truly scrumptious.