October 13. There is much to be said for Shropshire, but it is as far from the sea as it is possible to get on this narrow island. When the grandchildren are staying with us, we travel over the Welsh hills, by Lake Bala, to Harlech. A lovely drive to an unspoilt beach, but a two hour journey. Not a trip to be taken on a whim before breakfast.
So we seize the offer to house sit for a week on the Suffolk coast. Old friends, an Anglo-Finnish couple, have returned to the wife’s country to spend the autumn in their cottage by a lake deep in the forests near the Russian border.
Well into October, Aldeburgh and the nearby Snape Maltings are packed with Londoners escaping to their second homes. There is nothing new under the sun. I have just read A Collection of Very Valuable and Scarce Pieces Relating to the Last Plague in the Year 1665 (1771), a source book for Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It includes ‘ORDERS Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, concerning the Infection of the Plague, 1665’, one of which specifically relates ‘to any Person that hath two Houses’. Anyone with their own carriage left the Capital for their country estates. The Court retreated to Oxford.
It is not difficult, however, to escape the Range Rovers and take long walks along the straight beaches. The sea has changed its meaning in this pandemic. In the great plagues of the middle ages it was the primary source of danger. The further inland, the safer you were. The concept and the machinery of quarantine were developed to protect the populations of port towns from infections arriving by ship. The last major outbreak in western Europe was in Marseilles in 1771. In Britain there was a small, fatal, occurrence of bubonic plague between 1906 and 1918 just south of where we are now, in settlements around the River Orwell, thought to have been caused by rats escaping from grain ships.
In the early days of this pandemic, the hapless cruise ships were a problem, but since then, infection has arrived by air. The East Anglian coast, together with Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, have the lowest rates of infection in England. We look out to the breaking waves, conscious that disease and lockdown lie behind us. The sea advancing and retreating over the shingle calms the spirit.
The only company on the beach is easily avoidable. Many of the walkers are accompanied by dogs. As I noted in my last entry, the hunger for touch in the lockdown has cause a large increase the purchase of pets. The price of pedigree animals has doubled, with attendant tales of smuggling and kidnapping. According to Direct Line pet insurance, 2.2 million dogs have been bought since the crisis began in March.
When the tide finally goes out on this pandemic, what will be left as a visible reminder of the crisis will be hundreds and thousands of dog-walkers, trailing after their pets along pavements and paths, where once they would have been sedentary in their homes.