From Brenda in Hove, UK: “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky …”

Hove Beach, UK. a sunny day for beach huts

28 May. So far we have been told to take our exercise close to home (really, Dominic) and I have obeyed that instruction. The brakes seem to be coming off somewhat so I ventured down to the Hove seafront today. It is officially half term for the schools and normally we would see thousands of tourists on the beach-front but the town councillors warnings to people to stay away from Brighton and Hove seem to have had effect – even in the glorious weather we are enjoying.

There were quite a few people on the beach and in the sea – but distances more than respected – and the same went for the promenade (and not a mask in sight). It was more than a very relaxed and pleasant experience; it was so normal; it was a joy! .

People had also returned to their beach huts and there was an unusual amount of DIY going on.  Quite a few are scruffy and one wonders why some people don’t sell their huts if they clearly haven’t used them for years. They sell for something between £16,000 and £25,000. High price to pay! Anyway, hot owners out in force, with their deck chairs and picnic tables hauled out and the kettles on – and much sun worshipping in evidence.  

Much to my surprise, Hove lagoon café was open for take-away after being closed since lock-down. Hurry on over! Chips on the beach – new special treat. Another joy! Really. Nothing like a pleasure denied and then allowed.

Table tennis being played but lagoon and children’s playgrounds and paddling pool not in use. I miss the sound of small children playing.

Cyclists much in evidence as usual and it is worth noting that the line-up of bicycles provided by the Council had been added to – and there were lots of newly painted cycle lanes on the way to the beach.

What I had sorely missed was just looking at the sea. We have lived near the sea for more than half our lives and I never tire of contemplating the waves and the sun playing on the water. Such bliss to be able to indulge such a simple pleasure again.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: follow the tortoise …

a tortoise walk

April 28.  Casual walking out of a house, down the street, into a park or out to the countryside, has long-been the most practised and least studied form of recreation.

For most people in most times, it was the basic form of relaxation.  Until the twentieth century, domestic over-crowding meant that it was often the only means of escaping the press of people and finding some privacy.  Because it was essentially unstructured and unrecorded, it has rarely received the attention of historians.  Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, to which I referred on April 24, is, like a handful of other such books, essentially an account of literary walkers, from Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards.  The one exception is the now elderly account by Maurice Marples, Shank’s Pony (1959).

In Britain, however, one of its most common forms, walking the dog, has long been counted.   During the nineteenth century an increasingly firm distinction was drawn between walking with a dog, and dog-walking.  Next to the immobile pedestrian, the greatest fear of polite town dwellers was the uncontrolled dog.  It was at best a source of noise, pollution, and unwanted physical contact for other pedestrians, and at worst a threat to life through the widely-feared disease of hydrophobia, or rabies. Taxing dogs, which began in 1796, was a means of policing their mainly urban owners.  Rural working dogs were exempt.  Following reforms to the cost and efficiency of taxation in 1867, reliable records were kept.  By 1877, there were nearly 1.4 million licensed dogs in Britain, mostly in towns and cities. At least as many owners again were believed to be avoiding the tax.  By the second half of the twentieth century the figure had reached four million, doubling again before the licence fee was finally abolished in 1987.

In most countries in the coronavirus lockdown, some kind of exemption has been allowed for exercising a pet.  Last week a story went viral of an Italian woman who had been fined for exceeding the time limit for this activity.  Her excuse was that the pet was not a dog, but a tortoise, and there was a photograph to prove it.

Initially I had much sympathy for the woman.  In my adult life the only pet that I have owned myself, as distinct from the family cat, was a tortoise, named Herodotus, or Hod for short, after the first historian.  It always seemed an appropriate companion for an historian, or indeed anyone engaged in the slow business of writing a full-length book. At this time of the year Hod would be trundling about the garden, eating buttercups and clover as he recovered his strength after the winter’s hibernation.

But then again, a tortoise really does, in Kipling’s terms, walk by itself.  Cats are in fact always aware of human company and generally seek to be close to it.  But a tortoise is entirely indifferent.  That is what makes it so relaxing a pet.  No complex emotional interactions.  Our cat would walk surprisingly long distances with us when we were out on an expedition.  Not Hod.  It is not so much about mobility.  On a hot day, especially if there is a tortoise maid in the offing, a tortoise can manage a turn of speed.  Rather it is a matter of independence.  There is just no way in the world you can get such an animal to follow you down the street.

I am afraid the Italian police had the right of it.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: going backwards …

spring-time isolation

April 24. Towards the end of Wanderlust, her fine history of walking, Rebecca Solnit passes by a glass-fronted gym, and looks in at the men and women relentlessly working on their exercise machines.  ‘The treadmill’, she writes, ‘is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go.  Or no desire to go.’  (264-5)

The contrast was with more purposeful forms of exercise, the walk in the countryside, the bicycle ride from one place to another.  This, of course, was in a time where it was possible to undertake such movement.  Now it describes the fate of most citizens in most countries.  In my case I have a private field adjacent to my house, but the Shropshire and Welsh hills basking in this morning’s sunshine are out of reach and are likely to be so for the rest of the year. 

rowing backwards …

Instead I keep fit on a rowing machine.  It is a Concept 2, for those who take an interest in such matters.  A professional-level device which has withstood heavy use over the years.  British readers might know that it was on just such a machine that the broadcaster Andrew Marr gave himself a near fatal stroke seven years ago.  It is said to be the most efficient of all the gym equipment, exercising muscles from the calves to the shoulders, and also, of course, heart and lungs.  This morning I managed 2,924 metres in my standard fifteen minutes, which at my time of life is hard work.

I learnt to row at school in Kingston-upon-Thames.  I loved the business, the walk to the riverside, the sleek fours and eights on their racks in the boathouse, lifting them out as a team and lowering them into the water, adjusting the footstraps, gripping the oars, and on command, a racing start, going up through the gears to a full stroke. The surge of power so close to the water is one of the great sensory experiences.  Better still was the single scull that I could use.  Difficult to balance, but when you mastered it you could race like a motorbike across the surface.  Then back to the boathouse, lifting the boat and turning it upside down to empty the river water, and onto the racks.

My Concept 2 has none of these pleasures.  The machine is housed in what was once a medieval cellar below my house.  The room has been tanked out, fitted with bookshelves, a light-well and bunks for the grandchildren.  It is a pleasant enough space, but nonetheless underground.  There is no view.  No sound of the rest of the household, or indeed a rippling river.  Just the seat running back and forth on its track while I listen to the news on the Today programme.

It is difficult not to view the rowing machine as a metaphor for our current circumstance.  A disciplined activity which preserves my health and is going nowhere at all, day after day, backwards.

But there is another, more famous metaphor associated with movement on water, the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’  I am by profession and practice an historian.  This does not seem a problem to me.