For much of the last four decades I have lived within walking distance of the Thames in London. This weekend I ventured out to explore a stretch of the river’s meandering upper reaches. Setting out from Lechlade in Saturday’s early morning mist only larks and reed warblers broke the silence.
Thus the walk continued, hour upon hour and as the day unfurled more swans than people passed by. This quiet steady tread along the river bank offered welcome time for contemplation. But there was another bonus – well known to solitary travellers – the chance encounters which kindle one’s faith in human nature. A kind person helped me navigate a field of terrifying cattle, another set me on my way as I lost my stride. At one point, I stopped to observe an old boy teaching a younger one to fish. We struck up a conversation about COVID driving town folks to move to the country. After bemoaning the pressure this puts on local housing costs, the fisherman-teacher told of how his father had been evacuated to the Cotswolds from East London during the Blitz, staying on after the war and in due course his own children being born and raised there.
His story called to mind Tommy, a neighbour of mine when I lived on the Isle of Dogs in the 1980s. For those unfamiliar with it, this plot of land is surrounded by water: the docks running across the northern edge and the river looping around from West Ferry to East Ferry Road. Before the development of Canary Wharf brought new transport links many residents lived here as ‘Islanders’, never venturing into London’s centre. The docks were a prime target for enemy bombing raids during WWII and Tommy, then aged 12, had been evacuated to a farm in Dorset. Not happy to work as an unpaid labourer, he walked back to his folks on the Island twice before the authorities gave up and let him be.
The magnetic pull of home is amongst our most powerful instincts and our least understood – we still don’t know how cuckoos, newly hatched in England, find their way to Africa, or how arctic terns navigate from north to south pole and back again. Pilgrimage has its roots in these same seasonal migrations, with small bands setting out in search of food or shelter, gathering at places that offered both, and then giving thanks. And being human we couldn’t help but celebrate with festivals, and later build great monuments to express our gratitude to the unseen powers that govern all things.
Arriving back in central London after my weekend wanderings, I too was grateful for my safe delivery home. I reflected on the many others who have landed in our neighbourhood for one reason or another – not least for what this means in terms of food. Yes, the Cotswolds are lovely and quiet, and the air is fresh, and the songs of the birds are exquisite, and the Thames runs soft and safe. (And despite the concrete bunkers dotted here and there along the banks, it is unlikely to be the first port of call for enemy invaders.) But the fare cannot compare with home. Friday night’s supper in Lechlade was generic pub grub: frozen then fried. I’m not complaining – food is food after all – but by contrast our urban ‘village’ has Sardinian delis and Portuguese cafes, Afghan and Azeri food stores, Rippon Cheese and the best ‘Cockney’ costermonger in town. Not to mention the incomparable cuisine of A Wong.
Home maybe where the heart is, but the stomach lies quite close by..
Victoria Preston is the author of We are Pilgrims – published by Hurst, London and USA