Dover - then gone
It occurred to me recently that I never did write the final blog about my visit to England. The summer seems distant although there’s no end to it really; no closure. My thoughts meander back and forth and catch on old thoughts and reminiscences and time no longer stands in line but leaps backwards and forwards like the flames around those camp fires when we were young.
There was a fire in the clearing of the forest at first year camp. I still recall the way the hot red embers ate away at the heavy dark log, causing fragments to topple and fizz into the white hot heat below; strange then that I can’t remember breakfast a week ago. I still recall the smell of rubber of those large drafty tents that we shivered in all through the night. I remember being poked: “wake up and watch this, wake up and watch,” – and the face of Andy and his wild eyes as he took me to the door of the tent. Across the dark and dangerous clearing a torch was playing on a tent and we could clearly see the silhouette of Miss Burr the music teacher – undressing.
Some time during the night I spilled coke all over my fellow sleepers but nobody noticed and I suggested it was someone else in the morning. The next day we trudged down an interminable roads that looped and lapped and lasted into the afternoon and while I was proud of my Gola trainers (sneakers) with their sharp yellow stripes, it soon became apparent they were cheap and giving me a big blister. Did that sense of betrayal we all feel from our parents from time to time begin with the Gola trainers? Still I limped up the road as it wound in a vast parabola through the trees of the Forest of Dean, past the strange old ragged mining towns of Cinderford and Coleford and lives only half remembered, places where people lived where their grandparents and parents lived before them, without knowing why.
One night we went on a night hike, our torches dancing off the ghostly branches and I saw a sight I have remembered for the rest of my life, horses running west as the last of the sunset slipped below the escarpment, untethered, their manes flowing in the wind as the clouds drifted to the oblivion of night. What if that was the highlight, if the rest was a sideshow? Deep into the woods we plunged with our flashlights flickering, the commentary of the Arsenal Liverpool game crackling on Mr. Bartlett’s radio. But the result wasn’t going well; a groan as Arsenal scored and disappointment followed us down the dells and the hoary places below Offa's Dyke. Had it only been an hour earlier since the horses has ran against the clouds at sunset? Somewhere in a town forgotten by time a lonesome clock chimed across a shuttered square.
On another day nearby I surveyed the grey, flat muds of the Severn where the river oozed in the shallows and smelled faintly of sickness. The clouds were low and leaden and we surveyed a vast fossil stuck hard in the black mud. Mr Bartlett was always energetic, always looking for the next find but he seemed as flat that day as the river banks, as flat as the thin northern vowels of his new finance who had come along to see the fossils. Oddly plain and unedifying – not at all like Miss Burr.
I’m thinking now they are all old and the life has flowed out of them like the Severn at low tide. Back now to the same country, but another country. The day we went to Dover as far to the east as the Forest of Dean is to the west.
Time’s winged chariot was at our back, but a hurricane had given us two more days. The morning promised brightness and sunshine and I imagined the gleaming of the cliffs. But as we drove east a heavy banks of clouds moved in. My parents wouldn’t go along for the ride. When I mentioned Dover my father glazed over as if I had said Timbucktu and he didn’t have a camel in the fight. The roads would be clogged by folks going to France. Who goes to Dover these days?
But the motorways were clear. As Dover approached we looked for the perfect pub and were again reminded of how England flatters to deceive, of all the perfect pubs that flit by on the road when you are not seeking one and how all of the pubs you find when in need of pub look like the sort of places where you’ll end up with a dart in your head. Dover approached down, down the hill and down at heel and folks were scurrying between the rainstorms between the damp looking buildings, between jobs. So we drove back up the hill in search of a rural idyll that never existed and found a pub that was passable but not remarkable.
The room behind the pool table was cold – the landlord friendly enough but perturbed when we mentioned food.
“There’s a proper restaurant down the road, you know.”
“Really – this is fine.”
“We don’t take debit cards.”
We persuaded the landlord to serve us and the food was surprisingly good. The landlord looked bewildered as we headed out without complaining.
So we did the White Cliffs experience but there was the normal family disagreement about where to park. The liquorish allsorts made up for it, but the cliffs were cold and slippery, although still magnificent and another rain cloud drifted into sight.
And we drove up to the castle just before closing and I marched around the ramparts with my daughter and saw the withered lighthouse, the last vestiges of the Romans that went out one day, some time after Christ but before the barbarians who headed across the Channel and the dark ages began.
The light was going out too over the castle and draining from the downs once luminous and green. The flags fluttered but the cold group of medieval reenactors were beyond acting, scowling as we tried to take their picture.
I wonder now if my daughter sees the world as I did back at the camp site, by the forest fire in the clearing. I wonder if we hang onto those memories like dying embers. Yesterday when I found my rain coat, I tugged at something in my pocket. I pulled out the allsorts, deformed and twisted as if reshaped by flame; but a fragment of a half forgotten world nonetheless. I hesitated before throwing them in the trash.