What makes a wilderness? I have had the privilege last week to deliver poll cards for the 5 May elections, to all the properties in the Birch and Layer Breton polling district. It's an area I know well, only a few miles from home, and all the lanes and rights of way are familiar, from years nerdily poring over maps and exploring on foot and by bike. Some gently rolling countryside, mainly farmland, but some woodland and heath, and cut through by the beautiful Roman River valley. There are hundreds of homes in the area, mainly at the conjoined villages of Birch and Layer Breton, but also the smaller hamlets like Hardy's Green, and even smaller settlements like Craxe's Green, Porter's Green and Birch Park, places probably unknown to most Colcestrians living only five miles away.
The picture above is on a route between Glenelg and Kinlochhourn,(on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands) taken from a point four miles from the nearest road. Yet anyone sitting down on that route would sooner or later meet another person passing by, maybe in twenty minutes, maybe in an hour or more. However, in the Essex countryside one often meets - nobody.
The weather has been fabulous, warm and sunny, a bit breezy, but lovely for early April. Surely there would be lots of people about? On my serpentine path through the countryside around the main village I rarely saw another human being, and certainly no one to speak with. Most of the remote houses and farms appeared uninhabited, and there was no one else walking or cycling along the minor roads. There would be the occasional passing car, but no acknowledgment of a fellow human-being sharing a beautiful day, surrounded by nature.
In the distance I observed some tractors, working the soil on their own, and I remembered reading about the isolation and high suicide rate of farm workers. I saw a few postvans, but again it's all terribly rushed, as the miles have to be eaten up so quickly. There's no time for bicycle delivery; it's only efficient if, like me, you are only delivering cards, and to almost every house in every lane. (A few villagers had chosen not to register to vote.)
Of course I didn't expect to see a French Breton onion seller (with stripy jumper and strings of onions over the handlebars) in Layer Breton. But I did expect to see a bit more rural life, people living the dream/fantasy of self-sufficiency, simple lives outdoors, physically working the land by their own efforts. Trying to convert the natural wilderness of Essex heathlands into a vegetable garden.
I did my bit for the democratic process out in the sticks, and returned to suburbia, to the roar of the first grasscutting of spring. At last, a sign of life, even if the end product is manicured lawns rather than a basket of vegetables.