Often a journey begins in stillness, an anti-action, a passage in a book, an overheard conversation or a program on TV sparks a wish to explore and experience. The journey is traced out in mind or map, fingers crossing miles, tracing flat planes and pressing down contour folds. The map is as distracting as the landscape itself, lines draw out the gaze, shapes on the horizon encourage tangents to be taken but when you have a goal in mind a map is the key to it.
I wanted to find the original River cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s first location of his experiments to live off the land. The TV series had inspired me a great deal in my early twenties and at that time Dorset had seemed a very distant place, an old England with an ancient landscape of crazy paved fields and endless hedgerow. Growing up in the industrial landscape of North Lincolnshire it has always seemed a world away from the landscape I knew.
Industrial farming has left much of the flat lands of Lincolnshire open, hedgerows no longer border fields, points of reference are lost as farms seem to drift in a sea of ploughed earth. There is very little topography to speak of and what is there is so over used it cannot hope to hold any secrets. The landscape has been opened like a map and like paper lies flat for all to see.
It had not been a planned journey, Liz and I had decided to go camping for a fortnight and explore Dorset will no real itinerary but to just drift from place to place letting one place inform the next. The idea of finding the River Cottage had come to me as I sat in the car navigating through the winding Dorset roads, with a road map on my knee. As we traveling east my finger mimicked the direction on the map and I noticed Chideock was to be the next village we were to pass through, which I remembered was one of the places mentioned on the series. I’m not sure I mentioned it to Liz at the time but it started me thinking that the cottage must be somewhere close by. It was purely by good fortune that we decided to go next to Britport choosing a campsite north of the little town. The campsite was an industrial affair like a golf course housing refugees from the city, we took ourselves as far from the madding crowd as we could, hiding our tent behind a hedge in the hinterland between lawn and the fields beyond.
I had been given a small printed map, which gave little information other than the main road in and out of the site with places to eat being the main points of reference. However luckily for me whomever drew this little map had added a clue in the form of a single line with the words River Brit written along it. I had a clear memory that this was the river to which River Cottage got it’s name and that in one episode Hugh had traversed this river by canoe down six miles to the sea. It instantly struck me that this campsite must be four or five miles from the sea and so the cottage must not be far away.
Having explained this good fortune to Liz and armed only with a road map and the little printed map we somewhat foolishly set off there and then down to the river in the beautiful warmth of a late summer afternoon. By another stroke of good fortune we found a small bridge and footpath which led to the other side of the river, the wrong side for the cottage but an easier route than pushing our way through the mass of overhanging Willows. The path led through a timeless meadow lit by the low sun and dancing with flies, lying in the long grass we found a full badger skeleton, I took the skull as a momento of our journey.
We seemed to have walked for at least two miles and be getting further from the river as we went and I was becoming increasingly anxious as the sun was beginning to set over the hills, it would soon be dark and we would soon be lost within it. Finally the path skirted around to the left and another bridge took us back across the river and into a steep stubble field, in the bottom corner was a gate through which you could see a lane and beyond that the sun setting behind the rolling hills of Dorset. It was one of those views that shires of this typography have in abundance and never fails to grasp the imagination of this Lincolnshire lad from the flat lands.
Beautiful this view was but a cottage it was not, the lane seemed to imply that we had somehow missed this elusive abode, my natural irrationalness had clouded my perception and it was Liz who pointed out the little house through the hedge to our left. There it was, River Cottage, leaning up against the hedgerow as if in a game of hide and seek, we had found it. The little porch was unmistakable and I was so taken in by the details I had remembered from the series before I knew it I was at the front door. I don’t know why I went through the gate and up to the door, I had found the place but I needed to get closer, the door was ajar and the light was on inside, as if welcoming travelers. If it had not been for two loud blasts of a gun coming from the other side of the house I think I would have gone inside but the shock brought me to my senses and I turned and joined a grinning Liz in the field, where she took a photograph of myself looking rather shocked.
In a country where every square mile has been mapped, every inch turned, chopped or grazed, there seems little to explore but for exploring’s sake but setting out to find a location is no less a task because of it. Distances, contours and spot heights may all have been collected but the landscape still is in constant flux, it is still new to new eyes and surprises can still be found when we peer through hedgerows.