Gavin Macdonald is a proud Scot, a Highlander on his mother’s side, and as such grew up happily tramping in the hills of his homeland on school trips and on summer holiday weekends.
The Scottish sublime is exhilarating and vertiginous – one finds oneself breathless in the landscape, either looking up or down from great heights, with a sense of one’s place in the order of things that can be both immensely comforting and a source of terror. This is the same sublime that attracted Wordsworth and Coleridge to the Lakes, and which has in many respects become our collective model for natural beauty.
But there is more than one type of majesty in landscape, and it is Romney Marsh, at least as much as the Highlands of home, that during these final weeks of lockdown has come to haunt my sleeping and waking dreams.
My love affair with the area arose from a chance meeting with a long-standing Marsh resident at the Edinburgh Festival nearly 10 years ago. The meeting led to a coffee, the coffee to a friendship, and before long I was making a regular pilgrimage to this delightful and surprising corner of Kent. It is a place with its own mysterious charm, well able to get under the skin and into the soul of the visitor.
The fifth continent
Romney Marsh’s self-characterisation as “the Fifth Continent” is vainglorious enough to appeal to any Scot, But despite some superficial similarities (for we too have more than our quota of sheep!), the appeal of the Marsh is different and more subtle than that of Scotland. It is no less affecting for all that.
On first dipping down and across the Military Canal, one seems to be entering an older, hidden England. Where we are accustomed to the idea of the beaches of the South coast teeming with people, one is grateful for just how solitary and unspoiled the Marsh appears to be, even in this day and age.
My habit on these visits is to hire a bicycle in the morning, pack a picnic lunch, and to set out on a ‘Marsh meander’, guided only by the long slowly curving lines of fence, canal and hedgerow, without too much of a final destination in mind. It is a pleasure to get a little lost out here, with no agenda other than to enjoy birdsong and the whistle of sea-scented air through the long grasses.
All day, one notices the sky – a sky which, as Betjeman observed, “is always three-quarters of the landscape”. The Marsh sky may roil with towers of cumulonimbus, spitting rain: it may frolic mere wisps of white cotton in the upper air while lapwing and wagtail dart below; it may allow the sun to beam down on the grateful face of the land – and you might easily see each one of these spectacular theatrical effects in the course of a single afternoon.
Roads like streams
The roads of Romney Marsh “wind like streams through pasture” and have an inevitable habit of fetching you up at a medieval churchyard, each with its squat Norman tower and lichen-crusted stones, or an old village inn where the inglenook has witnessed many a smuggler’s tale.
There, whether it is a dram of Scotch whisky, or a pot of English ale, I will raise a glass to the beauty of the Marsh. The Scottish mountains remain my first love, but I look forward to the day – surely not long, now – when I can see Romney Marsh again!