We sometimes have arguments in this house about returning to familiar places. My partner Ching Ling thinks this is a peculiarly English habit, and an over-conservative one.
I would say it is a romantic proclivity: when Wordsworth went back to Tintern Abbey after five years, he found physical losses (he no longer bounded like a roe) balanced by greater philosophical depths, an insight into the life of things.
I am a serial returner. As a boy, from a very early age, I loved not just going to Scotland but going back to Scotland. I couldn’t wait to board the night sleeper (and wake up in the magic land of porridge, shortbread and rolled “r”s); to see again the familiar terrains and landmarks; the huge undulating public putting course on the sea-front at North Berwick, the stirring shapes of the Bass Rock (like a guano-encrusted brioche), Craig Leith, Fidra and the Lamb, those tiny rocky islets in the Firth of Forth which had the look of friendly animals.
I wanted to get back onto the brilliant children’s golf course, challenging and exciting for an eight-year-old, because I knew the holes and had dreams of playing them better. I loved my room with the star-patterned ceiling at the Blue House, where the smell of the sea and the sound of bagpipes came in through the window.
Later I looked forward with even more excitement to our returns to Porch House in Portmahomack, in the still more romantic far north-east, where you looked out past the harbour and over the Dornoch Firth to the violet Sutherland hills.
The local nine-hole golf course, windy Tarbert, was wilder and rougher than North Berwick; the fairways were kept reasonably trim by a flock of thick-fleeced sheep, one of which I struck full in the midriff with a topped 2-wood aged 11. I didn’t tire of going back to our favourite spots, to Pig Beach for picnics and chilly swims, to Tain and Dornoch (for the stiffiest and loveliest golfing challenge), and further west to the Sutherland peaks and Handa Island.
And there was Nan, who looked after the house, who was always sanguine about the weather (“Och, it’s been lovely up at the Port”), who cooked us her special mince and played whist with us when our parents went out for grown-up dinners.
I haven’t changed. These days we go back year after year to the same house in the same village in the far north-west of Tuscany, and I find the experience gets richer and deeper every time.
There is no strenuous cultural or physical regime at the house on the saddle, and that is part of the point. You could say the aim was to do as little as possible, at least in the effortful, restless Western way of doing. The aim, as Erich Fromm would have said, is to be. This is easier, I find, in a familiar or loved place, where there is less temptation to explore, or at least to wander and twist around until you feel at home, as you see cats and dogs doing until they find the right position to rest.
Life at the house resolves itself into a deeply satisfying rhythm marked by rituals. There might be an early swim; there is the collection of bread from the man with his bread van who serves the two hill villages of San Romano and Motrone; there is breakfast, in many ways the high point of the day. A proper breakfast!
How seldom in London do we manage a proper breakfast. There seems to be no time; insistent demands, bearing on us from different directions, take precedence over the modest shared commitment. But at San Romano, breakfast, taken on the little terrace looking down over the village roofs, is given its full due. Garfagnana eggs, boiled to a T. by our host whom we have graced with the title of “maestro delle uova”; local bread toasted, with Lucca butter and fig jam; coffee from the big Bialetti.
All very English? Quite possibly. And I am sure my love of what I call a proper breakfast goes back to my childhood, when breakfast was taken in the dining room, with a table-cloth spread, and porridge (from good Scots oatmeal) followed by eggs and bacon.
The English connection to the Garfagnana also goes deep, back many generations from our annual gatherings. Bagni di Lucca, the local spa, nowadays very sleepy and charmingly run-down, was a fashionable summer expatriate hive for much of the 19th century. Shelley spent time there, reading Herodotus perched on rocks close to a romantic waterfall before plunging into the deep pool; later Elizabeth Barrett Browning rather dreaded the hive-like aspect, in fact more gossipy wasps’ nest than productive hive, she thought; but she was won over by the beauty of the landscape of thickly wooded mountains, and the beneficial effect on her health, and her husband Robert’s.
The mountains are just as thickly wooded (mainly chestnuts) as ever, thank goodness, and the effect on the health, both physical and mental, quite marvellous.
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