The last twelve months have felt like a lifetime; and a lifeline.
Elle and I have now both been working from home for a year and a month. Our workplace sent us home a few days before the first national lockdown here in the UK and, aside from two brief visits, we haven’t been back. Our home has become our office, as well as our refuge.
But this isn’t an article about lockdown or coronavirus.
We had never been adventurous travellers before this year of imposed solitude, but we had always enjoyed finding new places. We would spend our weekends visiting various National Trust properties, taking short city breaks, or driving down to the Suffolk coast. My work had frequently sent me around Europe and the Middle East, and this sense of discovering, of seeing different places, had always been an appeal of the job.
But coronavirus brought this to an end. During lockdowns, our horizons shrunk to what walking we could squeeze into our lunchbreaks after eating, which usually meant twenty minutes one way, and then twenty minutes back again. Even living where we do, surrounded by a choice of rural roads, suburban avenues and countryside footpaths, we found ourselves frequently walking the same routes, often a few times a week.
One walk in particular has become special, however; a tiny lane on the other side of the train tracks that passes through a small hamlet of precisely six houses, a paddock and the ruins of a barn. From here, there are two routes: either right, to an isolated church that looks like something out of a MR James ghost story; or left, down a deeply potholed farm-track that cuts between two typical East Anglian fields: vast, flat, borderless.
There is a spot at the beginning of this walk, a corner of a field, tucked between the road and the tracks. A couple of times a week – usually on our lunchbreak, but sometimes in the early morning before work or at the end of the day – we come here and look across this field. There was something about this spot that caught our attention.
Without realising it, we had begun photographing this place a couple of times a week, standing at the side of the road, looking out across the field, with the trees and scrub forming a partial frame. Over the year, these photographs have become a record of the weather and the changing seasons, as well as a oblique view on our experiences of lockdown. Returning to this place, week after week, and capturing it on camera, has given us a perspective on this pandemic that we could never get from the news.
But the photographs are also strangely impersonal: a vision of the natural world – even in this largely artificial space – continuing its routines without us, despite our troubles and intruding camera.
In the spring, we came here for the nettles: passing dog-walkers and runners gave me strange looks as I rummaged through the undergrowth during my lunchbreak in shirt, tie and rubber gloves in search of the youngest nettle shoots. Above us, the late-blossom was a foaming of soft-pink in late-April, hiding the train tracks and scattering star-shaped flowers on the road like confetti.
Much later in the year, when we came here to scrump apples from over the hedge of a nearby garden, this corner seemed to trap the late-summer heat: a tiny microclimate, the air heavy with flies and the dusty scent of mature nettles. Without any refreshing breeze, the wheat in the field didn’t move a fraction.
As the season slipped into autumn, we were back for blackberries (and yet more apples) for crumbles and cakes. We also spotted a particularly healthy-looking hawthorn last year that got us thinking about foraging recipes, so we will be back again this year to harvest. On a particularly foggy morning in late autumn, I came out alone early and the lane was almost unrecognisable: even nearby objects were a little hazy, and the field disappeared into soft grey at twenty metres. The distinctive outlines of the trees were a blur.
The heavy snow we saw in December and January brought another transformation: the wind on the open fields cast long snowdrifts until the lane disappeared entirely and the deep grooves of the ploughed field were filled-in. Elle jumped into one of the drifts, and the snow came above her knees. Since then, our little corner of that field has been bleak and lonely, the leafless branches looking rather skeletal against the grey skies.
Watching spring return again to this little spot feels like a personal renewal. This time last year, we were filled with anxiety about our health, our jobs, and our future. We were driven to this place, like it was an addiction, using it as a distraction from our worries. This corner had felt like it was about us.
Now, as the first signs of blossom start to appear on these trees, the nettles begin to raise their heads above the brambles, and the shoots of this year’s crop are emerging from the field, I realise this little corner is about much more than us. It is part of a cycle, both natural and man-made, of which we are just a very small part. There’s another year of change ahead, harvests to look forward to, patterns we are only now beginning to notice.
And after twelve months of being here, I’m still in no hurry to find anywhere new.