I wrote last month about our impending return to England, ten years after we had left it to move to Canada. I haven’t yet found words to express the range and depth of feeling that emerged from that time. I can only visit in vignettes . . . powerful impressions and emotions and a great sense of homecoming. Fresh in my heart today is a visit we made to a lovely old cottage hidden away in the pine forests surrounding Holkham Bay in north Norfolk. It is a place that has always spoken to my heart’s dream and reminds me of an editorial piece I wrote about it many years ago . . . .
From the Oxford English Dictionary
Elysium (ɪˈlɪzɪəm) n. 1. Also called Elysian Fields. Greek myth. the dwelling place of the blessed after death. 2. a state or place of perfect bliss [from Greek Elusion pedion, blessed fields].
What is your concept of paradise? To each one of us, it can be so different – a place, a person, a time, all of those things taken together to produce an idealised utopia. My own image of paradise may seem somewhat drab and bare by comparison to some, yet I can’t seem to let it go.
You see, there is this little cottage. Only such a little thing. It stands on top of a high sand dune in the middle of a pine forest, its glass front facing bravely to the North Sea, it’s hand-clinked sandstone chimney turning the curve of its backbone to the sea’s gales.
The clapboard exterior has been scoured silver by sand and salt-laden winds. Indeed, the whole cottage looks truly scrubbed within and without. Whenever I climb the steep steps to the little verandah, a little gypsy breeze greets me with its heady sweet pungence, all salt and sea-borne things, hot baked sand and marram grass, pollen and pine sap and cool green moss. Peeping through the wide windows, it is always empty. There is invariably a little pile of sand blown under the door, waiting for a loving hand to sweep it away.
It has all of three rooms. The little galley kitchen at the back is empty of all but a few candle stubs in jars. From the side window, you can just see into a narrow sleeping room of two bunks stacked on each other. Most of this scoured shell of a cottage is given over to the large front room facing out over the sea. Silvered floorboards are bare of furniture or rug. The room is empty but for the overwhelming glory of an enormous fireplace in the seaward corner. Above that fireplace, you see, is the mirror. Oh, such a mirror! So out of place it looks, as though it has been plucked from Neptune’s own palace and deposited to hang alone in that sand-scoured little cabin.
Every inch of four feet high and as wide, the mirror is surrounded by a great, curving frame, deeply encrusted with seashells and barnacles. No, my friend, this is not of the souvenir-from-the-seaside variety. The shells have aged into the beauty of subtlest evening-sky hues, giving the thing an odd grace and grandeur. The enigma of that mirror intrigues me.
This little cottage beckons me, speaks to me, belongs to me. And I belong to it. I long to sit with it on that dune. In my mind’s eye, I watch the sunset sea through the pines from its porch, return to its welcoming arms after a storm-tossed beach walk.
I long to light a driftwood fire in the grate of that amazing fireplace. I would line those wide sills with treasures from the sea. I would sit and rock and watch the stars reflected in Neptune’s mirror. I would eat samphire from the shore cooked in that tiny kitchen. My soul and I could find each other there. I would paint and paint and paint, and when there was no colour left to the day, I would write, by the firelight, content and alone.
It will never, can never, be mine anywhere but in my heart. Yet we know we belong to each other, this little cottage and I. Maybe that is all the paradise I need.