Hill and Dale

We came to England for two reasons: first, that my husband could log long hours of research for his PhD, but second, that when he had finished (I use the word loosely), we could rest and recharge. Fourteen years we’ve been church planting, but we’ll return home to a new season. This mini-sabbatical is our breather between two legs of a marathon. My heart is full.

Michael and I sat on our sloping little bed in the AirBnB and talked about which lodging so far has been our favorite. There was a terraced house in West Hampstead, London, a second story flat in Oxford, a truly dingy row house in Leicester, and then a cottage—the Chapel House—in Brassington, a village in Derbyshire, on the edge of the Peak District.

In Oxford, we had a bay window perched among the trees, a birds-nest. Throwing open the window, we could glide down to the cobbled streets and hop along to Tolkien’s house, share a pint with C.S. Lewis. That flat, spic and span, lined with books, was my favorite, and I could live there happily to the end of my days. But this Derbyshire scenery is breathtaking.

Though Brassington was idyllic, and our house from the very first glance enchanting, being indoors there felt a bit like living in a chicken coop—one with a lot of character. Sure, it might be plunked down in a beautiful farm yard, but there’s just a little square of light for a window and some pretty beamed rafters to perch in. Upstairs we had skylights, but unless you are standing, you can’t see much. Downstairs in the kitchen, there is an uphill view of pasture to one side and a gorgeous vista of valley on the other, but again, to see much, you need to stand just so. The living room is below ground level, and the windows, from that point, were above my head. Sometimes character and convenience are a trade-off.

Driving through this little hamlet opens up the views, and they are amazing (at least for the passengers.) The roads themselves are narrow and steep (so narrow!) Every house is made of stone—weathered, lichened, gray stone on the older buildings, with narrow windows like ours’ and heavy wooden doors—light, smooth stone on modern homes with wide windows and gravel driveways. If you walk down the little lanes, all you can see is stone, and far uphill a sort of green doorway. Downhill, if you catch a glimpse, a wide vale.

The hills are high and ring round as if carved out by a giant ice cream scoop. The farthest fields are hazy, blued by mist and distance, while nearer pastures, green and bright, are segmented off in random directions by neat hedgerows and still more stone walls. Everywhere the hills are dotted with spray-painted sheep and lazy cows, whose lowing day and night feels like something from another century.

There is a church built to look like a castle that chimes the hours, with a plunging path along its ancient cemetery. The path led from our street, Hillside, down to Ye Olde Gate pub. Not much seems to happen in the church building, so the overall effect is of a giant mantlepiece clock haunted by the gravestones of the farmers’ grandfathers, stretching back to Anglo Saxon days. (I don’t think it’s actually very old, but that’s how it seemed.)

June 28th was the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, and the church bells rang off and on for happy hours, a riot of clanging. It was easy to imagine the families pouring out into the streets at the end of the war, weeping and dancing in relief. How many boys from this village died in those trenches?

We took many short jaunts around the countryside: Monsal Dale, Stanage Edge, Dovedale, Chatsworth (a.k.a. Pemberley). The low places are lush, gorges carved by the River Wye. The twisty highways duck through forest, dim and shadowy below but bright and sunlit high above. I could lose track of time staring up into those dappled branches, but stray a few inches on those walled roads and we’d die in a fiery crash. 

The high places of the county are barren, rocky, windswept, quite a contrast. One place, lofty and lifeless, lets you catch a glimpse of life in all its beauty and wonder, the other lets you live, tangled as it is by briers and thick with muck.

One day we walked along the Monsal Trail for a mile and a half, then ventured off along an unmarked bridle trail. Someone evidently went to a great deal of trouble in days past to blaze this trail, overgrown now, because for several stretches along the river there are dozens of manmade stepping stones beneath the leaning cliffs. The trees, huge, completely covered in moss, stand still like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham, friendly but silent. We were quite alone, just us and the Ents, laughing and splashing but somehow solemn, too, in this quiet place.

There is a happiness that bubbles like soda and makes you glad for a moment, but stillness, and wonder? That kind of joy is a shy and serious creature. I think of Jars of Clay, “I will sing of your mercy that leads me through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy.” 

There is an awful lot to see (and queues that stretch for city blocks) in London. Fascinating history, brilliant people, beautiful architecture. Bubbly, wonderful happiness. But for me, I’ll take the overgrown path by the river, the company of trees and sheep, the secret pools and tumbled rocks. Even a lifetime of days wouldn’t be enough to see it all.

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