Friday, 28 August 2009

Second-best place

In John le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl, there’s a moment when Joseph tells Charlie ‘after dinner, as your personal Mephistopholes, I shall take you up a high hill and show you the second-best place in the world. You agree? A mystery tour.’

‘I want the best,’ she said, drinking her Scotch.

‘And I never award first prizes,’ he replied placidly.

Of course not. A first prize can’t be surpassed. And when you’ve reached the pinnacle, why would you go on looking?

A place I’ve visited frequently in recent months is at the top of only a relatively small hill. And all it does from there is run down in a gentle valley. The top is open ground with heather bushes, but it soon runs into woodland, and at the bottom there are stands of silver birches.

Heather in the foreground, the valley sloping down into the distance

Pretty, you may feel, but not special. Hardly a second prize.

But the place has a couple of qualities that make it magical. The best is the calm. Early in the morning or during the week, almost no-one goes there, and the valley sides are just high enough to shut out noise: it’s one of the few places where you can get away from the sound of traffic, and that’s particularly rare in England. If you’re lucky and there are no planes overhead, all you’ll hear is a little birdsong and the sounds of insects, and even that seems muted.

Of course, my ears have been around nearly six decades, and that may help soften the sound, but I think even people with more acute hearing would find the place restful.

Another charm is that it’s a heat trap. It’s just deep enough and sheltered from the wind, so even if it’s fresh on the tops, in the valley it’s warm. Somehow, the place is also something of a light trap: if there’s any sunshine, it fills with it and everything glistens.

So a few minutes there can give you a sense of peace hard to achieve anywhere else.

The place is on Cannock Chase, the stretch of open country near our home in Stafford. The valley itself is called Cherry Tree Slade, a name that appeals to me greatly. The first part has a gentle irony, today at least, as I’ve not seen a cherry tree anywhere nearby. As for the word ‘slade’, that comes from an old English term for valley, which conjures up the roots of England lost in a mystic and, given our weather, no doubt misty past.

In the heart of Cherry Tree Slade

Le Carré was talking about the Acropolis. I can’t pretend that the view down Cherry Tree Slade can rival the one from the Parthenon for drama (though I suppose smoke may have spoiled many Athenian views recently). It does however have another quality that gives it a different but precious value: it can act as a balm for tiredness or stress.

That makes it worth a second-best place designation in my book.

Birches at the bottom of the Slade

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