We had a fabulous holiday in Holland and were inching our way aboard the ferry for the waterborne part of our homeward journey when it happened.
The car in front of us – a shiny NL registered expensive one – was lurching and grumbling just above us on the steep ramp. Alarmingly rolling back towards us, burping exhaust fumes and clutch smoke. With a row of very shiny and muscular motorbikes revving behind us and some campervans, we didn’t have anywhere to escape.
Wide-eyed we watched as eventually the driver mastered his vehicle and juddered into his parking place and we were waved to ours.
It’s possible, the driver encountered a hill start for the first time. After all, if you only drove in the Netherlands, where would you practice?
It could, of course, be that the car had a parking button which means you don’t get the control of riding the clutch. Though that wouldn’t make for such a good illustration to my point.
Ten wonderful days in South Holland (I’d better get it right as Boy One insists you can’t say Holland when you mean The Netherlands) got me thinking. How much do the landscapes we live in influence who we are and what we do?
Clearly, if you have no inconvenient hills, then you’d cycle everywhere on big heavy bikes without gears and you’d be fitter and browner for it. And without mountains you wouldn’t develop a tribe of Munro baggers or Wainwright followers – what would they do instead? Adapt or move.
But I think there’s something deeper to it. We’d travelled around a fair bit during our holiday by car, bike, on foot and public transport and at no point did I have a clear idea of which direction we should have been going. My sense of direction – not fantastic most of the time admittedly – failed completely. Even routes we covered many times baffled me. I think it was a lack of natural landmarks. No hills, road bends, dips or rocky bits to distinguish one corner from the previous one.
Not that it’s not lovely with willows sweeping low over canals, and windmills, it’s just that it’s all the same. Low, brick buildings, angles, square fields, long greenhouses and straight roads. Identical to the last one, or at least they were to me. I once learned that if you aren’t brought up with languages like Chinese they are incredibly difficult to learn because they use subtle linguistics that those unfamiliar can hardly even hear. Perhaps it’s similar.
A couple of days ago I drove from my childhood home in Penrith, south through the Lakes to Brockhole on Windermere. I realised that I knew more or less where we were by the stone – sandstone, granite or slate – and the shape of the landscape as it rolls or clambers upward. Tall waterside trees or scrubby moorland bushes. Subtle differences I’ve been reading all my life.
And then there’s the level of dominion we expect over our lands. In the Netherlands we learned – from several sources, they’re very proud – about how the people control the sea and the weather, holding it back and making it work efficiently for them. That must give you a strong sense of achievement, an expectation of success, mustn’t it?
We in the north of the UK, on the other hand, know ultimately that the elements will win so we bend accordingly. Our thick-walled and hunched dwellings are prepared for winds and rain – water is to be crossed carefully and treated with respect. Aquaducts and canal systems that survive are applauded as the exception – as trophies to ambition. It’s different, I think, and it makes us who we are – people of our countryside.