A travel journalist’s reflections from a sleepy valley in Dorset, England.
I have never noticed it before: for a single week in April, our blue wisteria and the blood-red quince blossoms at the same time. It is an extraordinary explosion of colour, a simple burst of pleasure. In these curious times, it is also a powerful reminder that in lockdown, life doesn’t just continue but thrives. Again and again, I’m finding optimism in the smallest things. On a walk just before I sat down to write this story, I saw the white stars of wild garlic and holly berries in the same eyeful, as if winter and summer were happening at the same time. Another little miracle — as magnificent as snow on roses — and literally right outside my front door.
I live in England, in a sleepy valley in Dorset on the southwest coast. In the daily hour of exercise our government has allocated, I have time to walk to the sea and back. Last week, we saw a wild otter in the stream beneath our house. On Monday, on a Zoom call with a colleague in Singapore, a cuckoo got so noisy that I had to explain the racket.
My family and I are extraordinarily fortunate. At night, we can see no other lights. Our thatched farmhouse is located down a wild, kilometer-long lane which is so rough on cars, none of the other school mums will share lifts. Social distancing, therefore, isn’t a problem. We grow our own vegetables (not quite ready yet to take advantage of in lockdown). On and off, we keep pigs and sheep, which we eat. We have a resident flock of geese, and two chickens for our eggs. I haven’t driven the car now for five weeks. Our farm shop is two miles away. The only things which arrive by delivery are wine and books.
“On Monday, on a Zoom call with a colleague in Singapore, a cuckoo got so noisy that I had to explain the racket.”
It is, however, a very peculiar moment of stasis given what I normally do for a living.
For years, I have travelled hard and often — writing for The Financial Times and Condé Nast Traveler, among others. My focus has been on less-travelled destinations: most recently, West Africa, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Congo. The last assignment I did prior to COVID-19 was in the Ennedi Desert in Chad. Alongside the journalism, I have been pre-occupied by a travel book about Russia, which I began in March 2016, and was published this February. Called The Lost Pianos of Siberia, it tells the story of my search for a piano for a Mongolian friend. Over the last few years, I have travelled all over the territory that once made up imperial Siberia, from Russia’s Ural Mountains to the Kamchatka Peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific. To put that in its context, Siberia covers an eleventh of the world’s land surface. Kamchatka is nine hours ahead of Moscow, and in the same time zone as Auckland.
“It is, however, a very peculiar moment of stasis given what I normally do for a living… The last assignment I did prior to COVID-19 was in the Ennedi Desert in Chad.”
To be unable to travel is, therefore, something of a challenge to me. This is in spite of all the things grounding me to this part of the world. I am a mother of two young sons, who are in the local school. My parents live a half-day walk away further up the valley. My husband’s business is also based here; a hyperlocal food company, it relies on Dorset-sourced ingredients to make dehydrated meals used by expeditioners all over the world. We have the travel bug in common. We spend most of our summers in Mongolia, where my friendship with the concert pianist began. My husband, a mountaineer, is hurting badly that his trips to Scotland and Greenland are no longer happening.
We live an unusual life, of separation and togetherness. I also know we are incredibly lucky to have a rural home, which is resulting in a very different experience of COVID-19 to my friends in London. Yes, I’m missing the adrenaline that travel can give. But right now, I’m also relearning how important it is as both a writer and human being to stay still, and be a good noticer of things. I’m being reminded how vital it is to enjoy the little miracles — the otters, the cuckoos, the flowering quince, and how rich the human imagination is if you give it space and time to breathe.
“Yes, I’m missing the adrenaline that travel can give. But right now, I’m also relearning how important it is as both a writer and human being to stay still, and be a good noticer of things.”
I was brought up on a fish farm in southwest Scotland. Until I was older, we had no TV. My sisters and I therefore always had to make up our own fun. And that, strangely, is what I am doing now. I have found myself drawn back into fiction. I am making bad attempts at writing my own. More than anything, I am loving the magical, short novellas of others, each no fatter than my iphone, which tell spectacular, fable-like stories I can get lost in for an hour or two a day. Nagasaki by Éric Faye. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. The Friend of the Desert by Pablo d’Ors. Silk by Alessandro Baricco. Each story is a little bit more dream-like than reality. Each story — and there are many more like them — is also tethered to this world, with a strong sense of place I know exists on the other side of this terrible pandemic. Japan, Venice, the Sahara, France. Beauty will endure, long after this virus has passed. And that is the optimism I want to hold on to in the dark days and sleepless nights.
Sophy Roberts is a travel writer based in West Dorset, England. She focuses on remote parts of the world where she can report on wildlife conservation, threats to eco-systems and fragile cultures. She have been editor-at-large for Condé Nast Traveller (UK), special correspondent for Condé Nast Traveler (US), travel editor for The Economist 1843, and a columnist for FT Weekend and How To Spend It. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is her first book, published by Doubleday in the UK (February 2020), and Grove Press in the US (June 4, 2020). Follow her @sophy_roberts