We were like a gossamer spider’s web around the birthday girl, threads of connection linking each of us to the other. Synapses waiting to fire, links waiting to be discovered. One woman was a child psychotherapist, who lived very near to us, and who was happy to chat about some of my favourite subjects, and whom I would like to be a kindred spirit – so much did I like her spirit. Another had been hiking with my parents-in-law when they visited Hong Kong many years ago, and breathed the same rarefied public school air as them. Another outdid my passion for food and horses, raised pigs and kept chickens. Another had taken her children to the small church primary school opposite our house, and had recently buried her husband in a beautiful village church high up, overlooking the river. It was the church of my mother’s native village, and a recently discovered favourite haunt of mine. She was generous enough to share her disappointment and her frustations. Others I had known longer, from church or from my daughter’s school. As as I knew some women already, others knew each other from another school, from a choir, as neighbours.
At the centre of the web was a friend to all of us, though we were, some of us, strangers to each other. Ruth had assembled a group of women which whom she wanted to celebrate her birthday, and God had blessed us with glorious sunshine and a cool breeze. A clutch of us were the same age as her, with children the same ages. The others were smiling older, wiser, women whose children had flown the nest and who were enjoying their retirement or about to retire.
We began our walk at a small hamlet on a promontory in a wide shallow river fringed with reeds. An old church surrounded by freshly mown grass and cherry blossom offered a cool, damp refuge from the heat of the afternoon. Here, at Ikenhoe, more than a thousand years ago St Botolph almost certainly founded a monastery from which he evangelised the pagans. We poked around a bit, feeling the ancient carving on the 9th century Saxon cross discovered underneath the tower when it was being repaired. At home we have two small watercolours of this church painted from shore of the river that we bought each other, and it is the backdrop to a portrait of my husband that hangs in our house. Next to the church is a house. The house that belonged to the great grandfather of the man who was renting us a house in Tuscany for the Whitsun holiday. We knew that because we had been to collect the key to the Italian house only that morning, and he had told us, and the spider’s spun thread travelled back from there and wound round the places and the people.
As the path leaves the church it winds down to the river. We walked along the sand, next to the reeds until a bay appeared in which a small barge was moored. The bay is enclosed in sandy cliffs up which I clambered in my wedding dress on my wedding day. We had celebrated our marriage further upstream and had been taken away by a clinker-built fishing boat dressed overall. Our boatman had landed us at the base of the cliff and our getaway car was parked in the yard of the pig farm at the top. Nowadays there are steps cut into the cliff; then there was just a helping hand from my husband. My own threads of history, glistening in the sunshine, pulled me backwards.
We walked on, each of us moving backwards and forwards through the group of women like bees going from flower to flower, alighting, tasting the honey and moving on, pollinating each other as we went. Now flowers and bees in turn.
Eventually we arrived at the red brick maltings that grew to fulfil Benjamin Britten’s dream of an international concert hall. Here, in summer, we come almost nightly to sit on cushions with our children or our friends and listen to the best music in the world. The concert hall restaurant looks over the river and it was from here that the two of us watched the little boat winding it way through the withies to come and take us away, whilst all our wedding guests knew nothing of our plans.
We all magicked books out of our rucksacks for our friend – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father, 1000 places to visit before you die, a audio-book of Middlemarch, a book of Italian recipes and food stories, and a crime novel. We had been wonderfully fed by the conversations as we walked, but we ended a beautiful afternoon with a meal altogether sitting in a cosy pub inside a wooden cocoon. Ruth asked us to name one thing that we would take to a desert island and between us we furnished our island with a man (the widow), a pocket sprung bed, an armoire, a bottle of champagne, a pair of binoculars, a boat, a large bottle of olive oil, and an endless supply of anti-histamine cream. I’m glad that Ruth allowed us to enjoy her birthday with her, to explore her friendship web.