I AM reaching for the choicest word to describe the state of mind induced by a sabbatical. “Bliss” comes close, but “rapture” closer. To wake up, each guilt-free, heart-singing day, with nothing demanded of me but to expand my mind leads me to conclude that the undergraduate years — the only real comparison that I can make — are wasted on the young.
I pack out my camper van with a library of books on some of the key Enlightenment figures around whom I’m building a play: notably, Lunar Society members, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, and John Whitehurst, and the painter Joseph Wright of Derby.
The kettle sings. There are blackbirds on the grass. My head is full of orreries, pot-making, and canal-building. I am immersed in a time when science meant knowledge, the arts were more than the fine arts, and it was possible to know pretty much everything.
For the first time in my life, I need to understand physics and geology. They were my late husband’s disciplines, and I’m rueful that he’s not here to share this journey and to see how far I’ve come in comprehending his world. Back in the day, I glimpsed it in the depths of Holborn Underground Station, where he had a laboratory. I would melt out of the crowd on the platform and slip, Harry Potter-style, through a secret door, to watch cosmic-ray showers on the monitors. I think he would have liked these Lunar Society men, and I wish we could have talked about them.
Out of the deep
THIS new journey also takes me deep into the bowels of the earth. Armed with the excellent app guide on my phone, I find myself in the privileged position of being a solitary visitor, early on a quiet weekday, 150 feet below the earth in Treak Cliff Cavern, in the Derbyshire Peak.
It is spectacular beyond words. My man Whitehurst probably clambered down into these caverns with a candle in his teeth, amassing evidence for the origin and formation of the earth and the part that God played in it. I gaze at the biggest stalactites I’ve ever seen — about 111,000 years old — and think that every CCTV camera must be recording my wide-open mouth.
When I emerge, stooping down a tunnel that brings me out much further up the hillside than I went in, the vastness and greenness of the Hope Valley panorama in front of me is doubly pleasing. I am almost 1000 feet above sea level, and I try to picture this familiar landscape as the tropical lagoon that it once was.
In the shop, I make a rash purchase — rash, because we don’t yet have a budget for this show, or even a script. But I know it’s going to figure. It’s a lump of limestone, with crinoids; it’s glistening with crystals, and there is the rare and beautiful calcium fluoride, Blue John, in its face.
I feel connected now, not just to Whitehurst, but to some dawn of time. At Common Worship morning prayer, I notice, as though for the first time, the words “From the waters of chaos, you drew forth the world.”
MY TRAVELS take me to Lichfield, and Erasmus Darwin’s house. The exhibition notes that his views were well ahead of his time: “air travel, origin of life, artificial insemination, outer atmosphere, biological pest control, photosynthesis, canal lifts, rocket motors, clouds, sewage farms, copying machines, speaking machines, electrochemistry, steam turbines, evolutionary theory, submarines, feminism, telescopes, geological structure, travel of seeds, hereditary diseases, warm and cold weather fronts, mental illness, water as H2O, moon’s origin, water closets, nitrogen cycle, weather maps, oil drilling”.
It’s almost a footnote that he campaigned for the end of slavery, encouraged girls’ education, supported the Revolutions, furthered technology, and talked of evolution.
I am fascinated to learn that some patients stayed in this house for days — even weeks. The poorest were treated free, and he scaled his fees according to patients’ wealth, as expressed by their way of life.
Hot and sticky
SUMMER is here, and, coming across the yellowed and tattered loose-leaf book into which — in a lovely cursive script — my mother wrote her myriad recipes, I’m transported back to her kitchen. Our house bubbled with sweet summer smells from the preserving pan.
Between 13 July and 4 September 1948, she records making four pounds of gooseberry jam, three of strawberry and gooseberry, five of blackcurrant, two-and-a-half of raspberry, and ten of plum.
I didn’t inherit her talent for that, but I think she passed on her love of baking. We hold an afternoon service in one of our city churches — by its very location, a refuge sometimes for people off the streets. When they merge with the congregation afterwards, and tuck into my Mary Berry marmalade tray-bake, I think there really is such a thing as a ministry of cake.
SUMMER sounds come in myriad forms. The boy next door has developed a passion for basketball, and my garden resounds with the hollow thud of the bounced ball on the decking, and the thump and whisk through the basket. Sometimes, it ricochets into the depths of my prickly hedge, and we have to resort to the clothes prop to retrieve it.
But loving your neighbour also takes myriad forms, and our conversations as we prod and poke are proving a very binding thing.
“You’re much nicer about it than the people on the other side,” he says.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.