I have no car here, which is just as well, because no matter how much people tell me “you’ll get used to” driving on the other side of the road, I’m pretty sure I’d mangle someone immediately. I’m having enough trouble crossing the street safely.
I thought I’d buy a bicycle, but there’s really nowhere to store it in my six-unit building, and I’m not sure I’d be any more competent on two wheels than four on these narrow, oft-slick roads.
So I walk. As transportation, and for exercise. The Stratford Leisure Center (the UK version of the YMCA) is a mile away, so by the time I walk there and back, I’d have no need to actually go inside.
When I walk, I notice things I don’t or won’t or can’t in a car. All different shapes, sizes, and sorts of pavements: concrete, asphalt, worn stones, dirt packed by thousands of footsteps, or dewy and clover-dotted grass. Heavy, ornate, inscribed metal utility covers in the streets and sidewalks. One read “STOP COCK.” No doubt in British English that means something I clearly didn’t understand. The trash people leave: McVities’ wrappers, ale bottles, Ribena juice boxes – but mostly don’t (it’s very clean here). The massive willows that umbrella the banks of the Avon, their gnarled branches providing perfect shelves for numerous nests for birds I’ve yet to identify. Their foliage shades the benches underneath, bearing plaques inscribed to loved ones. Adolescent, uniformed school kids sit close to one another after class but before they need to be home. Older couples sit holding hands, her head kerchiefed and his covered with a plaid cap. Berry bushes along the way feature an array of fruit: bright, almost translucent red orbs, clusters of small near-black dots, and what I hope were blackberries (because I ate nine). The mourning doves and magpies feast on these. I hear songbirds I cannot see and the hum of the narrow motorway that crosses the river in the distance. A vast field’s crops have just been harvested, leaving a symmetrical wave of shorn wheat-colored stalks as far as the eye can see. On the other side, a carpet of emerald grass fills with dogs and their owners. There’s no need for a designated “dog park” here. They’re all dog parks. Near Lucy’s Mill, where the Avon splits and spills over two falls, and swans and their about-to-turn-white cygnets congregate, I meet a Golden Retriever of the same name. Her owner tells me “she is very friendly, go on, Lucy, say hello,” and indeed, Lucy sidles over to me agreeably accepting my greeting.
Tennis balls ping on the green courts at the Stratford Tennis Club, and white-clad bowlers’ balls roll silently across Stratford Bowling Club’s field as they watch in muted anticipation.
I hear myriad accents as I cross the footbridge back toward town. It parallels the Clopton Bridge, its 14 arches built in the same year that Columbus sailed for the Americas. The geese, swans, and coots squawk as they espy and race toward a happy toddler throwing big pieces of bread in the water; she’s too enthusiastic and impatient to make them more bite-sized.
The old Tudor buildings. The big red Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre. The crisp blue sky that clouds over at regular West Midlands intervals with sometimes wispy, sometimes puffy, and sometimes downright threatening billows. And rain! The inevitable. Misting, spitting, drizzling, driving, sheeting, deluging – it’s done a bit of everything, and does it often. Since it’s a given, no one seems to mind. They just gear up, dress appropriately, and deal with it. Stiff upper lip, uplifted umbrella, and Wellies.
I enjoy the feel, the scent, and the sound of it. It’s refreshing and cleansing, and turns this place into a verdant palette of every shade of green I could imagine.
I may sing a decidedly different tune when the temperature dips (which always sounds worse in Celsius), but I cannot say that I prefer 30 minutes on the treadmill at the Edge Fitness Club with heavy metal music and weight machines in the background to my 30 minute loop up and down the Avon. I experience the world in a whole new, and anything but pedestrian, way on foot.
Photos by Diane Lowman