Magazine article Geographical

The World on Your Doorstep: The Royal Geographical Society (with IBO)'s Walk the World Project Is Encouraging People to Look at Their Local Area with New Eyes. Olivia Edward Joins Society Director Rita Gardner for a Stroll around the Suffolk Village of Walsham-le-Willows, Where the Local Sights Quickly Take on a Global Hue

Magazine article Geographical

The World on Your Doorstep: The Royal Geographical Society (with IBO)'s Walk the World Project Is Encouraging People to Look at Their Local Area with New Eyes. Olivia Edward Joins Society Director Rita Gardner for a Stroll around the Suffolk Village of Walsham-le-Willows, Where the Local Sights Quickly Take on a Global Hue

Article excerpt

We're standing on a small country lane looking out over a wheat field. The still-green, feathery ears are lolling gently in the breeze The sky is banking up with rain clouds and somewhere--invisible above us--a skylark is singing, while over the whole scene floats the summer's-coming smell of honeysuckle.

'What could be more English than this?' asks my companion, Rita Gardner, director of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), as she takes a sip from her can of Diet Coke. I want to nod in affirmation but there's a twinkle in her eye, and I have a feeling that my preconceptions are about to be well and truly trampled on.

VILLAGE LIFE

I've joined Rita to find out more about the Society's Walk the World initiative. Part of the Cultural Olympiad, it's designed to encourage people to take a fresh look at their local landscapes by seeking out connections to the 206 nations competing in this summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games. She has chosen to meet me here, in Walsham-le-Willows, a small Suffolk village with a population of a little over 1,000--not only because it's an area that she knows well (it's near the tumbledown wreck that she and her husband have spent the past few decades restoring), but because, at first sight, the small settlement is as English as could be.

At the centre of the village is a huddle of ice-cream-coloured cottages, and sprinkled around are ducks, winding roses, a church, a bowls club, a butchers and a wine merchant (it's a fairly wealthy village, with an increasing number of holiday homes). Farther out is the usual 1930s social housing and pseudo-vernacular new-build estates, before the lawns give way to fields and the undulating agricultural landscape of East Anglia.

And it has the ultimate old English certification--a listing in what was essentially the UK's first census: the Domesday Book. But as I quickly discover, what seems to us to be quintessentially English is, in fact, often not English at all, or at least throws the concept of Englishness--as it might generally be understood--into some doubt.

Rita points up at the red-tiled roof of a particularly sweet-looking timber-framed cottage with its people-were-smaller-then weren't-they doors and two puritanically trimmed box shrubs guarding the entrance. 'They look very English don't they?' she says of the tiles. 'But in fact they were originally brought over from Holland.'

During the 14th and 15th centuries, she explains, when East Anglia was luxuriating in wool wealth, Dutch ships would cross the North Sea using pantiles as ballast, before swapping them for British fleeces and heading on to trade in mainland Europe, like buoyant matchboxes stuffed full of cotton balls.

The sheep, too, aren't really from around here.

'This entire area's wealth was built on an animal that actually descended from the mouflon found in the Caucasus Mountains,' Rita tells me.

HIDDEN LINK

I'm definitely starting to get the gist of this game, but Rita has some more tips for me. 'Churches are always a good place to start when you're looking for international links,' she says as she points out monuments to the dead from Germany and the USA. Then we're off to the local bowls club, which used to use bowls made from lignum vitae, an ironwood found in the West Indies that bears Jamaica's national flower.

Then there's the asphalt road that we're walking along--made from crude oil, the first were built in Basra. Iraq, during the eighth century. And the banal white lines that run down its centre contain a pigment called titanium dioxide, which is extracted from the mineral rutile, mined in countries such as Australia and Sierra Leone.

But it's the typically English country garden that offers up a veritable world summit of international connections. 'Many of our garden plants originated in the Himalaya,' Rita explains as we enter the 'stickybeak' part of the tour and she points out wisteria and cotoneaster in the back gardens we pass. …

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