Magazine article The Spectator

Forever England

Magazine article The Spectator

Forever England

Article excerpt

Leaving the continental land mass behind at Cap de la Hague on a clear day, it's as if you could throw your voice across the Channel. An off-the-shelf, common-as-muck 285 horsepower Lycoming engine mocks the narrow stretch of water, the world's busiest shipping lane, the blue ribbon of the cocoon that has preserved us for a thousand years, pickled in salt water. Just ten minutes over that water in a cheap aeroplane to leave the nearest part of the rest of the world behind.

No one born and raised in England could behold those monumental cliffs at Dover from a light aircraft without being moved to tears. I swear. They are magnificent as we zoom. A pilot never has to tell his passengers, 'There are the white cliffs of Dover, ' or say anything about them, but it always goes quiet in the cabin. There was never anything so obvious or rousing. You think of your granddad and your heart beats faster.

That's the best way to come in, over Dover. Clear of the water we can bring the nose round 30 degrees to the north and descend to 500 feet over Kent. We're below the tufts of fair-weather cumulus now, mild clouds sitting on a mild landscape. We're racing along at 130 knots as the southeast drifts past in slow motion. The fields are smaller than they were in France.

There are more hedges and there is more grass, more detail, somehow, or maybe I just notice more because it's more familiar.

Did the men who built Canterbury Cathedral know that people would one day see it from above? We orbit the spire pulling twice our body weight in a steep turn, the static needle of the steeple pointing quietly up. It looks so peaceful, but then the whole of England does from the air. It's all those hedges. They tie it up like a parcel.

Beyond Canterbury, the barren marshes of the Thames estuary invite the river to drip and curl across the billiard cloth. Southend is on the far side in the distance. You can see the mad pier, the road to nowhere.

'That's the longest pier in the world, ' I tell my passengers and they smile. Following the Thames out of the wilderness the might of London gradually becomes apparent. Soon after crossing the barrier it's all around us. …

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