Revealed: the world’s most sublime place

At the end of an unreal year, I choose a place that no longer exists as the destination that tops all others

I won’t visit the Most Sublime Place in the World again during my lifetime. No-one of my age will. If you are under 30 you might. But it will be an incredibly tough journey to get there.

This series kicked off in March 2020 as a response to the travel ban. I have been listing those beautiful places in the world that have had the most impact on me: and chose ‘sublime’ as the adjective that best sums up a yearning for noble and heart-wrenching landscapes. It was that yearning that spawned the modern travel industry in the late 18th century and still inspires most travellers, in one way or another, today.

So, to my choice for the Most Sublime Place. It is a few square miles around the village of Chartridge, Asheridge, Pednor and The Lee in the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire, England.

That’s where I live. But the Most Sublime Place in the World is – or was – where you live too.

Time to answer the riddle.

The most sublime place in the world isn’t a place: it’s a place in time. It’s The Land of Lockdown.

In England, it was the period between March 23, 2020 and July 4, 2020; between the moment strict lockdown measures were announced and the day they began to be lifted.

The UK was slow, fatally slow, to respond to the clear and obvious danger of COVID. And even when we imposed lockdown, we couldn’t bring ourselves to close the borders, a decision which no Government minister has been able to explain satisfactorily (to be fair, they did explain it laughably and ludicrously).

Still, our lockdown restrictions when they came were among the most firm in the world. Stay home. Stay safe. And we did. Economic activity ground to an almost complete halt.

Supermarkets were surreal places. There were long queues. (That made the situation bearable: in the weird British psyche, queuing – standing in line – allows us to tap into our the national reserve of stoicism and cope with the most extreme situations).

Otherwise, we stayed at home.

The Land of Lockdown: the most sublime place in the world

View from Ashott’s Lane, Chartridge, 29th May, 2020

Often, Spring in England  is a season of setbacks. There will be a day or two when the temperature rises above 20. When that happens, the fields and paths dry up, you retrieve your cobwebbed garden furniture from the loft and your crumpled shorts from the cupboard. Next minute, the winds switch to a northerly direction and low after low sweeps in from the Atlantic. The days are longer –  but grey and cold as winter.

Not in The Land of Lockdown. In 2020, Britain was about to experience its warmest spring in history. There were 626.2 hours of sunshine between March and May, well beyond the previous record of 1948, which saw 555 hours. 

It had also been the wettest February on record. Every walk was a wellies walk. There’s a stile opposite our house leading to a field and a bridlepath. Now it was a bridge over a ford leading to a swamp. Even our chalky Chilterns weren’t draining. When I drove through low-lying flat Oxfordshire in February it was a land of lakes and marsh, as if the Norfolk Broads had moved 150 miles west.

But in the Land of Lockdown, the weather was heavenly and the ground was soon hard as rock. 

There’s also a road outside our house: rarely very busy, except at school-run times. Now it was deserted. We walked down the middle of the road. It was like a wilderness reserve in a country park. The muntjac deer skipped fearlessly from field to field. Foxes trotted across the valley at dusk as the red kites cried and swooped above.

And day by day, the very air in this silent land changed. What had previously seemed like beautifully clear days in the country we now saw for what they were: fuzzy, pallid imitations of the real thing, the air muted with trillions of particulates and dust. Now it was really clear. The new buds on the sycamore tree stood out hard as diamonds against a sky as deep blue as the ocean. In the woods, the shadows on the ground and the light through the beech trees had an Arctic clarity. Sunrises were primeval: the dew translucent, the only movement birds swooping in the far distance between the dark, distant oak trees.

In time, the blossoms and leaves came out, in colours of acid intensity.

It’s a lame cliché to say it felt like another planet. But that’s exactly what it was. The Land of Lockdown was a truly sublime place.

A wish that came strangely true

Greta Thunberg: the here’s-looking-at-you kid

This time last year, one story consistently dominated the news agenda: climate change and what felt like a sudden escalation in the war against the polluters.

The fight was led by a 16-year-old Swedish activist called Greta Thunberg.

She too seemed like something from another planet, her preternaturally intense eyes surveying the people of Earth – and not liking what they saw. In September 2019, they took her to our leader, a vain, bulbous man smothered in brightly-coloured chemicals designed to make him look young. Greta looked like a child and unfathomably old at the same time. She saw Donald Trump: her lips tightened and those eyes bore into the baggy shape of the President’s retreating figure.

Take me to your leader. Credit: telegraph.co.uk

We liberals loved it. But Greta was looking at us too: at the cars we drive, the holidays we take, the stuff we throw away, the complicity we can’t avoid. We were polluters too. She knew it, we knew it.

We learned a new Swedish word from Greta and her fellow campaigners: flygskam. Flight-shame. The German train operator saw a record increase in bookings. Even an airline, KLM, encouraged their customers to go by rail.  The Guardian’s travel section stopped commissioning any stories that required air travel.

Across a sliver of northern, middle class Europe and America, it genuinely looked as if people might permanently change their behaviour, especially when it came to travel.

Meanwhile, the rest of a very big world kept on moving and building and trading. They kept digging coal mines and the fleets of container ships continued to criss-cross the oceans. These were the big-ticket items compared to air travel, which is responsible for around 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions. But in our corner of Europe, we mainly seemed concerned about frequent flyers and plastic bottles.

Anyway, the Earth kept on warming. The evidence for climate change was irrefutable and terrifying. But how could we, any of us, stop what we were doing?

Then we were made to stop.

It was almost as if this otherworldly being had cast a spell. Greta’s land became reality: The Land of Lockdown.

I was researching a book about England between the wars, before everyone drove and when hardly anyone flew. Suddenly I didn’t need an imaginative leap to get back there. We were there.

Some of us loved lockdown, the lucky ones with our fields and paths and gardens. But everyone needed to get back to work. In time, the shops opened, the lane was again filled with cars and the skies became fuzzy once again.

The second COVID wave hit Europe in September. Our UK government dithered, denied, delayed, then announced another lockdown.

This one wasn’t the same. I looked out of my window on the first day and wondered ‘where is everyone going?’ Cars streamed down the lane. They were going to schools, workshops, garden centres, wine shops, to see relatives and drive somewhere nice for a walk. This half-hearted lockdown had sort of effect on the infection numbers. Now they’re trying something else.

But one thing is clear. We can’t ever go back to the Land of Lockdown. It was our Brigadoon, our Germelhausen.

Or should I say most of us can’t get back?

The road to Utopia

Masdar City, a new green urban project under construction in Abu Dhabi

Most stories about the future are dystopian. We suffer, as one writer said, from a kind of ‘chronological snobbery’ where we patronise the past. We’d do well, he said, to remember that we too are living in what will one day be called ‘a period’.

In novels and films, we routinely show our fear of the future and contempt for the people unfortunate enough to live there. E Nesbit’s wonderful vision of London I quoted earlier in this series isn’t only a rarity in otherwise dystopian fiction – it’s also a rarity in having become substantially true.

Yet as Hans Rosling compellingly tells us, life carries on getting overwhelmingly better for humanity, whatever measure you choose.  

I thought about this a lot in the Land of Lockdown. Here’s what I hope; but it’s also what I think.

When today’s babies and toddlers reach adulthood they will look back at the 20th and early 21st century and be aghast at the way we lived, just as we are shocked when we see footage of pea-soup fogs in London or the belching chimneys of Victorian Manchester. They will wonder how we could put up with the noise and the stench of constant traffic, the ear-piercing sound of aircraft, ports and cities and towns thick with toxic emissions. They will look around at their clean, quiet streets, their garden cities, their serene airport terminals and ask: you could have had all this so much earlier.

That’s when the Land of Lockdown will again become reality.

Meanwhile, as I write, an English court is considering a landmark case: did a child die from the effects of pollution and did the authorities have a duty to prevent that death?

We can breathe more easily in this respect at least. It won’t be too many years before the cars outside poor Ella Kissi-Debrah’s window will be a quiet hum of clean electric vehicles. It’ll be like remembering what pubs were like before the smoking ban. Did we really put up that stench, that crap?

Aviation is another matter. The efforts that have been put into finding alternatives to fossil fuels are not a central part of airline chiefs’ strategies. They come from the corporate and social responsibility or, worse, the PR masterplan – a press release on converting household waste to aviation fuel, a trial flight of an electric aircraft. Meanwhile, the realists concede that the science and logistics of powering planes sustainably and safely are so fiendishly difficult that none of them even dare give a speculative date when we can begin to phase out carbon-based fuels.

People need to fly. It isn’t just a rich world indulgence (I’ll discuss why next time). Governments like talking about Kennedy-like Moon missions. Well, here’s one. Tell the aviation sector to get on with converting to clean energy. Set them a deadline. Give them the support they need. And start by making their post-COVID bailouts contingent on having a workable plan for bio-fuels.

That sublime top 10 in full

  1. The Land of Lockdown [this blog]

  2. The Zagori, Greece

  3. Namibia

  4. Torridon, Scotland

  5. Tromsø, Norway

  6. Mongolia

  7. Axarquía, Spain

  8. Bhutan

  9. Karelia, Finland

  10. Wilpena Pound and Lake Eyre, South Australia

Songs that take you places

Settin’ the Woods on Fire

Hank Williams

No, this isn’t a protest song about deforestation in the Amazon. It’s a little rollicker by the great Hank Williams, recorded in 1952.

I think this lockdown (and indeed, this particular blog) is in need of a little rollicking. This is our household’s song of choice. You could see it a historical record of rural life in mid-century America – authentic Americana complete with south-of-the-border influences (‘we’ll order up two bowls of chilli’). Or you could see it as a good excuse to dance around the kitchen.

Listen to the full Marklands playlist.

Let’s end with some words from William Morris about happiness

I will now let my claims for decent life stand as I have made them.. First, a healthy body; second, an active mind in sympathy with the past, present and future; thirdly, occupation fit for a healthy body and an active mind; and fourthly, a beautiful world to live in.