Harry Smith

The Broken Bridges

A shift in environment brings important lessons about what we find important, and where we thrive.

Twenty steps from my parent’s front door you come to a railway track. The sidewalk continues across the track. Simple kissing gates replace the expected security fencing. “Stop. Look. Listen.” warns a lone sign. Nothing prevents you from walking out onto the tracks. Nor does it stop you from running down the rails with carefree abandon. It trusts you not too.

That trust makes one feel mischievous as you dart across. If built today, we’d be aghast at giving so much trust to the user (“what if they got hurt!” we’d cry). The crossing is old, one of only a few in the country. It reminds me that there is a history to these places. I can imagine it as it once was. When the track was first laid. Absent of its fences and signage. People crossing where it was convenient, ox and cart in tow.

In the countryside modern construction is a recent veneer. Its history still pokes through everywhere. The path continues between the high walls of two farmhouses. The walls are thick, to hold out the cold in a time before central heating. The alley reflects the difference between the country and the cities. Wide, not tight. Open, not cramped. Clean, not dirty.

It joins a much more ancient right of way. Locals call it “The Broken Bridges”. It’s a rat race that follows hedgerows established long before the Doomsday Book. So called, because it starts by crossing a river with a sequence of four short bridges. The adjacent farm mirrors them with its own bridges. The farmer choosing to follow nature rather than reshape it. Each generation has replaced a different bridge, in a different style, at a different time. It’s a visual tapestry of its own history. All over the countryside you see the same evolution.

In the countryside Butchers Row still has a butcher. The Market Square still has a market. And Fishmonger’s street might not have a fishmonger, but the building is still there. The names of the places are colloquial and practical. It’s another reminder of the past. The roads named for what existed before the roads. In the city Butcher’s Row has no butcher, and most roads mean nothing at all.

Walking to work along a roaring four-lane traffic artery and the world seems frozen in place. Broken Bridges reminds you that it is alive. The plants thrive and die in accordance to the season and rainfall. In spring, it looks covered in spiderwebs when the pollen is up. In summer it becomes a tight, single-track trail. When winter arrives, the forgotten fence line reveals itself as the brambles recede. In the city we demand the world change. In the country, the world changes despite us.

That’s not to say I haven’t felt the magic of the big city. The shine of the advertisements dancing in the wet down streets. The air thick with the collision of a thousand voices. The beat of the street drummer coursing through you. As if this was your own movie and this moment the triumphant final act. The city might provide greater heights, but you pay with deeper lows. These quick changes of favour leave behind a pervading anxiety. In the light of day the neon, bombastic carnival exposes itself. Concrete, libra mobile and cheap shop fronts.

A brief trip to nature settles the nerves. An extended stay in the country makes you realise how high that baseline anxiety was. Returning to the city now I am assaulted by the noise. Each blast of a siren a punch in the side of the head. Only now my habituation to those stressors has faded do I notice it. The cause of our unhappiness can often lurk in silence.

When I lived in London I thought about how to get the most out of each day, how to work hard, how to be efficient. The city demands these questions of you. I still work in London, and I appreciate how the intensity of the environment feeds into my work.

The long journey from home to the city and back encapsulates that intensity. With space and time to think you can begin to answer a different set of questions. What makes me happy? What is essential? Or as Marcus Aurelius put, “Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” In the rush of city life, the days bleed together and it’s easy for the life you want to remain something that you wanted.

Everything takes a little longer in the countryside. We’ve all got more time, and fill it with conversation, food and family. Slowing down has made each experience richer, more fully lived. It’s like watching a movie at half speed, and noticing all the incredible detail you didn’t before. My other work has taken on the same plodding pace of the country. I’ve achieved more than I was in fits and spurts of activity. Festina Lente - Make Haste Slowly.

The city is a monument to our mastery of the natural world. If you desire is to conquer, to innovate, to create, it energises you. But in a world frozen in time with nowhere for that energy to go it can be maddening. The only option for the bold and brilliant is to sit and wait in quiet contemplation. In the long wait, as I contemplated, I discovered that my soul yearns for something else.

It yearns for the twisting, broken bridges of countryside trails.

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