England expresses itself for me, in music, countryside and ale, and the unique if heterogeneous institution in which English ale is served, the pub.  This weekend was much about the English countryside, that man-made assemblage of natural elements, and something also about pubs and beers, the whole held together with history, modern and ancient.   Some of the history was personal.

We were visiting a friend whom I have known since he was four and I was six, but discontinuously, certainly more off than on.  As my 70th birthday party approached and I decided to try to bring together only those who were very important to me, so began a search for R. I use his real initial since I don’t think he would be embarrassed by my affection for him, indeed, would regard it as the natural order of a familiar ritual, long-established, if infrequently celebrated.  I rediscovered him in the early part last year, after the most recent gap in our friendship of some 14 years.  We met in a country pub in his adopted county and I reintroduced him to K, whom I think he may not have met previously other than at K and I’s London informal wedding reception, which took place – yes, you are getting into the spirit of the piece – in a pub.

At last year’s country pub reunion, with characteristic generosity, he immediately invited us to drive across the county from the north-east to the south-west to visit his home.  Since we were on our only non-driving day of that weekend we said that we would instead visit a Roman villa, which turned out to be almost as far away.  But the invitation having been renewed at the birthday party, this weekend we were off.

His part of England is of honey stone villages and market towns set amongst soft-shaped hills and some broad and exposed and other narrow, secretive, river valleys (water plays a strong part of the landscape).  Like all intrinsically beautiful places it attracted the ancients, and the town his village is set next to was the second biggest in Roman Britain, commanding some strategic roads to all parts of the province.  The area also accumulated wealth in sheep in medieval times, and concentrations of the commuting or retired London rich more recently, whilst it is currently notorious for some of the dealings between the Murdoch’s and their senior hirelings and David Cameron.  The biggest most beautiful houses and ravishing gardens of the rich and powerful of the early twentieth century are now open to the public either as showpieces or upscale hotels; their twenty-first century equivalents still keep their secrets behind automatic gates and long drives.

Our weekend there started with a drive from his house to a derelict canal, which entered, through a grand stone portal, a tunnel running some kilometers under the hills. Although some distance away, the canal is under restoration, this section is not in use, but the water had a cold, mineral transparency under which the water plants seemed frozen.  Despite this it runs quickly and this quality lies behind plans to use the canal system to transfer water from the wet west and north to the dry south and east, in a liquid national grid.  A duck flew off from the tow path, leaving a clutch of eggs behind.  Afterwards, lunch in a pub one would hope to feature in paradise, in fact to be paradise if it had bedrooms.

The next morning found us walking in pale sunlight in the paradise garden, in a narrow woody valley next the canal, at the other end of the tunnel, but now parallel to the local river.  Most of the canal water seemed to have drained into the river, because the derelict canal locks were now precipitous drops of four or five metres to the lock floor. Willows and birches had been pollarded here, sheltering bluebells and white stellar flowers of wild garlic, and some early summer butterflies: a bright active orange tip and a gorgeous sleepy peacock.  The bluebells still needed time and temperature to develop their full scent, and so the valley was dominated by the garlic smell, which reminded us of lunch, and encouraged us through the woods towards lunch, in another pub, which sadly was far from paradisiacal and very long arriving.

On the second morning we went to the local museum, named after the Roman name of the town, and containing some spectacular mosaics found in the town itself and villas hereabouts and wall plasters, some geometrical, some simply painted with those characteristic Roman blacks, reds and browns which always put me in mind of Mark Rothko (much of Rothko seems to me windows onto ancient or inaccessible worlds, windows that don’t allow you to pass through, but which trap you in the passing, claustrophobically, like death).  Despite its grandeurs the museum, like a recent television series, celebrated the ordinary Romans who had lived there, and tried to characterise their varied lives through real objects and imagined personal narratives. Children were clearly privileged customers and would have a good time here.

The museum was strong on what came before and after the Roman period.  In imperial decline, we saw the gradual modification and disuse of parts of the ancient town.  The forum was divided in two: perhaps some parts of it were put beyond use as the economy shrunk. Those who lived through those times must have been conscious of something of a crisis, but with periods of gradual change far outnumbering more dramatic episodes.  Few would have had a sense of irreversibility, of cultural loss, of the decline and fall of an empire, and of course European empires of the 19th and 20th centuries sharpened the contrasts in the story of ancient Rome for use as a model and a warning.  Outside, in the modern town’s marketplace, one of the biggest hotels was freshly painted but entirely boarded up…