Writing in the 1920s, soon after the Great War and the loss of her husband, Helen Thomas recalled a trip that they had made together to the Wiltshire downs. From her description of the cottage in which they stayed and the natural world around it, it is clear that this experience of the countryside made a very great impression on Helen. One particular passage resonates with me and provides perhaps the best description of the silence that the countryside delivers. Helen wrote ‘No other sound was to be heard, no trams, no people, no traffic, nothing but the sounds that do not spoil silence, but rather deepen it…’
For me, such words capture the true strength of the countryside and its stillness. It is not a silent world but one in which natural sounds enhance the sense of peace and welcome comfort. Helen’s husband to be, accompanying her on this first trip, was Edward Thomas, a poet, reviewer and writer on nature and the countryside. Edward, like Helen, was a great walker. Prone to bouts of deep melancholy, he would sometimes stride from the house angry and bitter to seek relief through long hours spent alone, pacing through the countryside. Edward Thomas found peace in nature, the welcoming stillness of the countryside allowing him to battle his inner demons.
The countryside has changed a great deal since that time and the sounds of human activity reach even the most remote parts of our small island. Traffic noise insinuates itself throughout much of the day and passenger jets add a deeper background rumble. Neither, however, is as intrusive as the roar of military planes flying low and fast or the sharp retort of sporting guns. Such abrupt sounds penetrate the calm in a manner that cannot be ignored.
It is only during the hours of night that a sense of stillness can truly be felt, as our activities dwindle though never quite ceasing altogether. Then, even in the middle of a town as dusk slips towards dark, the stillness descends, the evening song of robin and blackbird becoming more resonant, deepening the silence. The air feels heavier; you begin to pick out other natural sounds and feel more at one with your surroundings.
As individuals we benefit from the stillness of the natural world and the opportunity to settle within its embrace. It provides space for reflection, increases our sense of place and, importantly, is free from the sounds that would otherwise claw at our attention. We are so busy filtering out the artificial, day-to-day sounds of the world around us, that we lose sight of the natural world and, by doing so, lose the all-important bond that helps to keep us rooted.