Hart of the Matter
It is often said - and I should know because I’ve often said it – that one of Haverhill’s problems is that it does not have a particular image to conjure up in the mind of visitors.
Newmarket has horses, Bury has the abbey, Sudbury has Gainsborough and Cambridge the university. Haverhill has nothing so prominent and, as nature abhors a vacuum, that vacuum has tended to be filled by an imagined notion, left over from the 1970s, that it is a violent, criminal or dangerous place.
Nothing could be further from the truth nowadays of course, because it has one of the lowest crime rates for a town of its size in East Anglia, and considerably lower than the other aforementioned tourist magnets.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of truth in the old proverb ‘Beware what you wish for’. This week two high-profile names have surfaced again – Hungerford and Dunblane. I’ve been to Hungerford and it is an attractive market town in pleasant countryside. I haven’t stopped in Dunblane, but it has a cathedral and was the childhood home town of Andy Murray.
These attributes are submerged within the inevitable sense of horror which mention of their names arouses. We don’t yet know if the latest shootings will attach in people’s minds to Whitehaven itself or to Cumbria, or West Cumbria.
As they covered a wider area than their predecessors it may be one of the latter two, and I hope so, because if anywhere in England can survive being labelled with a massacre and still retain a completely separate image in the public mind it must be Cumbria and the Lake District in general. Whitehaven alone would have no chance.
So we in Haverhill should perhaps consider ourselves lucky that the town has not featured with such notoriety and is, nationally, fairly anonymous. People don’t even know how to pronounce it properly when it rarely and briefly emerges into national view. Thank goodness.
I have been thinking this week of two places overwhelmed by disaster – the first being the scene of these shootings because I know that area very well. The second is a very different kind of disaster and one which has been turned into a byword for grit and fighting spirit – Dunkirk. It has been the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force by the armada of little ships, and 30 years ago I spent a week there covering the 40th anniversary events and got to know it well.
Both are very beautiful places in a very different way, and the association of horrific events with them is hard to contemplate.
In common with many walkers, I know the Woolpack Inn in Boot, opposite where Derrick Bird shot himself. There is a particularly beautiful footpath that winds its way beside the River Esk and past Doctors Bridge, a splendid old stone arch which carries a narrow track to a nearby farm once owned by Beatrix Potter.
As far as one can gather from the still rather confused coverage, it was in woodland just around here that his rampage ended, apparently one of his favourite spots. Many might agree.
The Esk Valley is the gateway to many of the grandest mountains in the district and, although it has no lake, the view of its pleasant pastureland between the fellsides and leading towards the sea and a distant glimpse of the Isle of Man which one sees from the top of Hard Knott Pass must be one of the most idyllic in the whole of our glorious country.
It seems impossible, on a stunningly beautiful day as Tuesday was, to associate such a place with anything so horrendous. But we are beginning to see on TV moments among the residents of West Cumbria that bring it home that this really did happen, to them and to people they knew and loved.
Equally, when you stand out on the seemingly endless beaches at Dunkirk with the wide sky above, the dunes far behind and the sea lapping gently in the distance ahead, you find it hard to relate it to the nightmare which has become familiar to viewers of recent reconstruction documentaries, or of the blockbuster film Atonement, and which was all too real to those who went through it.
I remember walking out over a mile from the dunes towards the sea one night, until the shore lights had become pinpricks less bright than the stars and the phosphorous in the tiny pools left by the receding tide, and trying to relate the environment around to what had happened there. I failed.
One evening in a bar in nearby De Panne with a group of veterans, most of whom must be dead now, we were all drinking some surprisingly nice Belgian beer when the sound of Vera Lynn singing The White Cliffs Of Dover came over the speakers and the room fell silent and their faces all took on a far away expression, as they thought of the comrades they had lost. In the end, it’s the survivors that provide the link.