My sister-in-law and I were speeding, probably rather too fast, down the mighty expressway, the A38, which connects Devon with the rest of the world.
On the way there were many strange names. Not as strange as Cornwall, mind you: some of their names could well have come from a chance encounter with someone from another planet. But quaint to the point of eccentricity.
Like Chudleigh. And Bovey Tracey; or try Coombe Fishacre, and Ugborough, and Yellowberries Copse.
So there we were, flying along with the warm fat Devon summer air on our faces, and we happened upon the sign for a most singular place: a place called Rattery.
Someone once said something about me. They observed dryly:”She’s like a dumb blonde; except that she’s not dumb and she’s not blonde.”
Occasionally, my mouth will engage and begin speaking independently of my brain. And this was such a time. With a Julie Andrews fresh British open and enquiring mind, I wondered aloud: “I wonder if there was once a rattery there?”
About five seconds passed, while we both processed what I had just said.
And then we roared. The thought of someone keeping some mediaeval hotel for needy vermin; husbanding the little pitter-pattering scavengers for some long-lost purpose long since buried in the pages of some ancient herbal: it was just too good. If no one had written a book about it, then someone should.
Just for the record, then, I should inform you that Rattery is recorded in the Domesday Book as Ratreu: some say it is a variant of “red tree.”
I am very fortunate. My sister-in-law is every bit as absorbed with odd details as I, and she did not look at me as if I were odd. She howled because she might have asked similar questions in similar circumstances.
It’s a state of mind, this wondering.
Down every English path there is a question; on every English street, in every English house. Plants are stuffed with questions, animals teeming with them. A motorway shouts them at you as if it is at some subversive party; a garden murmurs them like some whispering earth-mother.
And museums. Don’t get me started on museums. It is like standing in the centre of a great symposium at coffee time, everyone munching their biscuits and chatty questions moving from group to group, cross-referencing and finding like questions with whom to hob-nob.
Questions romance my head and my heart. They astound me every day. I am a wonderer by trade.
Not everyone, I have discovered, thinks like this.
Many people know what they like and like what they know.
Perhaps it is because I live in the human equivalent of Tolkein’s Hobbiton: a shire where people earn their money and live in little places they make into palaces, enjoying many of the privileges this 21st century globe has to offer.
Or perhaps it’s because we travel at breakneck speed through a life designed by people who think it’s all about the answers.
For whatever reason, I still get the strangest looks from the majority of hobbits when I wonder about the unconscious, or the miracle of the nucleus, or Shakespeare’s Globe, or magpies.
At these times one could seriously do with a Gandalf: someone from the spheres who has been wondering for even longer than ourselves.
But Gandalfs are few and far between.
John Milton was one such Gandalf: he filled his work full of references and metaphors and little bits and pieces which served his purpose. And it was he who told us:
“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
It is customary to wax lyrical about this 21st century and the toxic childhood it provides, the paucity of time, the rising numbers of disintegrating relationships, lives which earn more but are less lived.
Yet, for someone who chooses to wonder, life has never been so good. I can glance at a motorway sign for a place name, whip out an iPhone and find its origin. What would once have been a tedious journey becomes a heaven, a fund of information about the places we are passing.I can research and write articles like this one, day in, day out, accessing scientific papers and online historical source material. I can pull up a biography by using just the tips of my fingers.
All it takes, to move from hell to heaven, is to dare to wonder. To step out of line, and begin to ask questions. To endure the puzzlement of the inhabitants of the shire because, ultimately, it is the questions, and not the answers, which pave the way to paradise.
I make no apologies: I shall, I am, and always shall be, a wonderer.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: I Wonder. You can find her, and join in, here.
Feature picture from wbmgroundworksltd.co.uk
Devon map from http://www.Devon.gov.uk