How best to appreciate a new environment when it’s not as picturesque as we might like? After a move from England’s scenic seaside to one of its less glamorous cities, a writer applies her powers of observation—and ﬁnds her surroundings transformed. Text by Sarah Moss. Illustrations by Stina Persson
I used to live in Cornwall. It’s a sad sentence. People’s faces drop as if I’d said, “I used to be happy.” What happened? they ask. Why did you leave? Cornwall is a county on England’s narrow southwestern peninsula, once known for seafaring, smuggling, and ﬁshing. The region was mined for slate, tin, and silver from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, though now Cornwall’s main business is tourism. The ﬂora and fauna are different from what’s found elsewhere in England. The Cornish language is Celtic, similar to Welsh or Breton. There’s a Cornish nationalist movement, and in some ways, it feels like another country.
I used to live in a whitewashed 17th-century cottage with camellia trees at the gate, and the trees used to ﬂower all winter. I used to stand on the toilet lid while I brushed my teeth, so I could put my head out the window and see past the grand Georgian townhouses to the sea. I used to walk my kids to school along the South West Coast Path, a long-distance hiking trail following every indent of the jagged peninsula, and in winter we used to see the sunrise over the water. I used to take photos when I went to the bank, or to buy milk because the beauty of the Fal Estuary—the bobbing sailboats and the green headland with its ancient castle—never stopped surprising me.
Now I live in a 1920s semi-detached house in suburban Coventry, a small city in the West Midlands that was once a centre of manufacturing and is as far from the sea as you can be in England. My area is nice enough. Coventry tries hard, but England’s beautiful landscapes are far away. It was badly bombed in World War II, the post-war rebuilding was hastily done, and the industries that had sustained the city for decades withered and died in the 1980s. I feel vaguely protective of the place. It’s a young, diverse city with a proud tradition of welcoming refugees who bring energy, expertise, and interesting food. People are friendly and the drivers unusually polite. The cycling infrastructure is excellent because there used to be bike factories. But let’s just say tourists don’t come here often.
We left Cornwall for sensible reasons, mostly related to work and schools. Cornwall is spectacular, but, as the locals say, you can’t eat the view. Most jobs are low-paid, seasonal, and casual. At the local high school, there were stories of hair set on ﬁre and knife ﬁghts on the playground. Still, I mourned when we arrived in the West Midlands. The bluebells at the roadsides here reminded me of the bluebell woods stretching down to the sea there. I would cycle out onto the country lanes and make the best of bramble hedges and birdsong, but there were always industrial parks behind the woods and the noise of trafﬁc in the air. Still, I don’t want to live in discontent. I am too young—everyone is too young—for constant nostalgia. I didn’t need to love the West Midlands, but we’d be here for 10 years and I needed to learn to enjoy the place for itself rather than picking out what reminded me most of where I wasn’t.
I started by changing the scale, which is one of the exercises I often use in writing workshops. Go outside, I tell my students and ﬁnd something you don’t mind picking up. Anything at all: a leaf if you’re somewhere with leaves, a stone (gravel will do), a blade of grass. The more advanced version could include a discarded bus ticket or an empty bottle— whatever the world has brought to your feet. Touch it, look at it, think about how it grew or was created, where it began, and what carried it to you. If you have a magnifying glass, use it. If the object is man-made, consider who made it, where, and why. What was the weather like there, how did the air smell, what did people eat for lunch?
The point is the speciﬁcity of your encounter with this object, the coincidence of your stories. It’s more obvious to change the scale the other way, to look at the moon or the sunset, but in the middle distance, I started to notice the shapes of particular trees on my bike rides and runs, to enjoy murmurations of starlings and the overhead passages of migrating geese. After all, spring comes everywhere.
The next stage was the city itself. Coventry was once a medieval city famous for its many spires, its monastic buildings and ancient streets. On the night of November 14 , 1940, German aerial bombardment left nothing but rubble and ﬂames. Fireﬁghters on the roof were unable to save the 14th-century cathedral, and most of those who had stayed in the city that night died. In the 1950s, Coventry was planned and rebuilt for a new generation, careful attention given to the needs and comfort of its battered population.
There’s little provision for cars in the centre, but ready access for pedestrians and cyclists. Covered arcades were intended to allow shoppers to stroll in comfort whatever the weather, wide walkways accommodated strollers, and the streets were oriented around the library, a new public sports centre, a new indoor market, and the new cathedral. The ideas and design were generous, but the task of rebuilding Britain was huge and the resources were limited.
It’s easy to admire the new cathedral, a stunning answer to the question asked across Europe in those days about what to do with sites of trauma. European towns and villages have always been built around churches, so what do communities do after the church is bombed or burned out or has become the site of an atrocity? If left as a memorial, there’s a wound at the town’s heart, a constant reminder of what was lost when you’re only trying to buy potatoes. If rebuilt entirely, as in the city of Dresden, the trauma is denied, repression planted.
In Coventry, the old cathedral stands roofless, its sandstone stumps rain-sculpted, the traceries of the stained glass holding the only sky. But at an angle to the ruin, pushed out of the correct east-west alignment by it, stands Basil Spence’s new cathedral, a hymn to the new materials of concrete and plate glass. I love it because it’s the creation of war, made by craftspeople haunted by their experiences but ready to bring the technologies of military hardware to a new and better purpose. The West Screen, standing between new and old cathedrals, between hope and anguish, swirls with raucous angels who look skeletal, enraged, triumphant.
The rest of the city is harder to befriend, but the more I learned, the more I admired. The trick is the same as my writing exercise: ask who built it like that. Why? What were their hopes and inspirations? How was the world, the country, the city, the street in those days? Which hands shaped it, which feet have known it, which dreams and fears ghost its windows and doors? To whom might this building have seemed beautiful, and why?
For now, most of us have to stay local. If we are to see anything new, it will be the familiar made strange. I won’t pretend that a new way of looking is any permanent substitute for new places to see, but maybe we can learn to see better while we wait.