Summertime and the weather is . . . bracing

I went westward to Saffron Walden on the Saturday after the Royal Wedding. The artist James Dodds was opening an exhibition of his work in the town’s Church Street Gallery.

I was also due there, to do a couple of readings that afternoon. With Catherine, James’ wife driving, Hilary and I got into the car with them and we set off.

Cue my annual weather rant. The weather was doing what it very often does at this time of year on this coast – a bracing easterly gale was blowing. Every year, without fail, the sun gets warm and then, the wind comes in to ruin it. You can wake up, look out of the window, hear the birds singing, see the sun blazing and be lulled into thinking that the day looks like a great idea. Then, as soon as you get outdoors, there’s that old easterly nagging away at you like a resentful ex-partner who now wants the lightbulbs and curtains back, as well as the toaster and the washing machine.

Mostly, however, it’s only coastal Suffolk, north Essex and the ragged rump of Kent which enjoy such ‘cooling breezes.’. Look at the weather map. Everyone a few miles inland is getting 21 degrees centigrade. Not us, matey. Nope, we’ll have a measly 14 degrees, along with a freezing half a gale which hasn’t let up since it left Siberia. Well, you’re not here to enjoy yourself are you?

Then, when the wind abates at last, we’re even rubbish at having summer. It’s almost guaranteed, of course, that at some point towards mid June – after weeks of pouring rain – the weather goes straight into “hot’n’humid,” as the pregnant TV weather-presenter calls it. And that’s another thing. Why do all the women weather presenters keep getting pregnant? Not that it’s any of my business, but towards the end of their term, when the bump’s grown, you can’t even see the weather map properly, can you? I think we should go back to having no-nonsense, 1950s-style forecasters – like Laurie West.

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Laurie West was the TV first weatherman I ever saw. I’d have been about seven years old, I suppose. He was a sterling middle-aged chap, with a moustache, a pinstripe suit and an air of Battle of Britain about him. He didn’t muck about with fancy computer graphics. Instead, he used cumbersome magnetic cloud symbols which he’d slap onto the weather map with a reassuring and resounding clunk. Sometimes, they slid down or fell off the board completely – a thing which as a child, I used to rather look forward to. But at least you felt that you were getting proper weather, with a chap who knew the correct way to tap a barometer in the morning and exactly when to say “harumph” afterwards.

I sometimes wonder what he’d think if he came back now and found teams of hulking great 30-year-olds, flapping around the streets in brightly-coloured children’s shorts, in a freezing wind, just because it looked a bit sunny.

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All of this aside, when we finally reach the lovely town of Saffron Walden, only 40 miles west of Wivenhoe, it’s warm, the wind’s dropped to a pleasant zephyr and everybody’s happy. Saffron Walden has the biggest parish church in Essex and is full of well-kept ancient buildings, most of which haven’t yet been ruined by developers.

At about 2pm, with my first reading over, we go looking for lunch and encounter one of those peculiarly modern dining-out experiences. Hilary and I walk into a big empty pub and ask if they’re still serving. The girl at the bar says, yes and then begins to ask us a number of questions which we must first answer before we may proceed. This involves something to do with a table, the issue of a number, a wooden spoon and for all I know, a password in a language now only spoken on certain islands which lie off the Danish coast.

Hilary and I look at each other in wonderment for a moment and then, together, ask the girl: “What is the system, here?” She explains that we must first pick a table and then get a number. Someone will then come and attend to us, by which time we should have picked up a smattering of the language that the password is in.

It’s all far too complicated for me. I only wanted a ploughman’s lunch. So we give up and find another place. Here, the service is great and they don’t have a system, just food and drink. We order what more cosmopolitan people might call a meze and what I insist on calling a Greek ploughman’s – which it is, really.

My second reading over, the four of us get into the car and Catherine sets the Satnav on Pretty Way Back. We take the nearest tiny lane out of a village called Wimbish* and follow the android’s instructions. Our journey, across the west Essex wealds, through tiny hamlets was one of the most exquisite car trips I’d ever accidentally enjoyed. At one point, we ended up on a bridleway and had to turn around and go back the way we came. It took us two hours to get home. I’d love to recommend the route to more adventurous readers but I actually have no idea where we were.

*Wimbish – Old Low German, meaning: “ Feeling hungry following a hangover but still only able to cope with a lightly-poached egg.”

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