The ITV drama series Foyle’s War includes an eposide set in 1940 against the background of Britain’s negotiations with the United States to receive fifty ships to strengthen the Royal Navy in its defence of the beleaguered country. Fears of invasion are real and an atmosphere of suspicion is ever present. One of the characters in the episode is called Colin Morton, he is a photographer for the local newspaper and questions arise about him because of his appearance and night time incident: what was he doing out in the countryside in the early hours of the morning?
Morton, it transpires, is a “trekker,” it was a word I had never heard before in such a context. Trekkers were those who went out from the towns and cities to escape the dangers of the air raids that were causing destruction and death. Remote, dark and silent places offered a sense of being away from the danger of the bombs.
Of course, nowhere was one hundred per cent safe. In our rural parish, deep in the heart of Somerset, a stick of six bombs fell one night, blowing in the windows of the evangelical chapel at Low Ham and causing injury to one villager. But standing on the edge of our village and looking up at the night sky, there was a momentary insight into what it was the trekkers sought. There is a sense of safety in the countryside that is not found elsewhere.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the remoteness and the darkness that some people might fear, rather than being something threatening, can be reassuring. Perhaps it is necessary that the remote spot be your own place, and that the darkness conceals not the unfamiliar, but a landscape where you know the buildings and the trees and the hedgerows hidden in the shadows.
It is approaching eighty years since the trekkers journeyed out into the countryside, travelled out through communities where the blackout brought a deep darkness, into a countryside that was strange and unfamiliar and where their presence might quickly arouse suspicion – but were the tradition to revive it would not seem so strange.
Silence and solitude can become rare experiences. Traffic rolls down motorways all through the night, filling stations and shops are open twenty-four hours, work continues all through the night; to find somewhere where everything has stopped can sometimes be a challenge. Of course, a momentary experience can be enough, sleeping in the open country would be too much for an ageing body.
Now that was a programme with a palpable sense of menace that had little to do with the Germans. I think it somehow grabbed and held the social controls of the time where the twin shadows of the noose and the workhouse was always there.