My inappropriate laughter at the sight of plastic flowers conveniently weighted with (more) plastic to sit in a grave vase echoes along an almost empty aisle. Thankfully, the other shoppers are not long-distracted by my mirth, and continue browsing machine-crafted caravans in miniature (bird houses) and plastic succulents in Perspex mini-greenhouses - the latter thoughtfully provided with an open vent.
Just a few days ago I was meandering through a local cemetery, enjoying the blend of nature and human history, when I came across a neatly-kept granite headstone bearing a memorial to a lady who had passed away in her 84th Year, and to her baby sister who died aged three months, when Hannah would have been 4 years old. Accompanying these etched dates were the memorable lines: 'God has given us our memories that we might have roses in December' which - from the granite and long grass - seemed to conjure the essence of the resilient, self-contained generation of the early 20th century.
So it was that the plastic roses caused my merriment, closely followed by a sense of sadness for freedoms lost: how the ever-present consumer elements of our society today tend to usher people away from memory, self-possession and creating their own set of values, and then tries to fill the vacuum with purchases to 'express style' and 'release inner calm'. But the offering of these tokens is not the point: that people buy them is the indication that society as a whole is losing the essence of what is important in terms of real freedom. As western societies become engaged only in the urban setting, by default we loose awareness of the countryside and the unencumbered horizons, open to possibility, that it provides.
But the forces acting now are different to those in the past. Thus far through history, the process of Enclosure - which has led us to the position where all land is private unless it is stipulated otherwise - has been driven by those in authority and passed-down (often not without complaint) to those less able to protect their rights. This issue forms the core theme of Nick Hayes' recent 'The Book of Trespass'. Now, society seems to be embracing our own enclosure in to the built environment - willingly, repeatedly, focusing on the detail of home-wares, and the minutiae of celebrity lifestyle , even when regular calls to heed the plight of the wider world can barely go unnoticed.
The disconnect between plastic roses - manufactured on the far side of the world, in a factory with few (if any) environmental regulations, then shipped 6000 miles to the UK, to discompose to wildlife-endangering components in a green churchyard - and the inscription on the headstone I had read only days is huge. A chasm exists between the mindset of the lady who asked for this beautiful epitaph, and the world we inhabit today - a separation not only of time but in the extent of urban development.
Un-branded, un-labeled space in which to think, dream and murmur, away from the context of consumerism that touches many aspects of our lives in towns and cities, is in rapid decline, replaced with private property. Fields with paths morph in to housing estates with parks, and we have less opportunity to get away from the pressures of our productive life, and re-create our selves.
Before 2026, all public rights of way need to be claimed to ensure they are not lost, and at the price of wet legs and minor nettlings, I am happy to walk those paths I can reach, to help keep them open for the future. As the urban setting gets larger and more intense, the fragile tendrils of ancient public rights of way that cross private land are our link to imagining our own futures, and enjoying our memories.
And I will return to this epitaph in granite in December, with some fresh roses.
The Book of Trespass - crossing the lines that divide us: Nick Hayes (published 2021)
Don't Lose your Way campaign to save footpaths in England and Wales - here.
The story about Rosina and Hannah Saunders, on my Explore my Story website - here.