A brief email arrives from a friend in Michigan. ‘You might like to see these photos,’ he writes, followed by a link that looks like gibberish. I click on www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/04/more_from_eyjafjallajokull.html. As the images slowly unfold, I begin to understand the power of the volcano that emptied our skies for six whole days and nights.
Until I gazed at the photos, I hadn’t really grasped the terrifying grandeur of the fire and smoke. My sense of awe came from the silence that crept over the countryside like a blessing.
Ah, silence. It’s one of life’s last luxuries. I’m not a woman who looks forward to wearing purple and learning to spit when I’m old. I’m a woman who wants to turn down the volume. I want to stride into shops and restaurants, flash a card like cops do on TV, and stay put until the culprits jerk out all the wires to the sound system. I don’t care if it’s James Blunt, Katie Melua or the Vienna Boys Choir-I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t require ambience; the music designed to calm me triggers rage.
In my own restaurant, I think guaranteed silence is as important as the wine list. The only background music is the muffle of people talking. The sound rules are constantly being refined. For instance, the waiters wear shoes with rubber soles, all the better for gliding silently on the wooden floor. Coffee beans are (supposed to be) ground before the doors open so that all conversation doesn’t come to a halt while the burr of the grinder takes over.
The ‘no cry-babies’ sign is a subtle plea to parents to comfort the howling child so that everyone else doesn’t go crazy. It doesn’t stop there. Although it makes life tough for the gardeners, there’s no mowing or strimming during open hours. Admittedly, the double-barrelled scream of the peacocks (a cry confined to the three months of the mating season) and the mechanical chatter (year round) of the guinea fowl can intrude on the serenity, and Buckie, my Norfolk black turkey, has yet to learn the politics of shutting up. But bird noise is acceptable in a way that the drone of the grain dryer is not. I fight for quietitude.
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But it wasn’t until the Suffolk skies were suddenly empty that I realised I hadn’t heard the original soundtrack of the countryside-birdsong, baas, clucks, moos-for years. Instead, I’ve been listening to the steady hum of airplanes, the fierce drone of the grain dryer and-and this I really hate-the bird scarer on the neighbouring farmer’s oilseed rape. Despite my mission for a quiet life, some days, I feel like I’m reporting from a war zone.
But then again, it could be worse. And on a farm just over an hour from here in Norfolk, it is. It’s a dreamy place called Quaker Farm, a name that conjures up horse-power and pastoral peace. I first saw it in 1997 when I gave the owners Peter and Gill Cook a CLA award for their conversion of the Spixworth Hall stables to holiday cottages. Over the years, I’ve recommended it as a place of perfect rural peace.
But even this patch of paradise has a cracked sky. The nearby Norwich Airport has applied for an ‘increase in engine testing’-think brain-rattling roars-and the main company testing its engines there, KLM, has demanded permission from the county councillors to be able to test whenever and wherever it wants, including testing every day of the year. It hollers ‘it’s vital for safety’, but, in fact, for safety’s sake, all the testing gear should be miles away from the population.
The six-day armistice of empty skies was a reminder that we don’t know what we have until we’ve lost it. We can’t stop planes from flying, but if we destroy the gentle peace of rural communities, we will all live in the shadow of man-made volcanoes.