Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Last night, my friend Margaret, bohemian, independent, unmarried and 90 in September, called to tell me that a house we both love is on the market. Grade I listed, 15th-century, moated gardens, chapel, 12 bedrooms, in the same family 400 years.

‘Good god! Why?’

‘They’re splitting up. After 60 years of marriage!’ explained Margaret.

Then I confessed: ‘Actually, I’ve always thought he was a creep. She should have left him years ago.’

‘But, he’s the one who’s gone off. With a younger woman. He didn’t think he’d have to sell the family home, but she got a London lawyer. The thought of someone else living in the house she’d worked her fingers to the bone all these years to keep roofed and heated drove her crazy.’

I’m sitting in the grain store chewing over the moat, the chapel and married life. It’s our 20th anniversary, and the bridegroom is in London while I’m down on the farm on fire patrol. Crop fires, ignited by sparks from flints and stones in the fields, are blazing across Suffolk as harvest takes place in scorching temperatures. When I’m not looking out for smoke signals, I’m sitting in the farmyard worrying. It’s the driest and the hottest summer since 1976.

Still, I’ve found the one patch of the grain store with a breeze, a sanctuary in this prairie of heat and dust where I swig iced tea and read The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, the account of the first expedition through the Grand Canyon by John Wesley Powell. Geolo-gist, teacher, and one-armed veteran of the Civil War (he lost his right arm in the battle of Shiloh), Powell performed the last great feat of exploration on Amer-ican soil, a journey in 1869. He was just 35 at the time, although he didn’t get around to organising his account of it until he was in his early sixties. His entry on August 13, 1869, reads like a prelude to married life: ‘We are now ready to start our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river.’

All week long, I’ve been capsizing in waterfalls, bashing against cliffs, losing guns and food ‘We have but a month’s rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve… the sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river’. I planned to give Powell’s book to my husband on our anniversary, along with an itinerary for a trip to the Grand Canyon. Now the book is dusty and dog-eared, but it has inspired a much better present. Sitting on Lake Bofus, awaiting his return, is a dark green Old Town canoe, made in Maine (where Powell died in 1902). As much as I love long, sleek canoes – length and slenderness mean speed – I chose an Old Town Predator, noted for its stability, dependability and steadiness, qualities that I love in my husband. It’s not the canoe for running the Granite Rapids it’s a still-water canoe, all the better for married life.

There’s no guarantee that we will make it to 60 years, but then there was no guarantee we’d make it to 20. So far, it’s been the longest expedition of my life. I reckon John Wesley Powell could have been writing about marriage on that August day in 1869 when he began his journey: ‘We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not.’

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 3 August 06, 2006.