There are few things I find more tedious and boring than driving on England's M6 motorway. Typical of almost any major highway, it weaves a line through England to the borders of Scotland like a spinal column on an x-ray film. Its blue appearance on the map belies the truth of its characterless concrete and tarmac contours with six lanes of traffic, sometimes moving, sometimes not.
At the end of a weekend with my friend Will in Birmingham, I'm again heading home on the motorway that I once saw described with an armful of topspin as 'Britain's gateway to the North.' Traffic is heavy but moving freely while the advised stopping distances between vehicles remain blissfully unobserved. Different colored metal boxes jostle for position as scenery flashes by in a seventy miles per hour blur. You've entered the race with no winners, no prizes, no glamor, and no glory, you're on the M6, 'Britain's gateway to the North.'
I barrel past familiar landmarks in an effort to get home before the sun makes it to the horizon; past the ugly glass RAC control center, the huge stores at junction nine and the turning for the M54 which offers me a last opportunity to take the scenic (if much more time-consuming) route home on the A41.
The outside lane is crowded bumper to bumper, passing all the Derricks and Hildas who are pottering along at no more than sixty miles an hour in the middle lane, leaving the inside lane as empty as a road to nowhere. Tell them they are driving without consideration for other road users and they would most likely reel off the fact that they've been driving for fifty-two years and never been involved in an accident as if that statistic alone somehow validates their road hogging antics.
I casually glance beyond the confines of the motorway around me. It's turning out to be a truly spectacular evening, the end of an unexpected summer weekend. At the beginning of September the British summer, which is as temperamental as a teenager, decided to up and leave without so much of a goodbye. It took with it what little warmth it still had to offer, and left us with the feeling that a long winter was just around the corner. But when I awoke on Saturday morning the sky was blue and the air was warm. It seemed that summer had returned to perform a much-appreciated encore.
In the distance to my right, the low sun has transformed a large English period manor house into a towering bronze beacon atop a lush green hill that appears to have escaped unnoticed when time passed by. My original plan was to get home to watch the sunset over the Irish Sea, but as the next exit approaches, I decide on a last-minute diversion. With no real knowledge of exactly where I am, I leave the M6 and head into the usually unnoticed scenery in search of that house on the hill.
Within just a few minutes the rushing motorway seems a world away. With my windows open and my sunroof wishing it was a cabriolet, I drive through quiet back roads that seem to encapsulate everything that makes England English. I pass honey-colored fields with hay bales stacked upon one another like lego bricks, down roads lined on each side by trees that cast strobing shadows over my car, and past a red telephone box and bus stop both carefully decorated with colorful potted flowers.
I drive a little further, passing farms and small villages that somehow feel friendly and inviting. I want to find the house on the hill that lured me from my homeward journey, so at every junction, I stop and try to get my sense of direction. Is it left? Is it right? I don't know where either road goes, so I just go with my instinct.
Eventually, I find the house and learn that it is Barlaston Hall the once home of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous pottery that bears his name and is still made at a nearby factory. I stop close to the house and wander for a few moments by the small lake opposite. A heron takes off and elegantly flies across the burnished surface of the water that is dotted with lilies and edged by reeds and small jetties for fisherman to cast their lines.
I feel like I'm inside a painting, and on such a late summer evening as the shadows reach across the ground, England rarely feels more classical than this. I sit down for a few moments to soak up the regal atmosphere, to let my imagination explore the many yesterdays and possible tales that never made it into the history books and have now been lost in the passing of years.
With my curiosity satisfied I start back in the direction of home. I'm in no rush and so avoid taking main roads back to the motorway. Instead, I travel along a narrow lane that actually feels like it's heading in the wrong direction, but I continue nonetheless. After all, what's the worst that could happen?
I stop by a large gate that opens onto a grassy hillside. As the sun begins to set the scene feels almost mystical. It's so quiet here with just the distant song of a dove and the rustling of leaves resembling the sound of the ocean as the trees are brushed with a cool evening breeze.
This is England; it couldn't be anywhere else. Everything is still and peaceful, it looks like innocence captured and feels like the essence of freedom. I begin to walk up the hillside, my shadow stretching behind me as the wispy clouds above begin to turn gold and red. The entire landscape is flooded by nature's infinite splendor, with colors on the edge of autumn exaggerated beyond belief by the last rays of the lowering sun.
I stand under the branches of an oak and wonder what changes this tree must have seen in its long life. It reminds me of my youth and the tree under which my first girlfriend and I cast away our few remaining childhood days, taking wondrous steps we would never take back.
I walked a little further and took a couple of pictures knowing full well that there was no way a camera could take anything from here that was worth holding onto. Most of life's spectacular and poignant moments are simply not possible to reproduce or copy. They possess an element that can't be photographed, filmed, or recorded in any way other than in the memories of those who were there.
The world around me could have disappeared and I wouldn't have noticed. It seemed like the doors of heaven were momentarily left ajar, allowing me a brief glimpse of eternity where time has no meaning, and beauty knows no bounds. I didn't want to leave, how could I? After all, who could see heaven and not want to stay?