2 months ago

This Wonderful Little Place … In Umbria


Author and former actress Kate Nicholls is no stranger to off the beaten track locations, having lived in Botswana, but her most recent favourite place is in Italy, as she explains …

“A book is not a book. A book is a world on a page.” My seven-year-old son Oakley wrote those Dickinsonian lines one morning, during a poetry lesson he was having with his siblings, under the camelthorn tree in our tented camp in the Okavango Delta. Like him, as a child, I had done my “travelling” in the pages of books and dreamed of marching into the world carrying a stick and knotted hanky over my shoulder. It didn’t quite work out that way. Five children later, and aged 40, my first big travel adventure was leaving England to raise my family in Botswana. Why? Because living in a developing country would give the children a perspective of the world they wouldn’t get in the safety of the Cotswold Hills. Travelling as a mother has integrated homemaking.
When they were little, even our vehicle was home. To Travers, Angus, Maisie, Emily and Oakley being bundled into the beds in the back of our old converted army ambulance and being driven through the night to Zambia to go camping on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river was just a regular half-term holiday from home-school. Simple adventures that thrilled us to the core.

My favourite little place lives in my mind’s eye: it has gone back to the wild now, and that’s as it should be. The elephants have wounded the camelthorn tree that shaded our tented camp for over eleven years, and childish footprints have been obliterated by herds of impala grazing on the brittle grass growing over the river-sand volleyball “court”. Yet, I can still feel the joy of driving back from the lions after dark and glimpsing the hurricane lamps twinkling through the trees. I can still smell the mushroom scent of night-cooled sand thrown up by seed studded tyres as I parked the car beside our kitchen tent. I can picture the children busily laying the table by candle-light and hear them shouting across camp to a sibling taking a shower under a tree: “Mum’s back … dinner’s ready!” I can sense the firelight on my skin as we settled in for the evening around the campfire. The smell of hot candle wax, wild-sage and warm, grubby child lives in my memory and brings tears to my eyes.

Travelling with my grown-up children is no less exciting: Maisie and I visited Angus, who was living in Chile, and it was life-changing. We all fell in love with the Bolivian jungle. Maisie so much so, she moved to Peru where she spends half the year as artist in residence in various biological research stations. I had a moment high on the Alto Plano that settled a corner of my heart forever. The wild, raw, courageous beauty of the high Andes is unlike any I have experienced. It may sound pretentious, but I felt it cleaned my soul. The scale is overwhelming, and the tenacity of life is exemplified by the patchwork of dogged lichens growing on boulders that would dwarf Stonehenge. Despite a slipped disc I had to climb among the stones to pay homage to these ancient associative organisms surviving on sunlight between grains of rock. One night in a hut somewhere in the Andes, I suffered altitude sickness and calmly thought I was going to die. I experienced no fear, just a sense of wonder: what a way to go. Happily, I did not breathe my last, and one day I will go back to that apricot space: a bit of me belongs there.

Now Italy is the home of my heart. I never expected to love a city, but Rome has captured me. I love this grand, cosy, tender, anarchic city. Its warmth, its light, its lichen, and its simple sense of being. It has no need to brag or puff itself up. It reveals its wonders gently. As I write, I am in bed watching the olive waters of the Tiber roll on by, and sunlight squeezing through the leaves of a sycamore tree is casting dappled light on my terracotta floor. Later, I will walk up the hill and forage wild food in the Pamphili park, and tomorrow I will be going to stay with Maisie in Umbria to see the stone house in the hills she has made home.

I think that may become my newest favourite little place.

Under the Camelthorn Tree by Kate Nicholls, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out now in paperback, £9.99stg.


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