Letter from England

My wife and I have been promised a ferret race.

We stand outside a temporary low fence enclosing the supposed racing grounds, watching a short, elderly British man dressed in vaguely leprechaun-ish attire repeat the same four or five sentences into a microphone, a sort of half-assed carnival barking scheme that did in fact manage to draw us in. He hypes the incredible speed—“Don’t blink, you’ll miss the race”—explains that he and his wife run a ferret rescue center, picks up one lithe little creature after another and brings them to small cages that form the starting line.

We wait, and wait some more, and lean on the fence, and wait some more, and remark to each other that this is an awful lot of buildup for a race that our host has repeatedly insisted will last only the briefest of periods. We wonder how the ferrets feel about all this.

Eventually, by spontaneous mutual agreement, we abandon the fence and the ferrets. This can’t possibly be worth it, we seem to both say at once, and head off in the general direction of a wood-carving—with chainsaws!—competition. It is incredibly loud, but at least the thing that has been promised is on display, unlike the ferret race.

We found this unlikely smorgasbord of attractions at a sort of county fair event in late May in Stamford, a small and beautiful town around an hour and a half north of London. The fair has occupied the grounds of Burghley House, a majestic Elizabethan building finished in 1587 that I am still amazed is just sort of the thing next door to where we live. I have spent the past year going for runs past a random giant mansion in the countryside that is two hundred years older than the United States, the country we left on purpose before ending up in the UK by accident.

We left home near Philadelphia in mid-2019, selling our house and car and most of our stuff and aiming to be nomadic for a while. By dumb luck we were in England when the pandemic hit, so we wrangled a way to stay: jobs, visas, a rented house and some used furniture hastily purchased on Facebook. Stamford just happened to be the nicest thing closest to those jobs.

The town is ancient, with alleyways supposedly used by the Romans and a disproportionately huge collection of medieval churches. The whole place seems to be the color of fading tan stone, with even the new buildings camouflaged to fit in with the old. I spent the year walking the same few streets, staring at closed pub doors and wondering what living here would be like if things were actually open. But the outsides of the buildings became more than familiar—you can really get to know a place when walking around it is the only viable activity. I found more and more hidden nooks and courtyards; I offered directions to people with more locally relevant accents staring confusedly down twisting alleys; I gave dogs I didn’t know but saw constantly names in my head.

But then the lockdowns start to lift, and we try a few more restaurants and meet some people at a New Orleans-themed bar, and wander the ten minutes over toward Burghley as things like the county fair begin to proliferate. On one weekend, an equestrian event; on another, a display of classic cars. The outdoor market that runs in town every Friday has weathered all but the strictest of lockdown periods, and now seems as packed as it could ever have been—though given the timing of our arrival, of course, who are we to say.

On the grounds at Burghley, we last in front of the chainsaw sculptors for only a couple of minutes, watching as thick stumps slowly start to reveal an owl’s head, a horse maybe, other abstruse forms still hiding in the wood, and massive piles of sawdust begin to collect on the ground. An announcer, screaming into his own microphone in order to be heard above the racket, says something about the competition lasting thirty minutes, prompting another immediate mutually agreed departure.

Away from the chainsaws and the ferret-related disappointment, we wander past some more standard fair fare—small rides for kids, an ice cream truck, a band of white-haired jazz players all dressed in orange tee shirts. But then there are the absurdly British twists—falconry demonstrations, a skeet shooting range set up across the small river in which a dozen deliriously happy dogs are romping. We stand and watch for a minute as an old-timey, steampunk machine cuts massive logs in half (wood is apparently a whole thing at this fair).

It occurs to me that this might be the most people we’ve been around in sixteen months. Masks are scarce, but we’re outside with plenty of space, and much of the country—including us—is at least one vaccine dose in anyway. Staring at the woodcutting contraption’s whirring belts and blades, I think about the plateauing vaccination program back in the United States, and about the various surveys that have found the UK to have among the lowest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the world. As we have told each other over and over through the past year, especially in the damp winter months when the sun barely snuck over the horizon before changing its mind and disappearing for another sixteen hours: there are worse places to get stuck.

We watch the orange-shirted jazz band for a minute or two, the decadent sixteenth-century house at our backs. We eat some ice cream from the truck, and I insist that my wife stand next to a giant sign reading HAMSTERS with zero other context so that I, giggling to myself, can take a picture. We wander through the associated tent where, yes, you can apparently buy a hamster. They’re no ferrets, of course, but at least no one promised us a race.

Dave Levitan