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Issue Six / Essay
“It was a Christmas unlike any other I had experienced before or since—in a snowy English hollow with strangers who became friends in a house where sailboats are made”

A Wayfarer’s Series: The River Wye

Words by Austin Sailsbury Photographs by Nicole Franzen & Parker Fitzgerald

The wayfarer is one who sets out into the world to find something. Here, the wayfarer is a character in a story of speeding trains and snowy hills near the River Wye at Christmastime.

By the afternoon of the day before Christmas Eve, I had resigned myself to my fate—I would be spending the most nostalgic, tradition-soaked and easily enjoyable day of my year alone, in a deserted flat in soggy central England. Sure, there would be plenty of “Merry Christmas” phone calls and promises of presents in the mail, but it wouldn’t be Mom and Dad, and there wouldn’t be comfort food, and it wouldn’t be home, so it wouldn’t really be Christmas. But who could I blame? I was the one that had chosen to move halfway around the world—I was the one who had gone looking for adventure.

It was into the dark of evening and I was brewing a pot of tea when the buzzer rang, “Hullo, it’s Lucy, can I come up?” Surprised but delighted to hear her bright voice, I buzzed her in and waited in the doorway as she hopped and clopped her jolly self all the way to the fourth floor. Little did I know, as Lucy made her way up the stairs, that she brought with her tidings of great joy—and an invitation to escape the solitude of an extraordinarily lonely holiday. Catching her breath on the landing, she started right into it, “So, I have an idea…”

It was early and wet and cold when we caught the train going west out of Birmingham. On board, the train cars were packed full of holiday travelers all a fuss with coats and children and promising packages. But despite the falling rain and frantic bustle of traffic, there was the overwhelming spirit of red-cheeked goodwill that you’d expect on Christmas Eve; people talked to one another freely across the aisles, old men sipped from shiny morning flasks, and somewhere on board a child was finding much joy in shaking a tiny sleigh bell. And as if on cue, when the train crawled out from under the protection of the station, the sky began to spit a small measure of floating white snow. Within a few minutes the grey and graffiti of the city dissolved into the eternal rolling greens of England, dusted with snow and spotted with sheep. As we traveled, Lucy reassured me that I was more than welcome, and that her parents were really happy that I had agreed to come—it was not an imposition.

When we arrived in Hereford, on the River Wye, it was midday and the town was a vision so idyllic it seemed artificial: the falling snow, last-minute shoppers popping in and out of golden-lit storefronts, twinkling lights strung overhead and the philanthropic carolers on every other street corner. It was the chime of the cathedral bells and Lucy’s urging that pulled me from my reverie, “Come on, we better move on before it starts getting dark.” And so on we moved, first by bus toward the village where Lucy’s parents lived, and then by foot, until a red car pulled over and offered to save us from the weather. Lucy saw my trepidation, “It’s fine; around here, everyone gets rides to and from the bus stop—really.”

It was fine after all, and the red car and driver deposited us safely at our destination as we exchanged thanks and well wishes. Then, with our bags in hand and snow collecting on our coats, we stood in front of Lucy’s home—a historic red-bricked place with woods at the back and pasture to both sides. Woodsmoke trickled up from the chimneys and mixed together with that good, strong farm smell until the air was a kind of sensory carnival best experienced with closed eyes. Despite the cold, Lucy kindly let me soak it in a moment. When the door opened a woman appeared. She smiled at us smiling at her home and motioned us in.

The interior of the old house was rich with texture and history: stone floors worn smooth, thick plastered walls, irregular glass windowpanes, a spiral staircase and a living room with every wall wrapped in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves—a storybook cottage filled with a thousand storybooks. In the corner, beneath The Complete Volumes of Dickens, The Arabian Nights, and a well-worn set of Encyclopedia Britannica, stood an ancient but proud upright piano.

Lucy had told me that her mother was a musician in a symphony, as well as the village music teacher. She was tall with dark hair, and made us tea, asking about the train ride. When she sat down with us at the wooden table, she held Lucy’s hand. Lucy’s father emerged from his workshop, a thin man with a gray beard speckled with sawdust, and offered me a sturdy, weathered handshake. Lucy had told me that he, too, was a concert musician, but that during the winter months he built sailboats in his workshop—one sailboat every year from scratch. Her father also asked us about the train and then said, “Give me a few more minutes in the shop and then let’s get busy bringing Christmas to life, okay?” We agreed, naturally, though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was agreeing to.

As it turned out, “bringing Christmas to life” involved chopping down and carrying a small Christmas tree into the house from the woods outside, decorating the tree, stepping over the cat, distributing and lighting dozens of candles, preparing a pot of mulled wine, putting the turkey into the oven, hanging greenery over doorways, shooing the cat from the kitchen, cutting extra firewood, basting the turkey, tasting the mulled wine, setting out the violin and cello, stoking the fire, another glass of the wine, shooing the cat from the library, wrapping some small gifts, dressing the turkey, dressing the table, and dressing for dinner.

When all the candles were lit, with dinner revealed and the cat put away, we gathered around the table. We took a moment to absorb the glow of it all: the crumbling fire in the library, the simmer of the warm wine, and the heavy silence of the snow falling outside the windows. Another pause…another Christmas reverie. Then, with a cheerful but understated flourish, Lucy’s father declared, “Well then, Christmas has come to life! Shall we celebrate?”

After dinner there was coffee and music—strings played by the professionals and the piano played by Lucy. Into the wee hours the family band made music as they had done every Christmas Eve, with a sold-out crowd of books, and the Ghost of Christmas Present conducting. Even I was roped into singing what I knew of the songs they chose. Before succumbing to sleep (and making way for St. Nicholas), we entertained one final family ritual: listening to Dylan Thomas read A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Both women wrapped themselves in blankets and smiled as the confident voice of the poet spoke to us from an antique stereo. We listened enraptured until, with the last turn of the vinyl, the fire collapsed, the candles expired, and our small party went to our beds happy that Christmas morning was close at hand. That night, under patchwork quilts and a low roof, I dreamed of St. Nicholas sailing toward us on the River Wye, and I slept as peacefully as I can ever remember.

Christmas day came with sun and a snowy landscape, small gifts handed out, more songs on the violin, warm bread pudding, a walk in the snowy woods and an afternoon reading of The Cricket on the Hearth. It was a Christmas unlike any other I had experienced before or since—in a snowy English hollow with strangers who became friends, in a house where sailboats are made, near a river called Wye—and it happened because of the kindness of a friend who believed Christmas was more than an event on the calendar but, rather, that the bringing to life of the spirits that are best in humanity: hospitality and gratitude and friendship. And the open hand of friendship, after all, is what Christmas has always been about.

The wayfarer is by definition a leaver—one who leaves, goes, sets out into the world in order to find something. Leaving, of course, requires the risk of losing things, but it also opens the possibility of finding oneself as a character in a real-life story of speeding trains and snowy hills and a family band and the sound of cathedral bells singing carols across the River Wye at Christmastime.

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