A green patchwork: Baroness Floella Benjamin’s first impressions of England
Baroness Floella Benjamin continues to speak powerfully on the importance of Black History Month, and on the need to celebrate the contribution of Black people in urban and rural areas. This Black History Month, find out more about her arrival in England and connection with the landscape she first saw through the train window.
As well as being one of our best-loved broadcasters, Baroness Benjamin has been a tireless campaigner for many causes and charities, and in 2020 received her Damehood Medal for over 40 years of charitable work – much of which has assisted CPRE in our efforts to promote, enhance and protect the countryside.
As a past President of the Ramblers, Baroness Benjamin highlighted the importance of walking to the rural economy, and she remains a great champion of the physical and mental health benefits of walking in the countryside. She currently co-chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, highlighting the importance of allowing children to access green spaces and connect with nature – both to combat obesity and encourage care for the wider environment.
In 2019, Baroness Benjamin supported new legislation banning single-use plastic items, calling on the government to ensure that ‘sustainability and recycling are at the heart of our education system’. So, as CPRE welcomed the 1 October 2020 ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, we salute Baroness Benjamin for her ongoing advocacy for the environment as a member of the Peers for the Planet group.
Let’s talk about the weather
The first thing I noticed, as the ship neared the end of its four-thousand-mile journey from my homeland of Trinidad, was the insidious chill which penetrated the flimsy party dress I wore for my arrival in the Land of Hope and Glory, England; the land I had been taught in school to love from afar. I stood shivering on the deck of the steamer as it nosed its way into the docks at Southampton on 1 September, 1960.
This was my first impression of England, the coldness. My mother, who had travelled ahead to England fifteen months earlier, waited on the dockside with woolly jumpers to cosset her precious children. She had come prepared, for she had learnt the vagaries of the English weather. ‘All the English people seem to talk about is the weather,’ she used to say. Even after sixty years living here, she would still say it and she was right, there was plenty of it to talk about.
As our train sped out of Southampton towards the gaunt, grey buildings of London, I was intoxicated by the greenness of the countryside. Nothing had prepared me for the variety of the constantly changing landscapes which rushed by, and the vision is still etched on my mind. The lush fields flaunting different shades of green, bounded by towering woodland, each tree with its own shade of emerald, already tinged with the early gold of autumn. The rolling hills that bore them reminded me of a green patchwork quilt.
Although Trinidad is covered in evergreen rainforest, laced with colourful tropical flowers, the grassland is mostly singed fawn by the relentless blaze of the sun, only turning pale green during the rainy season when a warm, sensual, rain you can dance in buckets briefly down. This is quite unlike the thin, incessant, icy rain I discovered falling from the dark, brooding English clouds.
As the weeks passed, my siblings and I got used to the cold, which increased as autumn fully claimed the landscape, covering the streets with a dense carpet of golden leaves. Yes, the streets were paved with gold as we had been told, but not the kind of precious gold we had all expected. Winter drew rapidly in and the trees curiously lost their leaves, exposing the branches like skeletons reaching for the sky.
As the frosty air gripped harder, I was fascinated by the smoke that billowed out of my mouth as I exhaled. I thought there was a fire within my chest as I blew the smoke out like a dragon. Smog, caused by the dense coal smoke that spewed out of the chimneys which looked like soldiers guarding the slated rooftops, crept through the streets, cutting visibility down dramatically. It created a ghostly atmosphere with people moving mysteriously through the sullen grey mist like wraiths in a horror film.
Yes, in my short time in England, I certainly experienced many different types of weather. But the morning I awoke to find my room filled with an eerie clear light and muffled silence is something I will never forget. I rushed to the window and wiped the condensation caused by our paraffin heater from the pane. What I saw thrilled me and took my breath away. A pure whiteness dazzled me and gave me the sensation of being in another world. Everything was covered in a thick fluffy blanket of fresh snow! I had seen snow on Christmas cards back in Trinidad, but standing there, looking at its clean, white, magical beauty in amazement, my heart soared and, at that moment, I fell in love with snow.
I have lived in Britain now for 60 years and I still find myself sighing with joy as the landscape changes and seasons unfold, each one with its own special character. Spring, its cherry blossom dancing in the breeze with a promise of lazy afternoons of English tea on the lawn. Showery summers mingled with scarce hot, sunny cricket days. Autumn with its blaze of glorious colour slowly unfolding before, once again, winter inexorably clenches its icy fist, and the cycle renews.
Devouring the relentless miles when I was training for my marathons, I was inspired as I absorbed the essences of each new season. And I find inner peace as I walk through England’s mountains green, as goes that great hymn I learnt as a child back in Trinidad.
Yes, to my surprise, I have grown to love the English weather in all its forms, and miss it when I’m away . . . even the coldness!
A version of this piece was previously published in CPRE’s Icons of England, a collection of essays on our heritage and landscape edited by Bill Bryson. If you’d like to read more about Baroness Benjamin’s journey to England and incredible life of achievement, you can purchase a picture book version of her Coming to England celebration of the Windrush generation, which was released in 2021.