Unexpected tea room The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.

[Poetry is] a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating

The walk ended, as all walks must, at an unexpected tea room in East Coker, being persistently undercharged for an homemade fig quiche, a vegan hot dog (with red onion pickle) and pots of tea in the sunshine.

The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.

The contradiction, you would think, must be unprofitable for these scions of Douglas Adams’ Improbability Drive, where the laziest deus ex machina is our hard-working deity in a world predicated against the odds.

But this contradiction is exactly why these unexpected English tea rooms thrive and, being so unexpected, can be utterly relied upon.

Unexpected Four Quart£!5

Like Douglas Adams, T.S. Eliot also understood the unexpectedness of the English journey. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding: the titles in Four Quartets are themselves a journey.

Burnt Norton, East Coker and Little Gidding are old time English thatch and stone, dependable, ecumenical, wrapped in a comfort blanket of bucolic countryside.

The Dry Salvages, a garbled hearing of ‘les trois sauvages’—‘the three savages’, are a rock formation off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachussetts, infamous for wrecking fishing vessels in violent storms. The unexpected.

Four Quartets was written as Eliot entered later middle age and discovered that, contrary to the disinformation put about by stairlift manufacturers, there is nothing of value in the ‘autumnal serenity and … wisdom of age’.

Elders, Eliot reports with growing consternation, have no great secrets to hand down to us, passing on only a ‘receipt for deceit’, and their age begets, not wisdom, but folly, fear and frenzy.

‘It was not,’ Eliot writes, ‘what one had expected’.

Unexpected walk

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

My knowledge, derived from experience, of the fields and byways of the English lowlands and its villages, deceived the unfamiliar into the familiar.

Garlic, beech and bluebell

Evercreech, in Thursday’s six o’clock electric heat, is Midsomer by another name. The church, the stone, the inn, the fields cut about with hedgerows, ageless villagers taking a turn or pottering at the gate, jumpers folded over shoulders. It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated in villages from Burnt Norton in the high Cotswolds, all the way through Gloucestershire and into Somerset.

 

In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.

But there is no pattern, for the pattern is new in every moment.

Walking in summer is not like walking in winter. Over four days of almost unbroken sunshine, I wasn’t expecting to get my feet so sodden that they wrinkled pink. But the lush young grass and cow parsley up to my ears conspired with the dewy mornings to drench my boots in a refined distillation.

With untroubled views over open country, garlic, beech and bluebell, I wasn’t expecting navigation to be so hard. The footpaths were untrampled, unreadable in places. Every field a question mark, as rights became wrongs of way, running into deadend brambles, thickets of thistles, shin-raking nettles or electric fences of cattlebeasts.

Unexpected cattlebeasts

In the field, human or beast, winter is a time for hibernation. But the hot stink of early summer, human or beast, tickles the hormones. The key is to distance yourself from biologically inaccurate catch-all terms like ‘cow’ and to correctly classify your cattlebeasts—before unlatching the field gate.

Dairy mothers are placid, calmly curious, watchful in the afternoon. But adolescents, the heifers, are troubled, unsupervised, driven to distraction from distraction by distraction—and keen to test their herd immunity against interfering walkers.

Chased, chastened and thrown over another indeterminate field crossing. Walkers 0, Heifers 14

Unexpected performance

All this time, I’ve been talking backwards, from tea room in reverse.

The journey actually began on Wednesday evening in Bath, where I had been to see Ralph Fiennes give a highly improbable performance of Four Quartets.

What were the chances that a famous actor would alight upon the idea of a staged reading of a remote poetry cycle, written by an author long-dead, performed in a socially-distanced theatre only a quarter full, in a town where I had elected, before Christmas, to break my pilgrimage walk based on the titles of that same obscure poem?

The chances, both Adams and Eliot concur, were so improbable as to be almost certain.

Having listened to Alec Guinness’s somewhat sententious BBC recital, I wasn’t expecting something so conversational. But Fiennes made total sense of Eliot’s variations and abrupt shifts in tone. Like someone trying to explain the ineffable. Which is exactly what he was. For the first time, lines I’d never fully understood came swimming into clear focus.

I think he was a little ill, however. 75 minutes into the 77 minute performance, shining with rheumy fever, Fiennes took a seat at a table and you could almost see the finish line reflected in his mind’s eye. He galloped onward through the final stanza—

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started…

—and then he stopped.

A dramatic pause, we thought. He closed his eyes. A very dramatic pause. A pause so dramatic that it burst beyond the confines of the auditorium and bent the laws of space-time.

Then he began muttering the lines to himself, trying to regather the unspooled thread. The most famous line, perhaps, in the whole poem. Brainwaves pulsed from audience to actor. One man could bear the tension no longer and cried from the stalls: ‘And know…’

Fiennes opened his eyes, switched on.

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Fare forward, voyagers!

~

Huge thanks to mum, who joined me for the last couple of days of the walk. Thanks for sharing the footpaths, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, your snacks and your company!

‘Not too far from the yew tree’: The Church of St Michael and All Angels, East Coker, where Andrew Eliott was baptized in 1627, before emigrating to America and progenerating the line that led, eventually, to T.S.

VIDEO: Four Quartets Featuring TS Eliot, Alec Guinness and a cat named Furniss

I made you a New Year present! It’s a kind of a poetic slideshow of photographs and audio from the Four Quartets walk that I did before Christmas. Words by T.S. Eliot, narrated by Alec Guinness.

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world

Enjoy!

Distraction by distraction Four Quartets (Part The Second)

Last week, I quoted a section of Four Quartets in which TS Eliot bemoans how easily human beings can be distracted (by ‘men and bits of paper’), away from our real business of connecting with the universe.

At least, that’s my reading of these (shamefully truncated) lines from Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
[…] neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
[…] Nor darkness to purify the soul
[…] Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

Both daylight (plenitude) and darkness (vacancy) can reveal to us the wonders of the universe, but in a ‘place of disaffection’—later Eliot specifically refers to London—we are more likely to turn instead to the distraction of meaningless fripperies.

In 1936, the great enemy of concentration was ‘bits of paper’. Today I can think of a surely greater distraction that spends a lot of time in our pockets, but much more time in our hands, causing neck pain without respite.

Eliot’s antidote to the alienation from nature caused by modernity is ‘destitution of all property’ and ‘evacuation of the world of fancy’. Walking through day and night with provisions and accommodation on my back, while not as extreme as Eliot’s asceticism, was a timely reacquaintance with what’s most important.

For me, that means noticing: noticing the details in my existence. Like this moment, described by TS Eliot a hundred years ago, but which the universe brought to me only on Monday:

Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes

A moment of stillness, once noticed, that enriches the whole. Until my belly starts to rumble and I need a pee.

Burnt Norton and the Catswold Way Four Quartets (Part The First)

Shouldering a much-too-heavy backpack, I finally set foot in the Cotswolds on Monday afternoon. Four days, and 131,000 metres of claggy stomping later, I arrived at Bath Abbey.

It was sort of a pandemic-friendly hiking of the Cotswold Way national trail, skirting the Tier 3 troubles of South Gloucestershire. An alternative trail demands an alternative name: I’m going with the Catswold Way.

His name was Furniss and he can be snuggled with at the foot of the hill leading up to Belas Knapp Longbarrow.

Four Quartets (Part The First)

This week’s tramping of the Catswold Way was originally conceived as the most pretentious of walks. I originally intended to connect, by way of pilgrimage, the locations that inspired each of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: TS Eliot was a poet. His Four Quartets are a collection of four poems, written between 1936 and 1942, in which he tries to figure out humankind’s relationship to time and the universe.

If that’s not pretentious enough for you, then let me add that Four Quartets opens with two quotations from Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Untranslated.*

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή

And, I hate to tell you, in all that follows there ain’t much rhyming.

Having said that, although Four Quartets might represent something of a high watermark for pretentious poetry, it’s still bloody marvellous. This, for example, is one of my favourite passages of poetry, rhymed or not, by anyone, anywhere:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

* Asterisk

I’ll save you a search and translate those fragments of Heraclitus. One note: ‘logos’ is what the Ancient Greeks called the divine principle that animates the universe. It’s often ill-translated as ‘reason’ or ‘logic’, a translation that renders Heraclitus’s aphorism pretty much meaningless. On with the two translations:

Although the logos is universal, the many live as if they had a wisdom all of their own

The way upward and the way downward is one and the same

Huge fan of Heraclitus, me.

Your turn

You can read Four Quartets for yourself here. But poems are meant to be read out loud, so you might as well get Alec Guinness to read them for you. That recording gave me goose-flesh (admittedly, that might have been because I was hiking through a muddy field in winter).

BBC 4

Conveniently enough for travel writers looking for destinations, TS Eliot titled each of his four poems after the specific location that inspired the verse.

After a little research, I learnt that the Burnt Norton of the first quartet is a manor house sitting at the northern end of the Cotswold Way. The second quartet is named for East Coker, a village in Somerset. The final poem takes its title from a village in Cambridgeshire: Little Gidding.

So far, all so very Merrie Englande. I gleefully imagined the highbrow BBC 4 series that would surely follow, as I made a learned pilgrimage between Thomas Stearns Eliot’s four poetical inspirations.

The television cameras would focus on a boot splashing into a muddy puddle, scattering a reflection of the stars, as my voiceover gently muses on how Eliot’s masterpiece, penned during a world war, can help modern humans make sense of time and the universe during a wholly different kind of calamity.

Then I looked up the third of the poems: Dry Salvages. Dry Salvages? What the actual fuck. It’s in Massachusetts, USA.

Walk

Picking through the wreckage of my documentary dreams, I reassembled some semblance of the idea. Scaling down the grandeur of my vision, I decided instead to walk from the manor of Burnt Norton all the way through to East Coker, where TS Eliot’s ashes are interred.

As you can tell, I haven’t finished this walk yet. From Bath Abbey to the church at East Coker, another 80km awaits (restrictions permitting) after Christmas.

So it was that I began: stepping off a train, then stepping onto a bus, before finally stepping off the bus (a few miles further on than I should have done) and onto the road from Chipping Campden to the stately manor of Burnt Norton.

My pack was full (inadvisedly so), my bivvy bag was dry and my feet were not yet hobbling, not yet throbbing.

Burnt Norton

It turns out that, for someone who does it on the regular, I’m a bad trespasser. Burnt Norton, you see, is privately owned.

Now, you might not think of TS Eliot as being particularly anti-establishment, but a century ago, he wilfully ignored the PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs that guard Lord Harrowby’s property and took a leisurely turn around the rose garden with his lover. (Side note: under a proposed new law, Eliot might today have been criminalised.)

The famous rose garden even made it into the poem:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Absenting the lover, I would still follow in Eliot’s footsteps and discreetly trespass. There followed a nerve-jangling yomp through quiet woodland that crackled underfoot, doubtless alerting the trigger-happy gamekeepers to my intrusion.

This felt nothing like Eliot’s ‘cheeky’ trespass. In the poem, his walkers are drawn on into the garden by ‘the deception of the thrush’:

dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air

I felt neither dignified nor invisible. The pressure over the dead leaves of this galumphing hiker made crispcracks that, at every footfall, had pheasants yawking up into the trees in a fluster of wings.

The path sank slowly into thick mud and wound past a gallery of shooting lookouts: would my backpack be mistaken for the hind quarters of a deer?

As it turned out: no. The trespass was all absolutely terrifying and all absolutely fine. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was my map-reading and I ended up parading up and down the Lord and Lady’s expensively-filled car park, in full view of their drawing room windows.

So much for discretion.

Burnt Norton manor house, as captured through the branches of a fallen oak by a nervous trespassing photographer

This Means Moor

Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.

Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.

Waterfall on the East Dart River, one of the many that arise on the moor

If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.

Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.

My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.

Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!

Wild camping among the ruins of Foggintor quarry, granite from which helped build Nelson’s Column

Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.

We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.

A distinctive Dartmoor contradiction of ancient stone circle surrounded by modern pine plantation, Fernworthy Forest

Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.

Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.

It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.

These civilisations were a triumph, each successive generation a right winner. Writing of the landscape transformation in England more broadly, Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside goes so far as to claim:

to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors

But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.

The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.

The classic view of Dartmoor: pony, clitter (rubble), Bronze Age menhir (standing stone) and an awful lot of exposed moor and heathland. And the television tower

But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.

There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.

English oak growing among the moss-coated clitter of venerable Wistman’s Wood. Moss grew so thickly on the trunks that we found filmy ferns thriving at head height

If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?

On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.

I told you I was lucky.

Above: Maidenhair spleenwort, a wee fern, growing between the cracks in an old stone bridge across the Cholake River

A Kinder wind

The wind on Kinder is a sensory deprivation chamber.

The rattling, booming noise cuts out my sound sense; I can’t hear the tread of my feet in the bog above the screaming of my rain jacket and the howling of the withered grass.

My vision comes woozy from the wind: walking the path is like standing on the prow of a ship, eyes contending with a force that won’t be seen.

Proprioception is meaningless, my feet can only guess and hope where they might land next. Balance goes too, as moment to moment my ear canals rush with gusts and lulls.

The wind whips away my breath, making hard going over easy ground. Smells only come from the southwest, and much too quickly to distinguish anything of use.

Rushing up from the valley, the rain hits from below. I veer off course, staggering from one path to another until I reach a cluster of boulders, offering each other shelter since the last ice age, resisting the wind — and losing.

Daily Dérive #2: The Museum of Parkaeology

What makes such a place eerie?

  • A place, like this, unfamiliar.
  • The only human sounds are far off shrieks, and you’re hemmed in by the screams of insects.
  • Everything is coated in a layer of dust.
  • Discarded cigarettes, feathers and condoms.

Continue reading Daily Dérive #2: The Museum of Parkaeology

Daily Dérive #1: Agios Panteleimonas ~ Exarcheia

The air is cool, but the sun is hot. I can smell that smell of hot stones and gasoline, sweet rotting rubbish, atomising flowers, or charring meat. It’s what my nose knows as the southern Mediterranean.

A man tidily dressed in a cotton shirt and trousers sits down beside me. He’s looking around like he’s lost a friend. He yawns ostentatiously. His beard is frizzled with grey and white. A toddler cackles and runs toward and away on the flagstones. Continue reading Daily Dérive #1: Agios Panteleimonas ~ Exarcheia

Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

The Top Line

A bivvy bag is not much more than a waterproof sack for you to sleep inside. Despite that unpromising description, bivvying is a superb alternative to full-blown tent-based camping – especially when weight or discretion is important.

Without exaggeration, a bivvy bag could completely transform your vagabonding – as one did mine 7 years ago.

The following is the mother lode of lessons that I’ve learnt over dozens of bivvying adventures since 2011. Take all this advice with many pinches of low-sodium salt, and find your own way. Continue reading Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

Tomsleibhe, Isle of Mull

Inspired by Robert MacFarlane’s book Wild Places, I’ve spent the last few days tramping about the Inner Hebrides, specifically the isles of Mull and Iona.

First, for any doubters out there: the weather has been glorious – which for this country means only a couple of rainstorms. Other than that, only drizzle and sunshine.
Continue reading Tomsleibhe, Isle of Mull

What are we waiting for? A Box Hill Microadventure

When was the last time you caught a train to nowhere, walked across fields and up a hill, before sleeping out under the stars?

That was the question I was asking myself after finishing last week’s piece on A.I.. The next question was: What are you waiting for? Continue reading What are we waiting for? A Box Hill Microadventure

An Anatomy of Rambling, or Why Walk?

Yesterday, I arose before dawn and cycled to the New River Head in central London. From there, with my path companion Anna Hughes, we walked twenty-eight miles up river to Hertford, where I jumped into the water and finally let my swollen feet smolder. Then I came home.

Why? Why, oh why did I do this? Why, oh why, oh why did I do this again? In the last couple of years, I have walked from London to Canterbury and from London to Winchester: long, long rambles of dozens of destructive miles. It is now time to explain why I do this to myself.

But there are as many different explanations for my rambling as there are answers to the question, “Why do I breathe?” Anatomically-speaking, I breathe because my lungs expand and contract as I inhale and exhale air, because my blood cells demand a constant supply of oxygen, because breathing is a part of the process of respiration, because I must convert my food into energy, because I am alive and not dead.

Rambling is the same: explanations are buried from skin to spine, depending on where you look, but it’s all happening, it’s all true, all the time.

(I should warn you that I’m not a qualified anatomist, but that shouldn’t pose a serious danger to your health as you read my Anatomy of Rambling.)

The Central Nervous System of Rambling

A walk must have a destination. Please don’t take this literally. Yesterday, we walked to the source of the New River in Hertford, a clear geographical destination, but, in truth, this endpoint was arbitrary. “Getting there” was a sideshow in a destination that transcends geography; this was a destination of the mind. Journeys are not relocations, but transformations.

For that reason, journeys are popular in fiction: from The Odyssey, through Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings. Odysseus is lost on the seas for ten years before reaching his home on Ithaka; Don Quixote rambles La Mancha as a knight errant, defending the honour of Dulcinea del Toboso; Frodo journeys across Middle Earth to cast the One Ring into the fiery Cracks of Doom.

But the ostensible “goal” of the story – home, honour, the Cracks of Doom – is never the true purpose of the story. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and wishes Tolkein had edited the story more concisely: “Hobbit walks to Morder, loses precious ring, saves Middle Earth.” That does not capture the essence of the story. (Although would make a reasonable stand first for the Daily Mirror.)

In the same way, I will not remember our New River walk as: “Walked to Hertford, went swimming, came home tired.”

A fictional story begins by breaking the stasis of the protagonist’s normal life. The characters then enter into a remarkable world, of blinding Cyclopes, tilting at windmills and fleeing Ring Wraiths. This is where the plot happens. Finally, their object achieved, the characters return to the real world to continue their lives.

But they, and the reader with them, have been fundamentally changed by the events of the plot.

A walk is the same. For the duration of the walk, Anna and I stepped outside of our everyday lives, into a fantasy world of coots and sunburn, until we reached promised land of Hertford. We collapsed to the ground and ate Nutella. Then we went home.

But the path and the journey had as transformative effect on my psyche as any journey by any fictional character.

The Skin of Rambing

These concepts of destination and transformative journey are the central nervous system of our anatomy of rambling. Now we’ll move more quickly through the skin and bones, starting with the skin, the superficial nicities of a good walk.

Maps. Maps, although not necessary, are beautiful. I make no apology for that.

Food. One of the untrammeled joys of taking physical exercise is the eating. As Anne from the Famous Five was wont to remark: “I always think food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”

Walking companions. I’ve had the pleasure of many different companions on my walks, from friends to felines. Each one has shown me a part of themselves, and parts of myself, that I didn’t know existed.

Wildlife. This could be anything from watching two ponies groom each other to cuteness death on the bank of the canal, to spitting out an errant gnat; from the swish of tussock grass against your shins, to nettle rash.

Pain. Pain is central to the reality of rambling. Its purpose is to remind you that you are mortal, but, with fortitude, you can learn to persevere and create the order of progress out of the chaos of blisters and windburn.

Equipment. I revel in wearing a walking raincoat with a multiplicity of useful pockets or discovering that my pocket knife does have a tool for doing that thing.

Poetry and songs. Every walk has a particular rhythm, so it’s no surprise that every walk I’ve been on has heard me singing poetry and reciting songs. This time, Anna and I swapped Eliot and Hardy for Shakespeare and Browning.

Wayfarer’s Angels. (Not to be confused with Hell’s Angels.) There are always wayfarer’s angels, the people without whom the walk would be either impossible or difficult. The guy with ear defenders mowing the grass along the river path; the two young men tinkering with their sports car, who gave us an ice cold bottle of water; and of course Sir Hugh Myddleton, who four hundred years ago conceived and carried through his absurd idea of bringing drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the slums of central London. Thanks angels!

Terrain and landscape. Nodules bobbling the path underfoot, water balming the blisters on your sploshed feet, hills that come tumbling down towards you, only to turn aside at the last moment. Walks are about the nuance of terrain, as well as the grandeur of landscape.

Weather. The breeze picking up the air conditioning coolness of the canal, the sun bleaching the cotton of your clothes, clouds twisting petit pains patterns in the sky. We’ve all seen the weather, but a walk makes you live the weather.

The Universe. It’s always there, believe it or not, but very rarely does it make its presence felt. On a walk, though, you can’t help but notice that the sun is traversing the sky, burning your neck in the morning and your nose in the evening; while, on a night walk, you can’t help yourself navigating by the stars and dreaming of the moonlight.

The Bones of Rambling

The bones of rambling might often go unnoticed in the flash and fawn of the superficial skin, but fear not: they are the structure over which the skin is stretched.

Smallness. A walk seems impossibly slow, particularly in these days of aerobatic travel. But that slowness means you cannot help but appreciate the smallest of noticings: a water boatman on the surface of the river, a buttercup blowing in the breeze, an orange ladybird on the back of your hand. Without these bones of smallness, the skin delights of wildlife and terrain would go unappreciated.

Vastness. A long walk covers such unbearably painful distances in such constantly observable detail that its very smallness, its very detail, becomes an astonishing vastness that brings awe to the cuffs of your heart.

Depth. Smallness and the vastness combine to bring depth to a walk that is unlike any other human experience. A walk grinds into your soul and brings forth an unexpected spring of introspection, inspiration and insight. You’ll find this in the conversations that bubble up between you and your companion, or that bounce around in your head alone.

The moment you never want the walk to end. There are always moments like this: lying in the grass on the edge of the canal, the botanical breath of canal zephyrs filling your lungs; or the clump of every inevitable bootstep on the yielding towpath grass, in smooth mechanical perfection, walking into the dipping sun. You realise that it can’t get better than this and any complaints are quibbles. Don’t forget to take this feeling back with you into real life.

The journey home, also known as “the great unravelling”. There is nothing more satisfying, more awe-inspiring and more nostalgic, than watching the landscape that you’ve toiled through all day unravel through the flicker of a train carriage window. The experience heals you and forms the foundation for encorporating your transformation into your everyday life.

The Soul of Rambling

Just as the sum of our human anatomy creates a being of more significance than blood, flesh and bone, so too the rambling anatomy, all told, transcends mere walking.

The path is the ultimate symbol of this transcendence because, as you tread each footstep along your muddy, downtrodden mistress, you cannot fail to realise that you and she are one. You become the path you walk.

Let me explain. Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too.

The New River Path leads to Hertford. Anna and I have now become People Who Walked To Hertford, with all that entails: the smell of coots pecking over sludgy river waste; the sight of balloons slinking over the dawn-lit skyline; the sound of the M25 snarling beneath, while our river sneaks into open country; the taste of brackish water when I dunk my head into the Lea. We can never forget those experiences, they have changed us.

There is too an equal and opposite: the path becomes you who walk. Each step you take becomes part of the path, treading down the mud and leaves, marking out the track for the next generation of walkers.

Some paths are easy, well sign-posted, or even officially recognised by the asphalt of modernity; some paths are more difficult, sometimes impossible to distinguish from the wilderness that encroaches.

The path you choose will influence the paths that your successors will walk, just as the paths that your ancestors pioneered have influenced your walking.

I am obviously talking, not just literally, but metaphorically. Our choices about travel and life in general are profoundly affected by the choices of our ancestors and the rest of society; likewise our decisions consequently influence the options available to those yet to come. Our choices are not inert either; our choices are never means, they are always ends in themselves, whether we realise that fact or not.

The way that we do things becomes who we are.

Walk.

Walking Home for Christmas: Maps & Pictures

In 2010, I walked home for Christmas: trudging every single one of the gloriously snowy 38 miles from London to Cholsey. You can read more on why I walked home for Christmas and also read the minute-by-minute Twitter updates I wrote about the journey. But here are the pictures and, due to my upsetting Google a few years ago, only the first map.

Heathrow Terminal 5 to White Waltham

15 miles on B roads (AKA ‘The Boring Bit’).

White Waltham to Henley-on-Thames

About 9 miles cross-country.

Henley-on-Thames to Cholsey

16 miles cross-country. In the dark.

Yep: the day after my walk, I drove back to London to pick up my sister… Same journey, in reverse, 2 hours. 😉

Walking Home for Christmas: The Updates

In 2010, I walked home for Christmas: trudging every single one of the gloriously snowy 38 miles from London to Cholsey. You can read more on why I walked home for Christmas and see some of the pictures I took of the journey. And for those of you who didn’t follow my progress on Twitter (shame on you!), here are all my updates, recorded for posterity. Yes that first one does say 5:39…

From New Cross to the M4

Here we go! Leaving New Cross- I’ll be taking spreadbets on how far I’ll get- 0-38 miles. Any takers?
5:39 Dec 23rd via txt

Phase 1 complete. At Heathrow terminal 5- the walking starts here. First task: get out of the terminal…
7:18 Dec 23rd via txt

First sighting of pseudo-countryside, two horses in a paddock and a few trees near Horton…
8:18 Dec 23rd via txt

Arrived in Datchet- and arrived onto my map! Cholsey only an arm-length away! Time for some pizza.
8:53 Dec 23rd via txt

Got my first walkers’ “Morning!” – London is definitely over.
9:07 Dec 23rd via txt

Crossing the Thames at Royal Windsor- good day ma’am!
9:36 Dec 23rd via txt

Oakley Green! That was a pretty boring walk through Windsor- but here come the footpaths- yeah!
10:37 Dec 23rd via txt

I’m on the M4! Well, I’m over the M4- nice spot for lunch…
12:08 Dec 23rd via txt

From the M4, through Henley-on-Thames and on into the Darkness

Walking down a snow-bound lane towards Knowle Hill, delivery vans out in force today-Christmas presents I guess…
12:52 Dec 23rd via txt

Crazies Hill! Named after me (probably) – on the descent now though, through a snow-capped wood with crows overhead…
14:02 Dec 23rd via txt

And halfway too- 19 miles to go!
14:11 Dec 23rd via txt

Nothing hurts more than back-tracking…lucky it was only a couple of hundred yards…but here’s Henley!
14:44 Dec 23rd via txt

Right- back on the path after a nice cup of tea and a cake in Henley. Note to forecasters: you have 30 minutes to provide the sunny interval you promised me …
15:33 Dec 23rd via txt

Got lost, got found. Just me and snow and wooded hillsides. And birds. I saw a fox earlier too- and got chased by a dog…
16:05 Dec 23rd via txt

Through the Darkness

No idea where I am, but Nettlebed 3 miles can’t be all wrong…
16:44 Dec 23rd via txt

Following the tracks of some kind of heffalump in a field in the middle of somewhere. Couldn’t be better.
17:03 Dec 23rd via txt

Witheridge Hill! Not withering yet – I almost know where I am…
17:34 Dec 23rd via txt

Having a bite to eat at the Maharajah’s Well. Pizza’s still delish, body’s still holding together…
17:57 Dec 23rd via txt

Couple of cars skidded off the road near Wellplace Zoo- drama! They’re fine. I’m fine- got snow chains for these shoes…
18:37 Dec 23rd via txt

Just nailed a totally pointless hill in ankle deep snow. Not easy after nearly 12 hours walking… Now walking down the hill…
19:03 Dec 23rd via txt

12 hours walking and I’m still not home. I only popped out for a pint of milk…
19:29 Dec 23rd via txt

The Thames Path to Cholsey

Calling Cholsey, calling Cholsey- prepare to recieve- ETA 1 hour, repeat 1 hour…
20:05 Dec 23rd via txt

I’m so close I can almost reach out and touch it- no, wait, I can touch it- I’M HOME! THE SEASONAL HAS LANDED!!
20:55 Dec 23rd via txt

Walking Home for Christmas: Heathrow to Cholsey

Yesterday morning, at about half seven, I walked out of Heathrow Terminal 5 heading for Cholsey, a proud village in Oxfordshire and my ancestral home. It was rather snowy, as some of you may have noticed. The longest walk I’d ever done before yesterday was about 16 miles. Now I was going for 38 miles – and the mathematicians among you will realise: that’s more than double.

At 8:59 p.m. I arrived in Cholsey.

You can read the minute-by-minute Twitter updates during the journey and admire some pretty pictures of me eating pizza, but first I’d just like to tell you why I did it.

I’m interested in travel. I’ve done a lot of aeroplane travel in my life, quite a bit either into or out of Heathrow. I’ve travelled many times from Cholsey to Heathrow and back. I’ve travelled even more times from Cholsey to London and back. I’ve done the journey by car, by train and by bus. But never by foot.

Travel by car, by train or by bus is forgettable, almost unconscious. A train journey we pass by reading a book or by staring vacantly out of the window. I’ve been gripped by a need to understand what it means to travel. Now I understand what that journey, Heathrow to Cholsey, means.

It means 13.5 hours of walking, trudging, shuffling, limping, tramping, traipsing, marching. It means never stopping, it means not letting the mind break down when the body does. It means country lanes, paths, bridleways, A-roads and B-roads. It means left-turns, right-turns and wrong-turns. It means foxes, crows, rabbits and cranes. It means walking at dawn, at day, at dusk, at sunset and at night. It means hills, valleys, woods, fields, rivers, streams, towns, villages and hamlets. It means West.

This journey is about understanding. I hope that my journey will help other people make their own journey and find their own understanding, just as Alastair Humphreys’ journey last year inspired mine. Next year, why not walk home for Christmas?