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