Cover story


Brian Spaeth’s been helping me design a front cover for Wayfaring. His style tends to be low-res—or even ultra low-res. I respect that, but I wanted a picture you could enter, so as to walk the paths it depicts, and see every detail. Up till June 2005, I could only gaze at enticing landscapes, and imagine wayfaring amongst them. Then, at a stroke I was cured from a decades-long illness: “with one mighty bound, Dick was free” (parody of the radio series Dick Barton, Special Agent, that I recall hearing in 1947). And so, if you click on the picture above, and then again to enlarge it, you can enter that scene, in thought. But I can do it in real life now, and the picture gave me a yearning to go there again.

With this in mind K & I returned to the scene on Easter Monday, following the route I’d taken eight years before, as recorded here in two posts: “Country Walk” and “Dwelling in one’s tribe”. I meant to take photos but had forgotten to charge the camera’s batteries. It didn’t matter; in fact the tourist who’s constantly thinking of good shots holds his excursion at arm’s length, missing the opportunity for total immersion, that ineffable re-baptism into life on earth that’s constantly there for us, if we know how to plunge. So I looked for a break in the clouds to go back on my own, while K was at work a couple of days later, to take the shots anyway. This is the story of that visit.

I started from the top of the hill where St Lawrence’s Church stands. The golden ball atop its tower can be seen from miles around.

This is part of the view from that hill.

I’d brought along my pocket recorder as usual. I’d been capturing birdsong and other ambient sounds as I walked. Halfway through Hearton Wood, you take a path to the left, which after a while disappears beneath the trees. When this mysterious entrance came in view, I felt inspired to record these words: “Fabulous (mythical) places can also be real. The real can also be fabulous (wondrous).” It was the best I could do to capture the moment’s feeling.

As you get closer you see the arrows painted on the trunks to guide the wayfarer—the pilgrim, I’d like to say—and stop him straying from the path.

Then you go down some steps to a little gate which opens on to the narrow green valley shown in my cover picture.

Then you come to an inscribed bench which marks the spot more or less where my cover photo was taken, in 2008

You walk down a bit. When you look to the left you can see the church tower again, up on the hill.

When you reach this gate, you are walking within the cover picture, so to speak. . . .

. . . which, allowing for the difference in season, looks the same as eight years ago.

I’ve marked a circle round a stile near the middle of the photo.

That’s where I met a man, and we got talking, about how it was a good day to walk, and so on. He expressed a wish to send me his writings. Neither of us had a pencil to write the other’s address, so he invited me to his house—a short walk away— and got his wife to make coffee whilst he went rummaging upstairs to gather some typed photocopies, perhaps thirty pages in all. He gave me permission to show them to others. I’d like to share one of his pieces with you. It’s headed “To Walk”. I haven’t changed or omitted a word of his manuscript. It describes more beautifully, and in more precise detail than I would, the walk along the very paths for which I’d returned to retrace my steps after eight years.

To walk is to know a freedom when you can choose your own pace, stop and view whatever interests you.

For medicinal and pleasure purposes, I take this walk three times a week. The footpath sign for it is eight minutes from my home. As you pass the sign, the muddy footpath goes alongside and behind Arch-Sheil Farm. Already the traffic is being left behind.

An eerie, weird, almost human whistle-like sound is heard, changing sometimes to a wavering different note.

The flying feathered forms are climbing, swooping, diving, almost hovering. The Red Kites forever circling, hunting for their carrion, while the sun casts their intriguing shadows onto the earth. Their presence, colour and activity make quite an addition to the rural scene.

Continuing upward on the path, I have a hedge either side of me. I hear faint noises and rustling sounds and through holes in the hedge seven pheasants appear. They hesitate for a moment and then scurry away in a flurry of feathered and honking panic.

I walk on until I am on the level top of the hill, either side of the path are large fields with the green of the corn showing three to four inches. In this higher position you are aware of more air movement.

The footpath has another user; the Drag Hunt, the horses and members were on it three days ago, but left it after forty yards.

The path goes slightly downhill for twenty yards where it becomes stony and my boots slide noisily on them. At the wood entrance I step up eight strides onto a bank. In the wood there is a sudden feeling of quietness, perhaps its being combined with the towering trees. Between the carpet of brown leaves, the bluebells’ three or four inches of green growth are appearing.

Recent strong winds have brought down some boughs; three lie at intervals across the path. Another tree has two half-fallen split boughs at a dangerous suspended angle. Fourteen yards away a pheasant makes me glance at it. Instantly above me, clatter, clatter, bang, bang, wings flapping, some pigeons, squawking angrily, noisily, fly off at my intrusion under their tree. Stronger sun is now filtered by the trees, giving a hide and seek to my eyes.

I walk the last thirty yards of the path and then I come out of the wood. My first glance is to the left, where I see the church on the hill opposite me and we seem to be on the same level. The church rather dominates the whole area.

Walking downwards and on a straight path now, the house and park grounds give a spaciously comfortable picture. The cricket ground, traditional and so in keeping, the busy garden centre and village school, the tall trees on the corner hide the village. I have thirty yards left to walk before the footpath ends at the road, which is busy now.

I feel most fortunate that I live in this area and can appreciate all Nature’s gifts that she most generously shares with us all.

MARCH 2007

At the stile on Wednesday we met as strangers. But he mentioned one thing: that he had worked for seven years as a cleaner at a local railway station, and it was the best job of his career.

That’s the moment I realized he was the man I’d met before, on the same path, eight years earlier.

And I’d written about the encounter, here, and referred to an uncanny sense of kinship, for which I had no explanation, so I’d concocted one, that it was some kind of tribal recognition.

Here’s John, at the stile.

How to account for the coincidence of this second meeting? It’s as if we were . . . I’ll let you complete the sentence, in the light of your own beliefs about occurrences such as these. It’s by no means the first that I’ve reported on this blog, with circumstantial and photographic evidence. Were the angels acting for me, or for John? He has entrusted his writings to me, to pass around as I see fit. He has no access to the Internet. His works are signed and dated.

Fabulous places can be real. The real can also be fabulous.

See 14th comment below.



I went on a small journey in preparation for a bigger one. On Monday I fly out to Amsterdam, so this little trip to Loudwater was to change some pounds to euros at a bureau de change. I set off in walking boots, they’re best for my swollen toe-joint. I might have gone on foot via the Valley Path, but when I passed the bus station there was one leaving for Flackwell Heath, so I gladly leapt on. The warm embrace of a bus, its judder and roar, transports me to the Forties and Fifties of childhood, for in essence diesel buses have not changed, a surviving technology like fountain pens and notebooks. I used all three at once, for there I was scribbling away amongst the peaceful chattering of fellow-passengers, whose cadences hadn’t changed either in the last sixty years. One one side were two white-haired ladies; on the other an attentive mother with her bright toddler. I felt ageless.

I could see the driver from where I sat, an alert young man, apparently half-Chinese, with a pleasant countenance. At the next bus stop a couple with piercings got in. She showed her concession pass; he told the driver he’d forgotten to bring his. “But we’re together,” he added, implying they held their eligibility in common. I’m sure this was against the rules but the driver waved him on, putting the principle of pleasantness before profit. He was sure of himself, his skilful control of the vehicle, his responsibility for everyone’s safety. Thus I surprised myself: seeing as it were through a bus-driver’s eyes.

The toddler had been chattering to his mother, pointing things out right and left, but the motion and noise of the bus put him soon in a doze, and he slumped forward, his little head threatening to bump a metal side-rest. Mother stood up, put her hand in the way like a cushion. Then it was time to get off so I pushed the bell for the next stop. The mother followed, toddler on one arm, pushing buggy with the other, so I helped her lift it to the ground. I was ageless but caught myself feeling like a teenager. Flackwell Heath somehow has this effect on me, wiping out the years. I published a piece about this effect, you can find it dated March 3rd last year. (This blog sometimes acts as my journal, recording subjective states with the time and place of their occurrence.)

Once off the bus, I noted how good my boots felt, ready for a long trek, though it was only a mile to my current destination. It might be a good idea to wear them all the time in Amsterdam. I passed through a housing estate where the lilacs were all out: white, mauve and purple. I saw a couple of birds walking along the gutter, resembling young grouse, but I don’t know what they were really. It was pointless trying to take a photo, birds always flee at the sight of my camera. But soon I was through a gate and into the greenwoods, no forest but a narrow strip planted to drown the sound of cars on the motorway which cuts through these hills, like two fast rivers, with flotsam whizzing in both directions. I saw these roads with their cargo of cars through gaps in the fresh green leaves, through which they appeared bluish and blurry, their rasping roar offensive to the senses as a giant open sewer would be, but with sound rather than stink. I shuddered instinctively at what mankind has done, mankind meaning me of course, despite my detachment in that moment. Some things are necessary though offensive. I suffered this momentary twinge of distaste as anyone unaccustomed would suffer, seeing a production-line of animals on their way to slaughter. The whisperings of those fresh green leaves, the nobility of those tall beeches, were a lullaby to the soul, distancing me so far from ordinary consciousness that I saw the commonplace reality of intercity traffic as a kind of horror.

I looked for the square tunnel under the motorway, built for walkers on the line of a centuries-old footpath, but missed it. Instead I found a magnificent stairway built into the side of the hill from railway sleepers, with a proper handrail, from which I could descend under the motorway where it bridges some local roads. I had to cross one of these: the traffic was busy both ways, but I was in no hurry, looking to right and left, waiting for the moment when I could saunter across at my own pace. I’d never known traffic like this in the Forties and early Fifties. Behind me, though, were some houses in a country style of about 80 years old, above a steep bank, set back behind the road. I imagined their owners keeping large dogs, cooking on wood-fired cast-iron ranges, where they would dry out their boots and wet clothes. I’d never lived that way, but suddenly felt that I could have done, whatever that may mean. For I was in the kind of peaceful state where in moments I could imagine being someone else—that bus-driver, that mother, that toddler; or a house-owner I’d never met, living as I’ve never lived.

While I glanced to the right, still waiting to cross the road, my eye glimpsed a single hair, outside the frame of my glasses, quite blurred. I thus unexpectedly caught sight of me, at least a part of me big enough to carry my DNA, the blueprint of this body. DNA is a special thing. It encapsulates your uniqueness but also your membership of a species. From imagining myself to be someone else, I entered a different dimension, one of agelessness, where time, space and individuality were just constructs. Here was a human being, the thing I call “me”, but my consciousness had escaped it to become an observer, feeling a vast respect for that thing, and its membership of something vaster than itself. The experience lasted half a second at most, so I obviously didn’t think all these thoughts at the time. I probably had no time to think anything beyond “That’s my hair”, but I’m trying to convey that which had no words, for it was a very specific feeling. And the reason I’m writing this piece at all is for the sake of that feeling, to preserve it as a kind of reference point in life.

This sense of individuality we normally possess is a practical necessity like that roaring motorway. It’s certainly not an illusion, but all the same it’s a kind of screen or curtain, hiding whatever lies behind. Sometimes, in a special case, we can see through a chink, and try to comprehend something bigger.

I wasn’t awestruck or anything. I crossed the road safely, thanks to that necessary instinct of looking after oneself. Above me was the motorway, a fine piece of civil engineering, a Leviathan in concrete. Then I caught sight of a cheeky graffito, carefully constructed in mosaic tiles. I looked for others, but it was a lone star.

Someone had taken the trouble to design a smiley star from mosaic tiles, and glue it to a pillar, for a reason, knowing that others would come along, and wonder what it was, and why. As I did. Maybe I found out too, from research on the Web I undertook later, but that’s neither here nor there.

How little we know: whence we came, whither we’re going. Whithersoever, we’re on our way. It’s nice sometimes to take a holiday from being yourself, and catch infinity in a moment.