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Archive for July, 2009

Getting excited now about the weekend course we’re facilitating at the end of August:

The Map is Not the Territory: an introduction to Appleseed

Friday 28 August 2009 – Monday 31 August 2009

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre

There’s a fee for this residential weekend, but there’s financial help available if that’s a problem.

The blurb says

The title quotation, which reminds us that words are inadequate to describe an underlying reality, gives us the idea of maps and territories as our theme. We will use a variety of sources – poetry, autobiography, journals, photography and, of course, a host of maps – to explore the nature of interior and exterior landscapes, the interplay of symbols and reality, the experiences of moving on and staying behind. In both our personal and cultural stories we will risk venturing off-map into ‘Here Be Dragons’ territory. We will use the Appleseed process of introductory talks, followed by simple arts-based response activities and worship sharing, as a framework for spiritual and personal exploration.

…which, as we wrote it, is probably a fair indication of what will actually happen :)

I wrote about the ‘process’ a while ago:

It’s hard to explain, using writing alone, what ‘the Appleseed process of introductory talks, followed by simple arts-based response activities and worship sharing’ actually is. ‘Gentle, creative self-discovery’ and ’serious play’ are a couple of islands we could put on the blank map. The ‘talk’ bit gives some input, engaging the rational mind and perhaps the emotions. In many settings this would be followed by discussion, questions, debate – which is fine if further intellectual work is the aim. Instead, in Appleseed, participants respond by doing visual things, kindergarten-simple creation using good quality materials -physical, creative, maybe playful, maybe profound. Painting with one’s eyes shut is one example – no-one could do it well, so it can’t be an attempt to do a ‘proper’ painting, but anyone can experience the feeling of the paint flowing on to paper and see the revelation of marks made. (People who don’t do art, including those who were put off at school, can get a lot out of the art/play practice part of Appleseed.)

We ran a similar weekend at Othona West Dorset earlier this year, which was great. I made use of some of the material from this walk then.

This time, we’re adding in an evening magic lantern show about psychogeography, and an optional exploration of the environs of Woodbrooke, its grounds and Selly Oak.

My route ventured near here, way back in October – maybe I’ll wander down to the spot where I headed off towards the southlands, to join things up.

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Having used a fairly recent (1992) I-Spy book as the springboard for a flight of fancy, I thought it would be fun to get one of the older ones and see what differences there might be. I-Spy on the Pavement came out in 1961, the year I was born, so that’s the one I decided to get.

The idea of children being encouraged to wander around towns on their own, looking at things, seems quaint these days (and it is poignant that this should be so.) To my modern eyes, accustomed to seeing children as vulnerable beings needing round-the-clock supervision and enclosure, the I-Spy ‘redskins’ in the illustrations seem to move through a world of adult menace; it is as if the various tradespeople and mendicants they encounter are just playing roles of normality, like characters in a Hitchcock film.

But the kids are in a world of adventure, junior psychogeographers seeing wonders in the detail of the city.

Of course, some of that detail has changed in the past 47 years. Banks have changed names, police boxes disappeared except for the one mythical one that is better known than ever. (I recently found a picture of Brighton Clock Tower, and remembered that there was one there, opposite the original Virgin Records.)

The 1992 I-Spy in the Town does not include CCTV cameras, now a feature of most urban environments. (This seems like an odd omission, as ‘I-Spy’ sounds like the raison d’etre of the CCTV industry, an ideal motto for their guild. One can imagine a special I-Spy book being produced as a training manual for CCTV operators, like the famous Ladybird Computers book that was used to train MoD officials in IT; ‘Vagrant in Sector 10: I-Spy for 20, dispatch community police officers’).

Amazingly, the 1961 book does mention CCTV, albeit in a different context. It seems that construction was a spectator sport in those days, understandable with new ‘sixties’ architecture appearing from the rubble of WWII. Special viewing facilities were available at building sites, and were apparently common enough to include in an I-Spy book. These included a ‘televiewing platform’ (Score 20), in which ‘Closed circuit television is installed and on a large monitor screen…you can see the work in progress in areas that would otherwise be hidden’.

I’m all for exploring ‘areas that would otherwise be hidden’ and I love the way this little book makes everything seem pregnant with meaning…

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Despite walking nearly 25 miles, I still hadn’t reached Leighton Buzzard, site of childhood holidays and source of my first Robert E. Howard Conan book (as described earlier). I had gone to sleep in the MK hotel to the sounds of drunken revelry turning nasty, closing-time shouting and what sounded like barking police dogs from seven floors below. No evidence remained in the empty square this sunny morning.

For the second week running, I enjoyed a solitary breakfast, and headed to the station – walking like the Tin Woodman in the aftermath of yesterday’s exertions.

The train took me back to Leighton Buzzard station, actually in Linslade. When we came here on holiday I would have extra pocket money, which I would use to buy various books and comics. I always seemed to find unexpected delights, an unexpected new Jack Kirby comic, for instance, so Leighton has always seemed like the source of abundant blessings. However, as I walked towards it, early impressions were of a run-down town, and I was resigned to the place of idyllic memories having become an unrecognisable Dystopia. For a moment, ‘the borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in’ as they did for Conan when in the grip of the ‘the unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian’

I walked up to WHSmiths, not really knowing what to expect or what, specifically, I was looking for. It was market day, and a stall outside sold graphic novels – a good omen, as if this was some special site for the fantastic, a ley line intersection of pulp imaginings.

Inside, on my patch of personal holy ground, I walked through the modern-day Smiths – dirty, down at heel and directionless (the shop that is). I looked at the fiction shelves, knowing of course that Robert E. Howard books were unlikely to be there for today’s 13-year-olds to find. But… I was wrong. Not only was there an REH book, but one I didn’t already have – The Haunter of the Ring, a collection of supernatural yarns.

Buoyed by this find, I strolled slowly around the sunny market square. The book, the fine day, the trader offering a cabbage and a cauli for one pound fifty, the two old Polish guys smoking on the steps of the Market Cross – all seemed like a reminder that, as Howard wrote (giving his barbarian hero a bipolar upswing), ‘Life was good and real and vibrant after all, not the dream of an idiot god’.

Soon it would be time to get the train back to MK, then home. For now I was glad that the place I remembered seemed in good spirits. Easier to let go of the past knowing that some of its places are carrying on by themselves in a good style.

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Wanting an early start, I walked down the empty Midsummer Boulevard to get the first X5 bus to Buckingham at 5.50. The heatwave seemed to have broken, the air an aspic gray.

The bus was quite full of long-haul travellers headed for Oxford and early-shift workers. As we sped along the A421 I realised that I had left my map in the hotel. It would have been perfectly possible to buy a return ticket and go back, but to do so would have seemed somehow… ignoble. I resolved to find one in Buckingham. The bus set me down outside Tesco, where I had finished the last leg. The supermarket was open 24 hours, and I bought supplies for the day. No maps on offer however. Ditto the Total garage. Tesco’s own garage had maps – it even had the orange Explorer maps that I use – just not the one I needed. So I headed into town to wait for WHSmiths to open, a 90-minute wait, watching the town come to life in a gray drizzle – beginning to feel a Conanic ‘gigantic melancholy’.

However, by 8.35 and I had the right map in my hand. Back-up plans involving the library (open at 9.30, would definitely have maps but may have applied strict copyright laws and forbidden photocopying) and the University bookshop (open a 10 and would have been the last resort) were not required. A Subway was open too, so I treated myself to a coffee and set off through parks by the Great Ouse.

Soon the Bernwood Jubileee Way took me beyond the A421 to countryside. In contrast to last week’s sunny walking,the grey wet landscape was cheerless, like Conan’s Cimmeria, as he describes it in The Phoenix on the Sword: ‘A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded…Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always gray…There is little mirth in that land.’

The fields were lush and wet with rain, so that walking through them gave my legs a cold shower and turned me into a seed-bearer.

Soon my boots were filled with water and I squished the rest of the day (although the boots themselves are waterproof, I’m guessing the socks drew moisture in from my sopping trousers.)

A bit of the dismantled railway line and some road walking took me towards the Padbury Brook. Part of the path crossed a field waist-deep in plants – don’t know what they are, but the flower-heads looked as if they will flower soon – future walkers will be wading through a pink sea, buzzing with bees.

I got lost on the brook and had to navigate my way back on to the route. Moral: it’s never the compass or map that’s wrong, it’s always you.

Fed up now of walking along soaking, vague pathways and roads with cars regularly swishing past, I was contemplating finding a rural bus and giving up. A disused railway came as my salvation. The stretch of the Oxford-Bletchley line still has tracks, albeit broken and grown through with foxgloves and saplings, and isn’t an official cycleway or any kind of leisure amenity. Walking along it seems neither forbidden nor compulsory. I followed it for around 2.5 miles to Winslow, enjoying its overgrown hidden world, like a ruined future or a branch line for ghost trains.

It was brightening up now, so much so that I was able to shed layers of clothing. I walked through Winslow and on to Swanbourne, where I stopped for a drink in The Betsey Wynne. This new pub, built by the Swanbourne Estate and named after a famous diarist of the Napoleonic era, was very pleasant – somehow combining a Milton-Keynes-style spacious anonymity with a rural feel. I wished I had got there early enough to sample their locally-produced food, having lived on oat bars for 10 miles.

And we were back to ‘summer classic’, with blue skies and white clouds as I walked on to Stewkley and Soulbury, approaching places dimly recalled from childhood holidays. The countryside resembled that I walked through last week, perhaps because I had resumed the walk too quickly, so that ‘they’ had not had time to assemble any new. “Do not make too much haste on one’s road” says Chilon of Sparta, wisely in my view.

The going was easier now, through green lanes and open fields. The hedges were lush and overgrown, so one never quite knew what a new stile would reveal.

Not much more to say – I was aching from the long walk (GPS clocked over 24 miles, mostly done with sodden feet) and marched through the last few miles of summer fields largely oblivious.

On the final bit of road towards Linslade, I found this drinking fountain, on a stretch of road now fit only for cars, built for Victoria’s Jubilee and restored for Elizabeth’s in 1977. Instead of water it offered me this ‘vomiting lion’ motif.

Limped into Linslade. It was too late to go to Conan’s realm of Leighton Buzzard, so I found the station; chatted about I-Spy with the ticket guy (I now wear the badge); got back to MK and walked up the Boulevard. Decided to eat at Wetherspoons as I didn’t think I’d have the energy to come out again once I reached the hotel. I love this building: newly built, like a giant car showroom, but with corners of wood-panelling like a screensaver of pubbishness. The Atlantis flyer had been replaced with one for an Independence Day beer due to go on sale the next day, July 4th. I put on headphones and listened to Astral Weeks, a favourite summer album, blocking out the soundtrack of the bar. My other senses heightened, I noticed how two separate lone men were muttering to themselves, checked I wasn’t doing the same (maybe mouthing Van’s lines about ‘the viaducts of your dreams’), smelled delicious roll-up smoke drifting in from the bright terrace, tasted the clear brown depths of beer while the young couple next to me drank champagne. As the Buddhists at the nearby Peace Pagoda may do on occasion, I radiated waves of love and compassion outwards in ever-increasing circles, across the MK street grid, the Buckinghamshire fields and the sunken lands where made-up adventures happen.

Map

Photos

Photo-map

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The last two days of walking have been triangulated against some kind of literature. The next will be no exception, as I am heading for Leighton Buzzard where, back in about 1974, I bought a book that has retained great meaning for me over the years – Conan of Cimmeria. This paperback, which I have in my bag, was the first collection of Conan stories I read. Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero captivated my teenage imagination – stories about a marvellous world combining every kind of adventure story, full of scary monsters a bit like those of H.P. Lovecraft, but with a hero who prevailed over them rather than passively subsiding into insanity as HPL’s protagonists tended to do. For me, the Hyborian Age started in the WHSmith in Leighton Buzzard, LU7 7DN – accessing a rich seam of pulp literature, and a sense that one should (as the Quakers say) ‘live adventurously’. So revisiting the place is an essential milestone on this walk.

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet” wrote Howard, describing what we might now call a ‘portfolio career’ – rather than specialising in, say, ‘reaving’ as a job-for-life, Conan use his transferable skills through many roles – buccaneer, mercenary, king etc. Similarly, I have multiple roles (albeit less colourful – ‘Hither came Mister Roy, a marketeer, a science fiction fan…’ doesn’t set the pulse racing). Whereas Conan tends to progress from one thing to another, my various aspects all seem to coexist, which can make me feel like the leader of a small unruly squadron, always threatening to deploy the wrong technique at the right time: doing a business presentation as a piece of performance art, turning a poem into a marketing matrix.

Life is complex like that and I guess we’re all mashups of diverse elements. As well as multiple identities, there are multiple realities to negotiate. In a great piece about London, Michael Moorcock suggest that creation of virtual identities and virtual living environments is a survival strategy, effective ‘as long as we’re fully conscious’, and talks about psychogeography as the recovery of lost London. Personally, I’m not from London, so I don’t have those particular ancient paths to rediscover. My quest is to stitch together the places and times where I’ve ended up, virtual or otherwise; an assemblage of cities, towns and villages and the unknown tracts of lands in between. Which is why I’m walking, trying to explore my own real/virtual worlds by physically slogging through them. Rather than psychogeography I’m calling what I’m doing autobiogeography – a conflation of ‘autobiography’ and ‘geography’, but also the ‘biogeography of myself’ – my own physical (blood sweat blisters and local real ale) interaction with places. As well as walking I’m creating this meandering document, like Conan in his throne-room, drawing a map of the semi-legendary places he had wandered through, because the official ones were ‘vague and faulty’ concerning his ‘northern countries’.

All of which brings me to be walking up Midsummer Boulevard in Milton Keynes, on a hot midsummer night. I haven’t discovered any evidence of Conan’s prehistoric Hyborian Age, but in a Wetherspoons I find unexpected evidence of an even more ancient world – a flyer for an art show called All Hail Atlantis, vortex of illumination.

Milton Keynes isn’t actually on the walk, but will be my base for two nights while I try a haul from Buckingham to Leighton Buzzard. This is the longest time I’ve spent in MK and the experience of visiting the centre is very enjoyable – I love the spacious walkways and unbroken modern-ness. Perhaps I’m appreciating what J.G. Ballard described as ‘the ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity’. The Encore hotel, a new sub-brand of simple-cheap-efficient sleeping machines launched by the Ramada chain, seems intent on counterbalancing any alienation with words: they are ‘exciting, passionate, fresh, stylish, vibrant, upbeat and refreshing’. By Crom, that’s a lot of adjectives – qualities I hope will infuse me during a long walk.

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On Sunday morning I awoke in the Crown Inn, an old hotel in the market town of Brackley. I resolved to get away quickly rather than waiting for the 8am breakfast. However this plan was foiled by the fact that no-one was around to take my money. Rather than do a runner into the rapidly-heating morning, I whiled away some time in the room, looking out on the backs of other buildings and imagining a desert-landscape in the bad paintjob of the windowsill.

The interlude gave me some time to read the June section of Mere England, a long poem about Buckinghamshire by J.H.B. Peel written in 1946 – switching poets from ‘Northampton’ John Clare as I prepared to switch counties. Peel (minor to the point of subatomicness compared to Clare) wrote ‘What other heaven is there to compare/with noon along the lanes and in the fields?’ but I feared the debilitating heat of ‘the prime of the summer’, wondering if I could carry enough water to keep hydrated through the long hours.

The hotel woke up and I had a solitary breakfast in the restaurant, lachrymose pop providing an incongruous soundtrack, some sad bleating about Avalon that was neither Roxy Music nor Van Morrison.

I got on the way about 8.20, giving Brackley a last look, white balloons on town hall tower and names of old battlegrounds on the war memorial. I get the impression that Brackley is a motor-racing town, with fading photos of Grand Prix winners framed on the hotel walls, pit stop men in the pubs, and high-tech F1 supply chain manufacturers building headquarters on the outskirts.

The walk started through parkland, and progressed through fields and woods…

…I picked up a disused railway for part of the time…

…all beneath what Peel refers to as ‘this gaudy sun, this pith of pomp/this emblem god, this other universe’ – so hot that I could barely think beyond navigating to the next stile.

I made a deliberate detour to visit a tiny village called Water Stratford, because of this passage from Highways and Byways in Buckinghamshire (1910):

Water Stratford was once the scene of great religious excitement. Its rector between 1674 and 1694 was one John Mason. Towards the close of his career he became a fanatic who believed that he was Elias, and he persuaded thousands of people in the neighbouring country to believe this also. They called Water Stratford “Mount Zion”, and great numbers of his disciples sold their property, left their homes and went to live in barns and tents until the day of judgement, which they imagined was only a few months hence. The service included dancing, clapping of hands, and wild shrieking, with singing to the violin, tabor and pipe. Some shouted while they danced “Appear, Appear, Appear.” Mason foretold his own resurrection after three days, and his successor as rector, Isaac Rushworth, actually had his predecessor’s grave opened and the body exposed to the public view in the hope of convincing the deluded people that their “Elias” had not prophesied accurately. Not withstanding this there were followers of Mason assembled here for long years afterwards.

The village and surrounding fields are very quiet now, and it is hard to imagine an ecstatic mini-Glastonbury taking place here. I had assumed that this would be a forgotten episode in Church and local history, but in fact a plaque has been erected to Mason, and a more balanced story of his life and achievements is being told. Time ameliorates many things. There is a carving over the church doorway, presumably Christ with angels, perhaps a second coming.

The face, through some combination of erosion and the artist’s original intention, has been smoothed and simplified to that of an everyman, Buddha-serene in the heart of a lightning-armed Apocalypse, a cosmic Christ as the Human One, forever breaking into the present moment.

I walked on to Tingewick, a village about a mile away, where I stopped for a drink in the Royal Oak. Consumption of Greene King IPA powered an urge to walk on to Milton Keynes, a further 14 miles or so on top of this day’s 10 and the previous day’s 13.5 – partly bravado and partly a desire not to leave any loose ends. Fortunately I thought better of it and, too tired to take many pictures, limped into Buckingham via a golf course, some reclaimed parkland and a university zone – campus of the only private University to be chartered in this country so far, an enterprise beloved of Maggie Thatcher – so you could say I was visiting Thatcher’s Britain for a few minutes.

I found the bus stop (Tesco Stop C) to get to Milton Keynes and the train home, an extra hard mile as the Tesco in question was on the ring-roaded outskirts, rather than the Tesco Express in the town centre.

The busride gave me a chance to finish J.H.B. Peel’s poem, feeling desperately uncool enjoying the rhyming couplets of the foxhunting Lieutenant, but unable not to respond to his passionate declarations about identity fusing with place, so that ‘non-attachment’s shrug is weak to quell/this loving fire that glows and fans itself.’

Three days later and it’s still hot. My bag is packed for the next leg, not quite feeling a Peelish delight with this heatwave (‘Giddy the soul in the morning/as week upon week weathers fine,/drunk with delight in the evening,/drunk of a wine all divine’) but it’ll do, it’ll do.

Map

Map with photos

Photos

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Back to doing an early morning flit to start the walk; first train out of Ormskirk at 5.50, feeling strangely fragile after a headlong week of work and some sad passings. Seeking cheerful energy, I played a song I remembered as a fun summer tune, the Piranhas’ version of Tom Hark – but in my enervated dawn state it sounded like some kind of seaside apocalypse with its talk of ‘World War Three’ and ‘slapstick in the pantomime’.

I rallied as we approached Banbury. I had assumed that I would walk out of Oxfordshire into Buckinghamshire, but looking at the map on the train I realised that I would actually be spending most of the day in Northants. This bothered me as I like to have some kind of image-fuel for the journey, a sense however tangential of the mythology of the place I’m walking through – otherwise all I’d be doing is looking at scenery and thinking things like ‘yes, that is indeed a hill.’


‘A bush, I believe’

I put out an appeal on the aether and got a recommendation in the form of a query: ‘John Clare?’. This led me to seek out Books & Ink, a pleasant bookshop that did indeed have some books by Clare, agricultural labourer and poet, b1793 d1864. Armed with reading material I adjourned to The Exchange, a Wetherspoons pub, for a second breakfast and some reading time. In this rather subaquatic early-morning-alcoholic territory, I scanned the Clare pieces. Turns out he made a famous journey home once – escaping from an asylum in Epping Forest and walking for four days back to his home in Northamptonshire. He was also ‘devastated by [the] violation of… the open field system’ resulting from the Act of Enclosure. This process destroyed  common ground, accompanied by felling of trees and the creation of straight-line ditches, and Clare wrote poems mourning the passing of the the open land. I resolved to stay aware of ‘enclosure’ as I might encounter it on today’s ‘Careless Rambles’, see how my attempt to ‘wander at my idle will/In summers luscious prime about the fields’ would intersect with various grids of control by paying attention to the ownership of the spaces I walked through.

Returning to the Castle Quay shopping centre where I had finished walking last month, I arranged myself with sunscreen and other defences against the ‘liquid blaze’ of the sun, and set off along the Oxford Canal. My chosen pastime of spotting ‘enclosure’ is almost redundant as everything seems demarcated, fenced, named, owned and overseen by CCTV.

These areas are like the subconscious or maybe conscience of the town – a place for unwanted and hidden things: clutches of empty cans and bottles punctuating the embankments, residua of drinking exercises too freeform and low-cost to be contained even within the expansive hours of Wetherspoons.

I walked a few miles along the canal, in rising heat, now in fields, the canal lined with monsterium plants. After a  while I reached the M40, where I found a small door to some kind of inspection tunnel, monastic night stair or Jefferies Tube within the motorway.

Thinking back, I am surprised that I wasn’t more excited by this opportunity to creep inside the motorway we have driven countless times, that I have crossed thrice already on this walk, and that (I now know from reading Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads) is the site of an early memory of Lady Penelope buzzing beneath a flyover in a Tiger Moth.

On through the rising heat, until I reached Kings Sutton, a village of almost uncanny attractiveness. A wedding was happening in the church, and I watched the bride arriving in a horsedrawn open carriage as I settled in the pub with a pint of Brakspears. Regional tourism marketeers seem keen to claim this place as part of a ‘Flora Thompson Country’, a kind of dream enclosure.

Aside: I am writing this on June 30th, the release date for a western novel called The Tarnished Star by Jack Martin, real name Gary Dobbs; an early-release copy of the book was in my rucksack while I walked; Gary also works as an actor on the TV Larkrise, his Facebook status suggesting that he could be on the set at that moment; his novel skillfully hard-edged, lean writing summoning the shared fantasy world of the traditional western, a genre animated by economic enclosure strategies played out in the West, frontiers advancing and hard men fighting for freedoms already lost. 

I walked on, through fields and small woods, skirting a playing field with a cricket match in progress, and an airfield launching gliders. I began to feel I was in an imaginary England, or even creating one much like the Larkrise actors.

The sense of unreality remained as I walked into Hinton-in-the-Hedges. As I crossed the churchyard I could hear music and see glimpses of bright costumes. Assuming some kind of fete was going on I wandered over, but realised I was heading towards the backstage area of a play, costumed children giving me questioning looks. Not wanting to blunder on to a stage or though a dressing room, I started to slink away, but two women holding scripts brought me back and said I could watch the end (rather than, as Jennie suggested, seeing me off with a Shakespearian insult such as  ‘What hempen homespun have we swaggering here’ – which have been entirely appropriate, as it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they were performing.)

And there was a beer tent. With a pint of Hook Norton Bitter, I sat on a swing and watched the aftermath of the show, whose cast had ages spanning 70 years. It was a pleasant moment, soaking up the atmosphere of people celebrating something that had gone well.

Resisting the temptation to start a new life in friendly Hinton-in-the-Hedges (whose remaining hedges, seen in fly-wing-diagram-pattern on the OS map, suggest that it might have escaped some of the impact of the Act of Enclosure, still having fields spread out in a wheel with the village at it hub’) I completed the last couple of miles to Brackley. I had never thought about Brackley until this trip; I wouldn’t specifically have known that there was such a town, though it sounds plausible enough. Tired, hot and aching I climbed the main street to reach the Crown Inn, alone in this unknown place feeling a bit like John Clare returning to his empty cottage, ‘homeless at home and half gratified to feel that I can be happy any where’.

All the photos

Photos on a map

Map

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