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.’
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’.