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Archive for the ‘Accounts of the walk’ Category

Saturday at home, awake early, I read a bit of London Orbital, the account of Iain Sinclair’s pre-millennial trek around the M25. As I drift towards London, I want to avoid literally walking in Sinclair’s footsteps. This doesn’t seem likely on the next stretch, as I will be walking outside the M25 while Sinclair and companions were on the inside. I did, however, learn that author Arthur Machen lived out his last years in Amersham, a place I would be passing through later that day.


A desire path on Tesco supermarket territory in Amersham, taken last visit

I walked through Amersham on the last leg, and tonight I would be getting the train there as it is the nearest station to Chalfont St Giles, at least the nearest that looked like it would have a taxi rank. The Machen connection helped me decide what reading matter to take: I pulled down the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Three Impostors that I had been meaning to read for some time, and in a casual act of modern thaumaturgy downloaded his Great God Pan to my iPhone. The latter I have read, a classic weird tale. ‘There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these ‘chases in Arras, dreams in a career,’ beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil…’ (Flashback to lyrics from Leave the Capitol by the Fall, ‘The tables covered in beer…It’s a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square/It’s vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures…I laughed at the great god Pan…All the paintings you recall/All the side stepped cars…’)

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Such things would have to wait for today – my career is not just a torrent of dreams and I was working at a university open day until early afternoon, so it was a few hours before I was striding down St Helens Road, disengaging my workmind, thinking and walking my way back into the route. The train journeys were remarkably speedy – in a sense the starting points have moved closer to home compared with places like Milton Keynes that involved slower trains, changes and waits. Amersham has always fascinated me, being both a country town visited on holiday and the farthest outpost of the London Underground, right in the top left of the famous map. It seemed to join unrelated worlds together. As a teenager when I finally made the trip out from London I was disappointed that the Tube train wasn’t underground the whole time – I wanted to hurtle straight from the city of palaces, museums and bright shops to Amersham’s half-timbered High Street without seeing daylight, passing through a series of ever-quieter underground stops.

Despite this disappointment I’ve been back a few times. One time we stayed at a hotel that had appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral, while being guests at a real wedding. And then there was another time, back when eating food cooked in pleasing ways seemed intrinsically interesting, I arranged a birthday trek for Jennie involving every meal of the day being a nice one in a different town, ending up at an Amersham restaurant called Gilbeys. (Actually this makes us sounds like rampaging gourmands – the meals in question were with relatives and lovely friends like Phil & Di.)

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The White Hart garden next morning

On this night however I spent about two rainy minutes in Amersham and immediately got a taxi to Chalfont St Giles. I was staying at the White Hart, a pleasant food-oriented pub with comfortable accommodation in a separate chalet-like block. There I had an enjoyable dinner, delicious things served on beds of other things on oversized white plates. The decor was a kind of mashup of ‘fresh-clean-modern-bright’ with an underlying pub-ness, silvery abstract prints over the log fire.

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Subsiding into a pleasant tired haze, I started The Three Impostors, a strange episodic non-novel. It will make a great non-guidebook to London once I have crossed the M25 to walk there next year, helping to conjure it as a city of strange encounters where ‘the most ordinary encounters teem with significance’ and chance discoveries lead to Gothic adventures. In Machen it’s never very far from the prosaic world of tobacco-shops and cafes to darkening hills and uncanny ruins, ‘light shining on a little space in the world, and beyond, mist and shadow and awful forms’. For a brief while armed with books like this and an Oyster card maybe I can be ‘one of those whom idleness had led to explore these forgotten outskirts of London’, courting enchantment.

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For a long time now I’ve been pondering the best route to take for the last part of the walk. I could veer off into the southwest, strike the south coast and approach Brighton from the west. Or I could skirt London anticlockwise and end up arriving from the north close to the route of the M23. Or head straight through London and come in via Kent. Each has its attractions, pros and cons and today was the day I would decide.

I left Great Missenden with some gladness. Despite its superficial normality, I had found this place to be sad and uncanny, rather like something from a story by Robert Aickman, or the phantom town of Argleton that has been all over the media recently. Hiking out through autumn paths, leaves cascading down through wild air, felt like escaping a strange impasse.

I spent an hour or so walking past large detached houses, my lower-middle-class bungalow-dweller envy-antennae twitching. Some of its citizens were out, performing their Saturday rituals in a mist that seemed to freeze them in place; jogging, football with kids, driving to get the bloated weekend papers. I stalked past, locked in my own hard-to-explain rite, moving from Great to Little Missenden via a dank A-road underpass, thoughts turning towards the vast sunken cities in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and away from the giant houses of these dormitory villages with their hard-to-maintain gutters and weed-threatened gravel paths.

Soon I was in more open fields, feeling space and silence and the simplicity of just walking for the first time in weeks. A ragged patch of sunlight moved across the red trees. It was All Hallows Eve, a day when some believe that divine beings and spirits can walk around unsummoned. I don’t know what I believe about such things, or indeed anything: a vagueness that contributes to my urge to wander to places that no-one has summoned me to visit. Myths cascade, ideas melt, movement is all that remains… This could be some postmodern condition I’ve inherited, or it could just be a function of geography. J. B. Priestley talks of the ‘mistiness’ of Britain being important, creating landscapes where ‘instead of everything standing out sharply, one thing melts into another, almost like the strange places we see in dreams.’

My unlimbered walking mind free-associated from this to reggae band Misty in Roots, stalwarts of late-70s RAR gigs and festivals, and their memorable declaration that “if you’re not conscious of your present, you’re like a cabbage in this society”. I used to grow cabbages, but these days it’s a rare thing for me to even cook one that hasn’t been pre-shredded and bagged by distant devices. I need to rediscover some slow, real things; I ‘need something to slow me down’ as Joey Ramone once sang. (All proof that, when walking, ‘as the body advances the mind flutters around it like a bird’.)

It may well have been that countless spirits, angels and demiurges manifested themselves around me in the Halloween fields but I didn’t have eyes to see them – except of course for a Home Counties green man, a corporate international mermaid, and Lucifer the light-bringer depicted in the porch of a church (on a poster for a recital of Milton.)

I could have headed southwards towards the hotel we were to stay in, but on a whim headed on eastwards towards Amersham. Here, in the Saturday market bookstall, I made my route decision, using the crude bibliomancy of book purchase. As guides to London and Kent were on offer, that is the way I would go – crossing the metropolis and reaching the east coast before bouncing back to Brighton.

Buoyed by this decision, I started marching westwards, though horse fields and woods to Chalfont St Giles where I finished. Time now in the last of Autumn to re-read Paradise Lost and start towards winter with a more definite aim.

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The Guardian are asking people to blog on the topic ‘Three Things I do to Enjoy England‘, and as I think enjoyment is fine in its way and do often experience it it in England, I decided to shape a post around their theme. I doubt if I’ll be able to emulate the breezy style of the Enjoy England folks (strapline: ‘enjoy every minute’) but I’ll see how far I get before it all falls apart in my hands…

1. See it on foot, up close
This whole journey is about exploring England by walking between two points that have personal meaning for me. This involves crafting a unique long-distance pathway by walking it. The intention is to see all the miles of ‘stuff’ in between the well-known places, to actually walk into the scenery glimpsed from speedy motorway and train journeys. I have found it to be often illuminating and occasionally exhilarating. It is also a kind of silent meditation. England is surprisingly quiet once you get past the dog-walk-distance fringe of towns, and I have walked scores of miles along unpeopled green lanes, field edges and canal paths, through the tame, nearby wilderness. And there is beauty – not always the spectacular kind, but beauty nonetheless. On last weekend’s 15-mile hike, for instance, I found once again the hidden hedged-in promise of obscure pathways, the painterly beauty of ageing concrete…

Walking regularly is to experience the seasons. Branches full of berries signalled Autumn, and even artificial leaves were beginning to fall.

As I rambled to a stop at Great Missenden, tourist-brochure balloons were hovering over the bypass, while time drained gently into the darkness.

2. Consuming local produce
The ever-beguiling variety of England can be experienced through local styles of food and drink such as cheese, buns, oatcakes and real beer. I knew there was a Tring Brewery and, as I was going to walk around its hometown, set myself the ask of finding and drinking one of its products. This involved visiting a few pubs, itself a pleasant way to ‘enjoy England’ as a good boozer offers a way to be part of a place temporarily, a draft of its inner psyche that can be refreshing, amusing or alarming. In a Red Lion there was no Tring but I had an Everards Equinox, an Autumn-themed beer, specific in time if not place. (Everards is brewed in Leicestershire.) The pub was a pleasant place to shelter from the sun but the experience was marred by a fitful, snipy domestic being played out by the licensees. I was tempted to go straight to the next pub for an overwrite – another Lion, this time White – but pressed on along canals, including the short dead-end Wendover Arm.

Strangely the next pub I found was also a White Lion, and I saw yet another pub of this name at the end of the walk. The latter was a wine bar affair heaving with men in suits – in the middle of a village street it looked like a piece of London somehow miraculously visible from afar. The one I actually went to was a very different affair – so fiercely local that I believe a fight (or rather ‘instant ignominious beating at the hands of a Zouave-like local fellow’) could have been mine, had I required it.

And still no Tring. For that I had to venture off my planned route into the town itself, where in a pub called the Akeman I found one of the local brews – Tring’s Doc Dimsdale. This beer had been brewed for just this month, and so was specific to time and place – result! I liked the Akeman, finding it friendly and well-stocked with food and drink. It styles itself as an ‘exciting, modern interpretation of an original Public House’ and as such it’s all steel, stone and focaccia bread. Being an ‘interpretation’ it has some nice ‘quotes’ from the universe of real pubs, like these hooks on the front of the bar, as seen in traditional bars throughout the land:

I’ve never been quite sure what function these have; I always imagine in my cliche-mind the local poacher tying his dog to them. So it seemed anomalous that these tribute-act interpreted ones were square and made of brushed steel: they had been hypermodernised under the careful eye of a designer. This detail, combined with the relaxing effect of Tring’s pleasant coppery beer, made me laugh out loud, somewhat to the consternation of a group of after-work M&S workers negotiating their wine order.

3. Share words and pictures
My personal enjoyment of my journey is greatly enhanced by being able to tell people about it, layering more stories on to a storied isle. I try and read about the places I visit, using old books that offer no practical help to the modern walker. Highways and Byways in Buckinghamshire (1910) for instance, tells tales of the ‘black cannons’ ruling the region from the original of the Abbey where I stayed; of their use of the ‘oil of black snails'; of its rebuilding by ‘an opulent ironmonger in Holborn’. In a tiny way I try to add to the store of such things. And like the creator of an illuminated manuscript, I can add pictures too:

In the Cross Keys in Great Missenden I met a man who told me some of his stories. ‘Do you mind if I sit next to you? You don’t want to catch what I’ve got. [Holds out arms of different lengths.] I was injured in the war. They picked up the wrong arm. This is a woman’s arm. When I go to the gents it won’t let go.’ Bob told me this story and eight or nine others over and over, retelling them without ceasing, sometimes repeating the same one immediately. His memory is, I suppose, mostly shot away so that only his core stories remain. He lives opposite in sheltered housing and I get the impression he comes into the pub often. The people in there are friendly to him but ration their attention. I was happy to listen and respond over and over again; I found it relaxing after a long walk. I enjoyed his company but felt sad, imagining what it would be like to be reduced to a small area and a few looping tales, to have lost so much time, so much space, to enjoy just a last few yards of England and a last few stories. I feel thankful that the tales the world is telling me remain for now expansive, far-ranging and surprising, even if I do feel adrift in them sometimes, symbols cascading in…

Bob and I talked under the sign of The Cross Keys. These are the keys of heaven, the ones given to Saint Peter, to whom Christ said ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’. Are lost events and broken memories bound somehow and hardwired into an eternal space, or loosed and set free, or just dissolved? On this ramble I didn’t see gates to heaven but perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. But there’s no hurry. The longest journeys end, perhaps at ‘twelve pearls, each gate being made from a single pearl’. Could it be that if you reach such gates all you need with you are a few of your best stories?

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Continued

I’ve left stuff out, so I need to rewind. Back in Mentmore I left Jennie and Wendy in the pub for a while and went to look at my grandparents’ old house. This was a poignant moment – as everything looks the same as it always did, there seemed no reason why I could not go into the house, where my Nan would make a cup of tea, where the bookshelves in the bedroom would be filled with the old Tarzan books with the red covers, and where my grand-dad would lend me a strange old prototype safety razor to remove an ill-considered teenage jazz beard.

I passed the walls of the little yard where I had once chopped wood and played with my grand-dad’s airgun, and walked into the churchyard. There was no-one around.

In a shaded side of the churchyard there is a gate.

Decades ago my Nan painted an earlier version of this PRIVATE sign.

Beyond that gate are the grounds of Mentmore Towers, a huge gothic stately home. Built for the Rothschilds, once the estate of the Rosebery family, it became the world headquarters of Transcendental Meditation and was sold again to developers. It may have a future as a six-star hotel with 101 suites, one of which would therefore be Room 101, perhaps to be marketed to Orwell fans; it may actually have rats in it now as the development has been stalled for years. It has appeared in films, notably in de Sade biopic Quills and as Wayne Manor in Batman Begins.

Back when grandparents were alive, we would pass through the ‘private’ gate with impunity, initially because my grandfather had some kind of feudal relationship with the Rosebery estate, and later because locals had tacit approval to wander the grounds. Now, those entitlements no longer applied.
Going through the gate would be a small transgression, a trespass on private property.
Or an attempt to regain a loved dead past.
Or an attempt to breach the walls of myth and Batcave unconscious (Viscount Greystoke the jungle Lord contending with the libertine Marquis in a shadow-filled collapsing ballroom).

Really, I needed to get back to the Stag – where Jennie and Wendy were waiting, and where the others may already have arrived, ready to walk… Nevertheless, I pushed the gate. It moved, maybe an inch, but the weight of stems and branches grown through it was too much and it would not open enough for a living man to pass through. I left it there, probably forever, and walked back to the pub and onwards.

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Continued

Walking along the lanes, I began to approach territory familiar from several holidays at my grandparents’ house, back when I was a child/teenager/young man.

In those days I would often walk alone, away from the cottage, along these very roads. In today’s heat and middleage, heading towards the remembered place, I imagined that I might encounter some earlier version of myself walking the other way, strolling unconcerned. Perhaps, as in Derek Walcott’s poem Love After Love,

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

Maybe this wasn’t the time, though I did get a nice meal. Unlike my normal solo, narcissistic wanderings, today was to be a sociable occasion.

I met up with Jennie again down by Mentmore green, and we headed to the Stag to have lunch with Wendy, a friend and former colleague. Despite being a few minutes late already, I darted into an unmanned charity bookstall for a few seconds. A quick glance confirmed the lack of rare pulp, but based on the title I bought a book called Strange Holiday by Geoffrey Lapage. This turned out to be a Famous Five style children’s book in which a stretch of south Wales is transformed into ‘the country of the adventure’, complete with a map. Lapage has a varied output, including The Ladybird Book of Bedtime Rhymes and Nematodes parasitic in animals… but I digress.

Into the Stag, where a nice lunch was had.

We met up with Wendy’s husband Rich, and their awesome kids Finn and Ellie. While Jennie went off to a National Trust, we walked along a tree-lined avenue where I remember having picnics and climbing trees.

We ended up at another pub, in Cheddington. We hadn’t foiled any smugglers, but in a small way we had made the territory into a ‘map of adventure’. The walk, one of the shortest, was over… but the blogging isn’t.

To be continued

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