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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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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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The next legs of the journey will take me through Buckinghamshire. This being the case, I have picked up a guidebook of sorts: Buckinghamshire Footpaths, by J.H.B. Peel, found in Wigtown (‘Scotland’s book town’) while on holiday. Buckinghamshire Footpaths was published in 1949, when a Britain battered by war was re-creating itself, and part of Peel’s purpose is to prompt readers to see preservation of countryside as an essential part of that re-creation: ‘Unable ever again to conquer others, let us now conquer ourselves.’

Peel, a poet whose work included Mere England, a long work about Buckinghamshire, sees parts of his county as examples of the kind of countryside that needs preserving. Whereas ‘The Londonward side of Amersham…is marred beyond mending’, ‘the northern half of Buckinghamshire is curiously ill-served by railways and main roads, and has therefore retained a relatively high degree of civilization’. For Peel this meant a lack of ‘Cosy cafes, palaces-of-dance, super-cinemas and other attributes of progress’, a place to experience ‘that sense of peace, which is an Absolute of Life’.

Of course, things have changed in the three-score-and-ten since the book was written. Peel could not imagine there being a reason to change the ‘unsophisticated’ nature of the county, giving as a hypothetical example the absurdity of running a bus service between the small hamlets of Milton Keynes and Woughton-on-the-Green. These days, the number 18 runs on the hour, reaching Woughton without ever leaving the huge version of Milton Keynes that now embraces the whole area.

Personally, I can see a beauty in many of the things that Peel would deplore – motorway services, gigantic New Towns and all. And yet I see myself in this picture:

To the quiet man who in these unquiet times is braced and made whole again by contact with things strong and steadfast and English, his County…is a very haven, in which he will find, not escape nor mere distraction, but the still, small voice of reality, cool and unwavering and melodious amid the vast mirage of contemporary arrogance and haste.

Although I now live in Lancashire, and have fond memories of boyhood holidays in Bucks, my county will always be Sussex, the destination of this walk. There I might find the ‘still, small voice of reality’, perhaps in the ‘cool and melodious’ spring that emerges beneath the escarpment of the Downs at Fulking… but perhaps in the foyer of a ‘super-cinema’ on the seafront.

Arguably I am one of the ‘good English folk, or proud Britons’ Peel writes for, mongrel quarter-Jap that I am; I am certainly glad enough that there are woods, fields and old buildings around. However I can’t bring myself to believe in a pure, essential set of ‘things strong and steadfast and English’, unconnected from other ‘things’ and somehow unchangeable. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist: I’ll keep an eye out for them as I wander through Bucks and beyond…

But it will be a careful eye. With concepts like ‘Britishness’ being grasped at by charmless fascist-wannabes and latter-day Thule Society types – cueing late-70s memories of Anti-Nazi League rallies in Brighton and London, a bloated man mouthing abuse at the marchers from the patio of a famously Hitler-loving south coast B&B, the long heat of the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Bernie outside Hassocks station batting away a skinhead with his skateboard, Pils-soaked gigs in the Vault and the Hanbury Arms, the Resource Centre getting trashed – in such times I guess it is important to try and distinguish between one’s own romantic fantasies, and other people’s manipulative dreams. As for ‘reality’, I may not know much but I do know that it can’t be tamed, packaged  or colonised.

I think I can spot my own fantasies and, to some extent, the paradoxes and contradictions within them. On the one hand, I can fill with emotion at the thought of English lanes in ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, pints of ale in Tolkien’s Shire, the England depicted in the fat ‘Books of…’ and ‘Guides to…’ published by the AA and National Trust that arrived at our house through the 1970s, TV’s luminous Larkrise with Gary Dobbs looking at vegetables in a sunlit square, and countless other lovely, idealised pasts.  At the same time I can join the Hope not Hate people in celebrating a diverse ‘modern’ Britain, and yearn for the lost Utopian possibilities of the 1960s mourned in the works of H.S.Thompson and M. Moorcock, transforming, exciting futures.  Meanwhile Brighton, my lodestone, offers as a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and subcultures, unfixable and therefore endlessly desirable. Earthquake, storm, fire – then the still small voice.

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