I have a nagging sense of guilt that I don’t post enough in this blog. Perhaps there are people who keep revisiting, hoping for new stuff, doomed to frequent disappointment. (If this is you, I’d suggest getting hip to RSS feeds, for instance with Google Reader – then I’ll come to you, without you having to lift a cyberfinger, and all will be well.)
So why the infrequent posting? Well, bits of the actual walk can only happen once a month or so, especially now that I’ve reached the Midlands, and that dictates the frequency really. I could post about any walking experience as a way of keeping the blog stoked up, in which case you’d be treated to stuff like ‘Walked from home to garage to buy milk, 0.2 miles. On the way saw three Relentless caffeine drink cans in the gutter – oddly, one of each flavour, as if someone had done a high-speed taste-test. Got milk: 85p. Walked back.’ Such posts would be somewhat nugatory, and if I did a lot of them would, I think detract from the overall thrust of Walking Home to 50. (However, if you fancy a random stream of minutiae, feel free to follow me on Twitter.)
One thing that I can do between actual walks is buy books which might give some insight into the places I’m headed for. Usually I look in secondhand shops, which involves frequent encounters with the King’s England series, 41 mainly county-themed books edited by Arthur Mee, starting in the 1930s. There has been some interest in Mee recently, including a radio programme and an informative blog post by Steve Holland. I remember reading Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and One Thousand Beautiful Things when I was small, marvelling at the wonders of nature and Empire. I also remember my Nan pointedly remarking that Mee’s Children’s Newspaper (which ceased publishing when I was about three) had been a good read, after I had forced her to take me to a newsagents so that I could buy The Mighty World of Marvel or somesuch.
The Kings England kicks off with Enchanted Land, subtitled Half-a-Million Miles in the King’s England – ‘a New Domesday Book of 10,000 Towns and Villages’. This exuberant book, a sort of metatext for the whole series, speeds around the country, rushing to everywhere wide-eyed and enthusiastic – a bunch of people seeing ‘a hundred thousand lovely things in our half million miles’. It is a bracing read, which makes visiting a carved font in a village church seem as eye-poppingly exciting and unprecedentedly new as, say, teleporting to undiscovered planets or riding dinosaurs. Enchanted Land has thematic chapters (such as The Great Roads and the Little Lanes) rather than geographical ones, so it doesn’t work well as a guidebook o gazetteer; in the index one finds ‘Past, our Wonderful’ next to ‘Patcham’. But it is great for serendipitous discovery: Patcham church, for insyamce, has an interesting depiction of Judgement Day above it Norman chancel arch.
I recently found a book that attempts something similar but with a very different flavour: The Wayside Book by Gilbert Rumbold, published in 1934. Like Mee and his associates, Rumbold travels vast swathes of England, rattling off a series of brief comments on places visited. It is ‘a compendium of odd places wherein charm lies awaiting appreciation’, dedicated to ‘all true vagabonds who carry a silk purse and know a good living when they find it’. However, whereas Temperance-campaigner Mee was understandably disinterested in ‘hostelries’, Rumbold gives them much loving attention. Indeed, he seems almost impatient to get to licensed premises and tends to give them more space than the conventional historic attractions: ‘Near the fine castle stands the Bell hotel, another fine old inn whose interior yard has been converted into a lounge hall. Mainly Georgian in its quite graceful proportions…’ In a way his insider’s view of various ‘ancient hostelries’, coaching inns and ‘modern roadhouses’ is a precursor to today’s Good Pub/Ale/Beer Guides, and I look forward to testing out the continued validity of his views.
I see Rumbold as a slightly raffish cousin to Mee – an appropriate role, perhaps, for the man who illustrated The Savoy Cocktail Book.
In my own way (camp, tangential and misanthropic as it may be) , I also hope to ‘quench the thirst for adventure with the fine wine of romance, or the good ale of contentment’ as one of Rumbold’s vagabonds, and to set down what I have ‘seen in this Enchanted Land’ like one of Mee’s ‘recording angels’.