Two months after completing the last section, I got back to The Lakes Station, south of Birmingham, ready to continue. In my pack: some oat bars, the new camera, selected poems of Thomas Traherne, and two china mugs purchased in a desperate hurry in the centre of Birmingham.
I was on the Midland Link, an extension of the North Worcestershire Path which I had been walking since Birmingham. I was now in Warwickshire, ‘the very heart of very England’ according to Arthur Mee. It was a clear day with a watery sun, puddles coated with thin skins of ice. I walked through a few fields, clambered stiles and bridges.
|From The Lakes to Turner’s Green|
Interlude: ‘How like an Angel’: Thomas Traherne
I don’t usually read during these trips but, perhaps because of the lengthening journey I had brought a book along. Shakespeare would have made sense, this being ‘his’ county, but like a lot of people I only have a bulky Complete Works. Instead I grabbed Thomas Traherne: Selected Writings – works by a 17th-century poet and religious writer. I got this a while ago having read quotes from him in a crime novel in the female-priest-and-exorcist-in-Herefordshire-solving-apparently-supernatural-crimes subgenre, The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman (first in the Merrily Watkins series, highly recommended.) On the hour, alerted by my watch, I stopped and read a few lines of Traherne’s ecstatic, everyday mysticism: ‘A living temple of all ages I/within me see/A temple of Eternity!/All kingdoms I descry/In me.‘ The conclusion of his meditation ‘The Third Century’ is an exhilarating manifesto: ‘…God being, as we generally believe, infinite in goodness, it is most consonant and agreeable with His nature, that the best things should be most common. For nothing is more natural to infinite goodness, than to make the best things most frequent; and only things worthless scarce. Then I began to enquire what things were most common: Air, Light, Heaven and Earth, Water, the Sun, Trees, Men and Women, Cities, Temples, &c. These I found common and obvious to all: Rubies, Pearls, Diamonds, Gold and Silver, these I found scarce, and to the most denied. Then began I to consider and compare the value of them which I measured by their serviceableness, and by the excellencies which would be found in them, should they be taken away. And in conclusion, I saw clearly, that there was a real valuableness in all the common things; in the scarce, a feigned.’ I like this, partly as it includes ‘Men and Women, Cities, Temples, &c’ and not just ‘nature’, and partly as its countercultural ethos resonates with my own assessment of ‘excellencies’: the reason I have decided to walk between two obscure stations in Warwickshire rather than, say, climb Snowdon or sip champagne on an airship drifting beneath an exotic sun.
An abandoned bounty of crab apples lay on the ground, all duly photographed as I enjoyed the potlatch profligacy of a camera with a gigantic storage card. After a while I was crossing the M42, recording one of its marginal corners, wondering how many times we have driven beneath this bridge unaware of details such as this sapling, beginning to attack the fence.
Interlude: Broken Vessel: making a Paul’s Pitcher
According to The English Year by Steve Roud, consulted rapidly on the way out at 6am, today is the Eve of St Paul’s Conversion. Apparently this was celebrated by Cornish miners with ‘a custom of setting up a water pitcher, which they then pelt with stones until it is broken in pieces‘ after which ‘a new one is…bought and carried to a beer-shop to be filled with beer.’ I’m not sure what I think about St Paul, or conversion for that matter, but the symbolism of an old vessel being shattered and a new one filled seemed worthy of expression. I conceived the idea of buying two cups, breaking one then filling another like the Cornish miners, or failing that ‘throwing broken crockery at people’s doors, or into their hallways‘ (another old custom.) (I wasn’t really considering this; don’t write in…) Finding I had a 40-minute wait in Birmingham I went is search of crockery. This being the town centre, no charity shops or Poundlands presented themselves so I ended up in House of Fraser with minutes to spare, fuming behind dawdlers on the several escalators leading to the homeware department. I scanned the china with a rising sense of alarm – Villeroy and Boche coffee cups for £10.95 in the sale – thinking ‘I can’t back out now; this is art, maybe even religion…’ But I found some £1.50 items in the cheapskates’ section. A stone by a small stiled bridge (redundant as there’s a wide open gate next to it) provided an opportunity for the breaking.
The next day,to complete the process, it was time to ‘raise the goblet in the forest’ – the whole (as opposed to broken) cup now filled with tea.
(Afterwards, I thought I would see what the Two of Cups symbolised in the Tarot. A deck was open by the book I was looking for, the Two of Cups (union of entities, worlds of lovers) lying on the top.)
A couple of miles of fields, and a railway line crossing brought me to Tanworth-in Arden. I had a drink in the Bell. It was not very pub-like with its ‘gleaming, modern interior’ but did have some nice features: a local produce market in the car park (where I bought a piece of oak smoked cheese by Fowlers of Earlswood), a small shop and Post Office next to the bar. When my pint of Slater’s Top Totty proved vinegary as well as unreconstructed, it was changed without demur for the ever-reliable Landlord.
I was musing at the horrendous nature of the muzak they were playing when I noticed a framed picture of Nick Drake. The captions explained that Drake had lived in Tanworth and was buried in the church opposite. Nick Drake! As well as being a surprise opportunity to pay respects to a great artist, this was also a piece of synchronicity as the very Phil Rickman book that had turned me on to Thomas Traherne also featured a character based on Nick Drake, which inspired me to seek out his music. (Our friend the Revd Dr Sharon X. Jones once made me a tour t-shirt for the fictional Drakealike character Lol Robinson as a birthday present – back at the height of our enthusiasm for these books, when we would talk endlessly about them, sometimes whilst drinking Hereford cider to round out the atmosphere, alienating all surrounding friends.)
I visited the modest grave (bottom left), and the church, and moved on.
The way out of Tanworth involves a mile-long avenue leading to a house called Umberslade – a long straight treelined path that stands out on the map and sucked many photographs out of me, beautiful in the blue-skied winter afternoon.
There is a ‘children’s farm’ on the Umberslade estate and for some miles afterward I felt strangely bereft, as a childless middle-aged wanderer. Normally my thoughts on the subject are more ‘Cool! No kids – don’t need to pay much attention to pureed food, sippy cups or schools’ rather than ‘Shit! Forgot to have any kids – may be missing out’ – so why was I suddenly choked up at the thought of imaginary, unhad children watching goats being milked in an out-of-season tourist attraction?
Skirting the grounds of Umberslade, now mapped by me as a beautifully-named nexus of paths unwalked and alternative lives unled (which themselves may live somewhere, maybe in Traherne’s ‘Eden fair’), I reached the M40. This highway is the main artery that we use when driving (rather than walking episodically) to Brighton. There was a tunnel beneath the motorway but I clambered to the top of a bank to get a glimpse of the road.
From there, a mile zigzagging across fields took me to Lapworth. The afternoon was quite bright now.
I would have visited the church, but believing I had a train to catch hurried onwards.
After another mile I joined the Stratford-Upon-Avon canal for a while, then dashed through commuter-village streets to Lapworth Station. I thought the trains went on at 13 minutes past each hour, however a) I was only partially correct; there was no 15.13 in the timetable and b) the 16.13 was cancelled. I therefore had a two-hour wait. (Some gentle mockery of our creaky public transport system could follow, but Merseytart does it so much better so I refer you to him.) I decided to do a bit more and then double back – an extra couple of miles that I may have to do again, hopefully not as it involved an unpleasantly muddy stretch of canal, a kind of slippery sticky mud. A nice pub, Tom O’ The Wood in Rowington, was my reward. There (By my green candle!) I had a pint of Pure Ubu.
After that, it was back up the sticky canalside to Lapworth, light failing, to catch the first of three trains back home. Nearly at home around 9.30pm I encountered the remnants of 500 Scouts who had spent the evening navigating through the local countryside.
Interlude: ‘Hank Williams died when I was five’: iPod shuffle
As well as reading odd bits of Traherne, I let my iPod serve up a random song every hour. Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt singing ‘Raise the Dead’. Johnny Cash introducing a song at San Quentin, talking about the miracle at Cana: “He turned the water into wine, of all things.” Martha Wainwright’s opening line that “Poetry is no place for a heart that’s a whore” heard in a strangely peaceful wooded dell-like place mere yards from the M40 Southbound lane. One of The Creation’s songs, their music ‘red with purple flashes’, a blazing anthem: “I Am The Walker“. And that will do for today, however sad it is to live one life rather than all possible lives, however the broken vessel will be filled; for today at least I am The Walker.