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.