A nicely timed work gig meant we were in the Birmingham Hilton Metropole Hotel at the NEC on the night before this walk. As well as the function I was attending (awards for corporate communications, including a magazine called ‘Woundlife’) the hotel was hosting a massive ‘Soul Weekender’ – which meant several floor-shaking all-night discos in the nexus of suites. Even though I had sidestepped any kind of hangover-installation, I felt somewhat jaded as a beautiful day dawned, having moved rooms and slept little.
Scanning the corporate print strategically placed around the room (a pleasant if strangely-angled space) I mused on the hotel’s name; not just the Birmingham Hilton, but the Birmingham Hilton Metropole. The Metropole in Brighton will always be the ‘metropole’ to me. It too is now owned by the Hilton chain – perhaps they have a policy of strip-mining Brighton’s symbolism, distributing any valuable parts around their network, like peasants taking the stonework of a ruined abbey to build farms. Hilton have also trademarked this sentence: ‘Travel should take you places‘. To my sleep-deprived brain this seemed both incomprehensible and pregnant with meaning, like a Zen koan. Surely any ‘travel’ must ‘take you’ to a place? Perhaps it is in environments like the Hilton chain that travel doesn’t take you anywhere – superficially different places merging – Becks Vier and reward points pumping through their chilly arteries.
Jennie dropped me at Edgehill and I set off, leaving the road for the dappled shade of some woods. I sat on a tree stump for a few minutes, and used my iPhone’s dial-a-disc function to find some soul music – as I didn’t want to walk in a state of antagonism towards ‘soul’ as a basic concept – to do so would seem somehow zombie-like. Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) – the most exuberant song I now; the one-note guitar break never fails to send shivers down my spine – restored me to the world of the ensoulled.
Re-shriven, I walked down a hill to Ratley, a village built from an attractive yellow stone. Is this a Cotswold stone I wonder? Or the ‘ham stone’ that Simon Harvey describes as being ‘the colour of bruised root ginger’?
I entered the church, St Peter Ad Vincula. Walls leaning comfortably at odd angles enclosed a cool, quiet space – all I could hear where birds and a nearby lawnmower. On the altarcloth, three words emblazoned:
+ HOLY + HOLY + HOLY +
The pub looked nice but it wasn’t quite open. I walked up onto the hills, now on one of the Macmillan Ways. Strange to think that this path could take me to the familiar Dorset coast, and that it joins the ‘probable route of the Droitwich to Dorset salt road’. The approach to Warmington on a tiny path through trees beside the church seemed almost secret, far from a major transport route for a vital commodity.
Sheep were sitting out the hot day in the shade, as were udderless bovines of some kind. Townie that I am, I gave the latter a wide berth, despite their placid demeanour – thus losing the trail for a while.
Now I found a pub that was open – the Plough. Another cool space. I feel like I’ve been in a thousand pubs like this – false beams built on to real stone, Islands in the Stream played over speakers linked by wired painted into the now-anachronistic tobacco paint, pig roast poster adorned with clip art. Idle conversation, food, well-kept beer.
Refreshed by a nice pint of Wadworths 6X I moved on. Soon I was crossing the M40 again. On reaching the north side I decided to change my route, leaving Macmillan and following part of the Battlefields Trail that joins three Civil War sites.
Despite losing the signs again, I found my way to Mollington, another absurdly pretty village. Thirsty once more, I entered the pub and was served with a fine pint of Adnams. The landlord was really friendly and we chatted about the walk, but when a group of rambling families appeared, slowly strolling down the hill spread across the road (‘like something from a zombie film!’ the landlady quipped) he doused the lights, plunging his regulars into darkness, to feign shutness. Guess I was lucky to get that Adnams.
Having lost the signs again I simply walked along the road to get to Cropredy. I have been here four or five times for Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, so it is familiar as a place swarming with festivalgoers – it was odd finding it empty, no smell of outdoor festival food drifting over the fields, no Who Knows Where The Time Goes playing beneath an immemorial sunset. I initially went to a Cropredy in 1990, shortly after a marital split. It was one of the first completely new things I did, so it always feels like a sort of ‘start of a new era’ place. Picture me back then – in a field, wearing hideously-impractical elastic-sided winklepickers, slightly wobbly from 6X and sunshine, wondering what it’s all about. And picture me now – wearing much more practical footwear.
From Cropredy a few miles of Oxford Canal Walk took me to Banbury. On a sunny Bank Holiday Weekend, it was like walking through a succession of front rooms, as people sat on the tow path enjoying their boats. So far all I have seen of Banbury is a shopping centre – Jennie came to whisk me away to the Premier Inn that would be our berth for the night.
neti – neti
The gods were ‘easy to discern’ in Homer’s time, and maybe they still are. ‘It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods’ says G.K. Chesterton – not such an easy discernment, if as I dimly apprehend the HOLY/HOLY/HOLY is not a thing, person, pattern or notion. Meanwhile, some things look as if they should be signs and portents, who knows,
a black cat crossed my path,
a red fox crossed my path,
I glimpsed some words in a crack between stones, in the stone breastwork on the hill beneath St Mary’s Warmington. Curious, thinking of prayers stuffed into the cracks in the Western Wall, I reached in and pulled something out into the light. It was a cigarette packet, Benson & Hedges Gold, and the words were the health warning. Never liked B&H, too sweet. Never liked JPS either, even when they were the top smoke in their shiny black packet, so that just asking for ‘cigarettes’ would lead to these being offered, at least in the shop where I worked – too bitter. Marlboro had a savage kick but tasted like burning flakes of paint. Marlboro Lights were like the gaseous atmosphere of a disappeared planet, endlessly expanding outward with no gravity to hold it together. Silk Cut impressed me with the slashed purple fabric billboard in front of the Domestos factory that dad drove me past on the way to school and the clever ads that we later studied at college, but the smoke never arrived – they were like a symbolic gesture of smoking, as if ‘smoking’ was a departed reality, acknowledged by a hollow tradition. I guess if it came to it – if some unimaginable set of circumstances meant I had to smoke – I’d have to roll my own.
All the photos – on a map, and another map showing the route.
(Remember – Mr Smoking, he no good.)
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