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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.

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Back to doing an early morning flit to start the walk; first train out of Ormskirk at 5.50, feeling strangely fragile after a headlong week of work and some sad passings. Seeking cheerful energy, I played a song I remembered as a fun summer tune, the Piranhas’ version of Tom Hark – but in my enervated dawn state it sounded like some kind of seaside apocalypse with its talk of ‘World War Three’ and ‘slapstick in the pantomime’.

I rallied as we approached Banbury. I had assumed that I would walk out of Oxfordshire into Buckinghamshire, but looking at the map on the train I realised that I would actually be spending most of the day in Northants. This bothered me as I like to have some kind of image-fuel for the journey, a sense however tangential of the mythology of the place I’m walking through – otherwise all I’d be doing is looking at scenery and thinking things like ‘yes, that is indeed a hill.’


‘A bush, I believe’

I put out an appeal on the aether and got a recommendation in the form of a query: ‘John Clare?’. This led me to seek out Books & Ink, a pleasant bookshop that did indeed have some books by Clare, agricultural labourer and poet, b1793 d1864. Armed with reading material I adjourned to The Exchange, a Wetherspoons pub, for a second breakfast and some reading time. In this rather subaquatic early-morning-alcoholic territory, I scanned the Clare pieces. Turns out he made a famous journey home once – escaping from an asylum in Epping Forest and walking for four days back to his home in Northamptonshire. He was also ‘devastated by [the] violation of… the open field system’ resulting from the Act of Enclosure. This process destroyed  common ground, accompanied by felling of trees and the creation of straight-line ditches, and Clare wrote poems mourning the passing of the the open land. I resolved to stay aware of ‘enclosure’ as I might encounter it on today’s ‘Careless Rambles’, see how my attempt to ‘wander at my idle will/In summers luscious prime about the fields’ would intersect with various grids of control by paying attention to the ownership of the spaces I walked through.

Returning to the Castle Quay shopping centre where I had finished walking last month, I arranged myself with sunscreen and other defences against the ‘liquid blaze’ of the sun, and set off along the Oxford Canal. My chosen pastime of spotting ‘enclosure’ is almost redundant as everything seems demarcated, fenced, named, owned and overseen by CCTV.

These areas are like the subconscious or maybe conscience of the town – a place for unwanted and hidden things: clutches of empty cans and bottles punctuating the embankments, residua of drinking exercises too freeform and low-cost to be contained even within the expansive hours of Wetherspoons.

I walked a few miles along the canal, in rising heat, now in fields, the canal lined with monsterium plants. After a  while I reached the M40, where I found a small door to some kind of inspection tunnel, monastic night stair or Jefferies Tube within the motorway.

Thinking back, I am surprised that I wasn’t more excited by this opportunity to creep inside the motorway we have driven countless times, that I have crossed thrice already on this walk, and that (I now know from reading Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads) is the site of an early memory of Lady Penelope buzzing beneath a flyover in a Tiger Moth.

On through the rising heat, until I reached Kings Sutton, a village of almost uncanny attractiveness. A wedding was happening in the church, and I watched the bride arriving in a horsedrawn open carriage as I settled in the pub with a pint of Brakspears. Regional tourism marketeers seem keen to claim this place as part of a ‘Flora Thompson Country’, a kind of dream enclosure.

Aside: I am writing this on June 30th, the release date for a western novel called The Tarnished Star by Jack Martin, real name Gary Dobbs; an early-release copy of the book was in my rucksack while I walked; Gary also works as an actor on the TV Larkrise, his Facebook status suggesting that he could be on the set at that moment; his novel skillfully hard-edged, lean writing summoning the shared fantasy world of the traditional western, a genre animated by economic enclosure strategies played out in the West, frontiers advancing and hard men fighting for freedoms already lost. 

I walked on, through fields and small woods, skirting a playing field with a cricket match in progress, and an airfield launching gliders. I began to feel I was in an imaginary England, or even creating one much like the Larkrise actors.

The sense of unreality remained as I walked into Hinton-in-the-Hedges. As I crossed the churchyard I could hear music and see glimpses of bright costumes. Assuming some kind of fete was going on I wandered over, but realised I was heading towards the backstage area of a play, costumed children giving me questioning looks. Not wanting to blunder on to a stage or though a dressing room, I started to slink away, but two women holding scripts brought me back and said I could watch the end (rather than, as Jennie suggested, seeing me off with a Shakespearian insult such as  ‘What hempen homespun have we swaggering here’ – which have been entirely appropriate, as it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they were performing.)

And there was a beer tent. With a pint of Hook Norton Bitter, I sat on a swing and watched the aftermath of the show, whose cast had ages spanning 70 years. It was a pleasant moment, soaking up the atmosphere of people celebrating something that had gone well.

Resisting the temptation to start a new life in friendly Hinton-in-the-Hedges (whose remaining hedges, seen in fly-wing-diagram-pattern on the OS map, suggest that it might have escaped some of the impact of the Act of Enclosure, still having fields spread out in a wheel with the village at it hub’) I completed the last couple of miles to Brackley. I had never thought about Brackley until this trip; I wouldn’t specifically have known that there was such a town, though it sounds plausible enough. Tired, hot and aching I climbed the main street to reach the Crown Inn, alone in this unknown place feeling a bit like John Clare returning to his empty cottage, ‘homeless at home and half gratified to feel that I can be happy any where’.

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