Posts Tagged ‘buckinghamshire’

For a long time now I’ve been pondering the best route to take for the last part of the walk. I could veer off into the southwest, strike the south coast and approach Brighton from the west. Or I could skirt London anticlockwise and end up arriving from the north close to the route of the M23. Or head straight through London and come in via Kent. Each has its attractions, pros and cons and today was the day I would decide.

I left Great Missenden with some gladness. Despite its superficial normality, I had found this place to be sad and uncanny, rather like something from a story by Robert Aickman, or the phantom town of Argleton that has been all over the media recently. Hiking out through autumn paths, leaves cascading down through wild air, felt like escaping a strange impasse.

I spent an hour or so walking past large detached houses, my lower-middle-class bungalow-dweller envy-antennae twitching. Some of its citizens were out, performing their Saturday rituals in a mist that seemed to freeze them in place; jogging, football with kids, driving to get the bloated weekend papers. I stalked past, locked in my own hard-to-explain rite, moving from Great to Little Missenden via a dank A-road underpass, thoughts turning towards the vast sunken cities in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and away from the giant houses of these dormitory villages with their hard-to-maintain gutters and weed-threatened gravel paths.

Soon I was in more open fields, feeling space and silence and the simplicity of just walking for the first time in weeks. A ragged patch of sunlight moved across the red trees. It was All Hallows Eve, a day when some believe that divine beings and spirits can walk around unsummoned. I don’t know what I believe about such things, or indeed anything: a vagueness that contributes to my urge to wander to places that no-one has summoned me to visit. Myths cascade, ideas melt, movement is all that remains… This could be some postmodern condition I’ve inherited, or it could just be a function of geography. J. B. Priestley talks of the ‘mistiness’ of Britain being important, creating landscapes where ‘instead of everything standing out sharply, one thing melts into another, almost like the strange places we see in dreams.’

My unlimbered walking mind free-associated from this to reggae band Misty in Roots, stalwarts of late-70s RAR gigs and festivals, and their memorable declaration that “if you’re not conscious of your present, you’re like a cabbage in this society”. I used to grow cabbages, but these days it’s a rare thing for me to even cook one that hasn’t been pre-shredded and bagged by distant devices. I need to rediscover some slow, real things; I ‘need something to slow me down’ as Joey Ramone once sang. (All proof that, when walking, ‘as the body advances the mind flutters around it like a bird’.)

It may well have been that countless spirits, angels and demiurges manifested themselves around me in the Halloween fields but I didn’t have eyes to see them – except of course for a Home Counties green man, a corporate international mermaid, and Lucifer the light-bringer depicted in the porch of a church (on a poster for a recital of Milton.)

I could have headed southwards towards the hotel we were to stay in, but on a whim headed on eastwards towards Amersham. Here, in the Saturday market bookstall, I made my route decision, using the crude bibliomancy of book purchase. As guides to London and Kent were on offer, that is the way I would go – crossing the metropolis and reaching the east coast before bouncing back to Brighton.

Buoyed by this decision, I started marching westwards, though horse fields and woods to Chalfont St Giles where I finished. Time now in the last of Autumn to re-read Paradise Lost and start towards winter with a more definite aim.

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Despite walking nearly 25 miles, I still hadn’t reached Leighton Buzzard, site of childhood holidays and source of my first Robert E. Howard Conan book (as described earlier). I had gone to sleep in the MK hotel to the sounds of drunken revelry turning nasty, closing-time shouting and what sounded like barking police dogs from seven floors below. No evidence remained in the empty square this sunny morning.

For the second week running, I enjoyed a solitary breakfast, and headed to the station – walking like the Tin Woodman in the aftermath of yesterday’s exertions.

The train took me back to Leighton Buzzard station, actually in Linslade. When we came here on holiday I would have extra pocket money, which I would use to buy various books and comics. I always seemed to find unexpected delights, an unexpected new Jack Kirby comic, for instance, so Leighton has always seemed like the source of abundant blessings. However, as I walked towards it, early impressions were of a run-down town, and I was resigned to the place of idyllic memories having become an unrecognisable Dystopia. For a moment, ‘the borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in’ as they did for Conan when in the grip of the ‘the unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian’

I walked up to WHSmiths, not really knowing what to expect or what, specifically, I was looking for. It was market day, and a stall outside sold graphic novels – a good omen, as if this was some special site for the fantastic, a ley line intersection of pulp imaginings.

Inside, on my patch of personal holy ground, I walked through the modern-day Smiths – dirty, down at heel and directionless (the shop that is). I looked at the fiction shelves, knowing of course that Robert E. Howard books were unlikely to be there for today’s 13-year-olds to find. But… I was wrong. Not only was there an REH book, but one I didn’t already have – The Haunter of the Ring, a collection of supernatural yarns.

Buoyed by this find, I strolled slowly around the sunny market square. The book, the fine day, the trader offering a cabbage and a cauli for one pound fifty, the two old Polish guys smoking on the steps of the Market Cross – all seemed like a reminder that, as Howard wrote (giving his barbarian hero a bipolar upswing), ‘Life was good and real and vibrant after all, not the dream of an idiot god’.

Soon it would be time to get the train back to MK, then home. For now I was glad that the place I remembered seemed in good spirits. Easier to let go of the past knowing that some of its places are carrying on by themselves in a good style.

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The next legs of the journey will take me through Buckinghamshire. This being the case, I have picked up a guidebook of sorts: Buckinghamshire Footpaths, by J.H.B. Peel, found in Wigtown (‘Scotland’s book town’) while on holiday. Buckinghamshire Footpaths was published in 1949, when a Britain battered by war was re-creating itself, and part of Peel’s purpose is to prompt readers to see preservation of countryside as an essential part of that re-creation: ‘Unable ever again to conquer others, let us now conquer ourselves.’

Peel, a poet whose work included Mere England, a long work about Buckinghamshire, sees parts of his county as examples of the kind of countryside that needs preserving. Whereas ‘The Londonward side of Amersham…is marred beyond mending’, ‘the northern half of Buckinghamshire is curiously ill-served by railways and main roads, and has therefore retained a relatively high degree of civilization’. For Peel this meant a lack of ‘Cosy cafes, palaces-of-dance, super-cinemas and other attributes of progress’, a place to experience ‘that sense of peace, which is an Absolute of Life’.

Of course, things have changed in the three-score-and-ten since the book was written. Peel could not imagine there being a reason to change the ‘unsophisticated’ nature of the county, giving as a hypothetical example the absurdity of running a bus service between the small hamlets of Milton Keynes and Woughton-on-the-Green. These days, the number 18 runs on the hour, reaching Woughton without ever leaving the huge version of Milton Keynes that now embraces the whole area.

Personally, I can see a beauty in many of the things that Peel would deplore – motorway services, gigantic New Towns and all. And yet I see myself in this picture:

To the quiet man who in these unquiet times is braced and made whole again by contact with things strong and steadfast and English, his County…is a very haven, in which he will find, not escape nor mere distraction, but the still, small voice of reality, cool and unwavering and melodious amid the vast mirage of contemporary arrogance and haste.

Although I now live in Lancashire, and have fond memories of boyhood holidays in Bucks, my county will always be Sussex, the destination of this walk. There I might find the ‘still, small voice of reality’, perhaps in the ‘cool and melodious’ spring that emerges beneath the escarpment of the Downs at Fulking… but perhaps in the foyer of a ‘super-cinema’ on the seafront.

Arguably I am one of the ‘good English folk, or proud Britons’ Peel writes for, mongrel quarter-Jap that I am; I am certainly glad enough that there are woods, fields and old buildings around. However I can’t bring myself to believe in a pure, essential set of ‘things strong and steadfast and English’, unconnected from other ‘things’ and somehow unchangeable. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist: I’ll keep an eye out for them as I wander through Bucks and beyond…

But it will be a careful eye. With concepts like ‘Britishness’ being grasped at by charmless fascist-wannabes and latter-day Thule Society types – cueing late-70s memories of Anti-Nazi League rallies in Brighton and London, a bloated man mouthing abuse at the marchers from the patio of a famously Hitler-loving south coast B&B, the long heat of the Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, Bernie outside Hassocks station batting away a skinhead with his skateboard, Pils-soaked gigs in the Vault and the Hanbury Arms, the Resource Centre getting trashed – in such times I guess it is important to try and distinguish between one’s own romantic fantasies, and other people’s manipulative dreams. As for ‘reality’, I may not know much but I do know that it can’t be tamed, packaged  or colonised.

I think I can spot my own fantasies and, to some extent, the paradoxes and contradictions within them. On the one hand, I can fill with emotion at the thought of English lanes in ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, pints of ale in Tolkien’s Shire, the England depicted in the fat ‘Books of…’ and ‘Guides to…’ published by the AA and National Trust that arrived at our house through the 1970s, TV’s luminous Larkrise with Gary Dobbs looking at vegetables in a sunlit square, and countless other lovely, idealised pasts.  At the same time I can join the Hope not Hate people in celebrating a diverse ‘modern’ Britain, and yearn for the lost Utopian possibilities of the 1960s mourned in the works of H.S.Thompson and M. Moorcock, transforming, exciting futures.  Meanwhile Brighton, my lodestone, offers as a kaleidoscope of images, ideas and subcultures, unfixable and therefore endlessly desirable. Earthquake, storm, fire – then the still small voice.

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