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.