The Guardian are asking people to blog on the topic ‘Three Things I do to Enjoy England‘, and as I think enjoyment is fine in its way and do often experience it it in England, I decided to shape a post around their theme. I doubt if I’ll be able to emulate the breezy style of the Enjoy England folks (strapline: ‘enjoy every minute’) but I’ll see how far I get before it all falls apart in my hands…
1. See it on foot, up close
This whole journey is about exploring England by walking between two points that have personal meaning for me. This involves crafting a unique long-distance pathway by walking it. The intention is to see all the miles of ‘stuff’ in between the well-known places, to actually walk into the scenery glimpsed from speedy motorway and train journeys. I have found it to be often illuminating and occasionally exhilarating. It is also a kind of silent meditation. England is surprisingly quiet once you get past the dog-walk-distance fringe of towns, and I have walked scores of miles along unpeopled green lanes, field edges and canal paths, through the tame, nearby wilderness. And there is beauty – not always the spectacular kind, but beauty nonetheless. On last weekend’s 15-mile hike, for instance, I found once again the hidden hedged-in promise of obscure pathways, the painterly beauty of ageing concrete…
Walking regularly is to experience the seasons. Branches full of berries signalled Autumn, and even artificial leaves were beginning to fall.
As I rambled to a stop at Great Missenden, tourist-brochure balloons were hovering over the bypass, while time drained gently into the darkness.
2. Consuming local produce
The ever-beguiling variety of England can be experienced through local styles of food and drink such as cheese, buns, oatcakes and real beer. I knew there was a Tring Brewery and, as I was going to walk around its hometown, set myself the ask of finding and drinking one of its products. This involved visiting a few pubs, itself a pleasant way to ‘enjoy England’ as a good boozer offers a way to be part of a place temporarily, a draft of its inner psyche that can be refreshing, amusing or alarming. In a Red Lion there was no Tring but I had an Everards Equinox, an Autumn-themed beer, specific in time if not place. (Everards is brewed in Leicestershire.) The pub was a pleasant place to shelter from the sun but the experience was marred by a fitful, snipy domestic being played out by the licensees. I was tempted to go straight to the next pub for an overwrite – another Lion, this time White – but pressed on along canals, including the short dead-end Wendover Arm.
Strangely the next pub I found was also a White Lion, and I saw yet another pub of this name at the end of the walk. The latter was a wine bar affair heaving with men in suits – in the middle of a village street it looked like a piece of London somehow miraculously visible from afar. The one I actually went to was a very different affair – so fiercely local that I believe a fight (or rather ‘instant ignominious beating at the hands of a Zouave-like local fellow’) could have been mine, had I required it.
And still no Tring. For that I had to venture off my planned route into the town itself, where in a pub called the Akeman I found one of the local brews – Tring’s Doc Dimsdale. This beer had been brewed for just this month, and so was specific to time and place – result! I liked the Akeman, finding it friendly and well-stocked with food and drink. It styles itself as an ‘exciting, modern interpretation of an original Public House’ and as such it’s all steel, stone and focaccia bread. Being an ‘interpretation’ it has some nice ‘quotes’ from the universe of real pubs, like these hooks on the front of the bar, as seen in traditional bars throughout the land:
I’ve never been quite sure what function these have; I always imagine in my cliche-mind the local poacher tying his dog to them. So it seemed anomalous that these tribute-act interpreted ones were square and made of brushed steel: they had been hypermodernised under the careful eye of a designer. This detail, combined with the relaxing effect of Tring’s pleasant coppery beer, made me laugh out loud, somewhat to the consternation of a group of after-work M&S workers negotiating their wine order.
3. Share words and pictures
My personal enjoyment of my journey is greatly enhanced by being able to tell people about it, layering more stories on to a storied isle. I try and read about the places I visit, using old books that offer no practical help to the modern walker. Highways and Byways in Buckinghamshire (1910) for instance, tells tales of the ‘black cannons’ ruling the region from the original of the Abbey where I stayed; of their use of the ‘oil of black snails’; of its rebuilding by ‘an opulent ironmonger in Holborn’. In a tiny way I try to add to the store of such things. And like the creator of an illuminated manuscript, I can add pictures too:
In the Cross Keys in Great Missenden I met a man who told me some of his stories. ‘Do you mind if I sit next to you? You don’t want to catch what I’ve got. [Holds out arms of different lengths.] I was injured in the war. They picked up the wrong arm. This is a woman’s arm. When I go to the gents it won’t let go.’ Bob told me this story and eight or nine others over and over, retelling them without ceasing, sometimes repeating the same one immediately. His memory is, I suppose, mostly shot away so that only his core stories remain. He lives opposite in sheltered housing and I get the impression he comes into the pub often. The people in there are friendly to him but ration their attention. I was happy to listen and respond over and over again; I found it relaxing after a long walk. I enjoyed his company but felt sad, imagining what it would be like to be reduced to a small area and a few looping tales, to have lost so much time, so much space, to enjoy just a last few yards of England and a last few stories. I feel thankful that the tales the world is telling me remain for now expansive, far-ranging and surprising, even if I do feel adrift in them sometimes, symbols cascading in…
Bob and I talked under the sign of The Cross Keys. These are the keys of heaven, the ones given to Saint Peter, to whom Christ said ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’. Are lost events and broken memories bound somehow and hardwired into an eternal space, or loosed and set free, or just dissolved? On this ramble I didn’t see gates to heaven but perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. But there’s no hurry. The longest journeys end, perhaps at ‘twelve pearls, each gate being made from a single pearl’. Could it be that if you reach such gates all you need with you are a few of your best stories?