We live in a sacred landscape. It was sacred to our ancestors and if nothing more we honour their memories by learning about it. Even for Richard Dawkins, figuring out the world around you is a serious purpose in life. But enough justification. One of the things I, and others on this site, do is investigate what remains of sacredness in the landscape. This means that someone has to leave the computer terminal and actually go and look at real things. Sometimes that person is me.
We knew where I was going. I'd researched it as fully as I could. Three specific points over a four mile stretch, but unfortunately a very long walk to and from the nearest public transport. "If it doesn't rain" I emailed "(because Friday is a fair-weather walking day) I'll go there tomorrow." But I think both I and the recipient knew that hitting send committed me to the trip, rain or no rain.
The forecast was for brief showers, so I donned by gilet, packed Palm, keyboard and camera into the pockets, added spare batteries for luck, painkillers for lunch and a paperback for the train, and set off.
Be a piece of cake. There was a whole day ahead and I only needed to average two miles an hour. I'd elected to walk from one station to another, rather than out and back, and I had a pub worked out for a lunch stop. The arthritis shouldn't be too much of a problem: I'd worked out a halfway point: if I was there before half time, I'd take the painkillers then, otherwise at half time.
The train turned up on time with the right stock, so there was a trolley with tea on it. It was warm and I sat back and watched the landscape go by. A fine start. From the station I set off, under the bridge and along the road by the river. Five miles down the road I was getting close to the first point on my list. Equally, though, the sky was darkening and clearly it was time for a "brief shower" to occur. There was a pub on the other side of the road and I considered taking refuge.
In retrospect, carrying on rather than stopping was the right decision. The third, probably optimal, decision of turning back didn't occur. It was rather more than a "brief shower", of course, it was always going to be. But eventually it passed. All my electronic equipment was still working, although the paperback had suffered, and my spirits lifted.
Very soon, I came to the first site on my list. A second "brief shower" failed to dampen my spirits as I went round taking notes and photographs. It was wonderful. I set off along what should have been a sunken road. There were plenty of indicator species on the high banks, the classic layout of an early trackway in this area. Unfortunately there was an inch of water across the metalled area.
Worse was to come. The theoretical speed limit for such roads is fifty miles an hour. Drivers in this area seem to take that as a target rather than a limit. The traffic was bunching up behind slower moving vehicles and occasionally there'd be an impatient four-by-four overtaking madly on a blind bend. Still, having elected to do the trip one way, at least I didn't have to come back this way.
With high banks on each side, there was no way of getting entirely off the track, and all the footpaths in the area run at right angles to the direction I wanted, adding many miles to the journey. I pressed on, drenched with spray from the vehicles and leaning hard up against the bank every time an overtaker appeared. I realised that at least one decision had been right. I'd idly considered bringing the bike, but couldn't get a reservation for it on the early train. If the road was a disaster for pedestrians, it would have been lethal on a bike. I wondered idly why the county council didn't do something about the conditions, but probably no-one has wanted to get between these places on foot for centuries. The constant stopping and wet feet were playing hell with the arthritis as well as making me very late.
Afraid didn't cut it. English really doesn't have terms for the degree of gut-wrenching fear running through me. My body was also telling me that I was very hungry - the conditions were sapping my strength quite quickly. This purgatory went on for two miles, but eventually I crested a rise and there before me was the perfect chocolate-box hamlet. "Good food served all day, 500 yds opp church". I could taste the prawn jacket potato already, but forced myself to investigate the church first. It was beautiful, little skew windows in the lady chapel and a rather striking Madonna figure catching the sunlight. I wandered across the road and washed down my potato and pain-killers with a couple of glasses of white wine, feeling much better.
Over lunch, I'd decided that I was probably looking in the wrong place. In fact I was by now pretty convinced that I knew where I should be looking. But the whole point of this stuff is understanding all of it, so off I set. A mile to the last site, and then just the haul across the country park back to civilisation. The last site confirmed my thoughts over lunch, so I set out, up onto the top of the hills. The road here also had fast traffic, but it was different. Unlike the expensive four-by-fours you buy to show off while doing the school run, these were the kind of expensive four-by-fours you buy because if you live here, anything cheaper lasts about six months before it's trashed.
The drivers were without exception courteous, slowing down for me, trying to avoid the puddles, left hands acknowledging me as they passed. These people are part of the countryside. Five more miles to civilisation. Piece of cake. Incongruously, there's a car parked at the picnic area, two children running around in the drizzle, parents in the front seat watching the squalls run down the valley, a dark yellow thunderhead in the distance. It really does look spectacular and I stop to take a few photographs before moving on through “brief shower” after “brief shower”, the intervening sunshine never long enough to start drying the ground.
A very nice forestry man with a load of logs picked me up. "Shitty day" he said "and you're a bit underdressed. It's going to hammer down in a minute" he indicated the thunderhead. "I'll drop you at the pub and you can get a taxi from there." I struggled to work out how he knew where I was going. Eventually I decided that probably anywhere within walking distance was also in taxi distance. I was quite proud of working that out.
Waiting for the taxi, I started to warm up and realised how cold I'd been. I remembered the story of a motorist who abandoned his broken-down car and froze to death within sight of the lights of my mother's cottage. There's no pain, so It's easy just to take a rest and fall asleep. But, he was walking late at night. I'm sure I'd have made it even without the lift.
It was dark by the time the taxi arrived.
We do indeed live in a sacred landscape. But just because it's sacred doesn't necessarily mean that it's safe.