Final Day on the Ridgeway

I’ve walked three complete trails this year: North Downs, Limestone and Ridgeway. In each of these cases, the ending of the trail has been a strange experience. Given all the work that goes into promoting and maintaining these routes, I’m surprised more thought doesn’t go into the ends.

Walking the Ridgeway against the grain, from Aylesbury to Avebury, meant a more exciting destination, but a less impressive final stage. Much of day five was open countryside and tame scenery – but it was good to spend a night in Avebury, a short distance from the stone circle.

The final day began with a boring stretch of roadway. The weather was cloudy which was a relief after four days of harsh sun.

As usual there were strange sights along the way. The sign on the tree shown below read “Christmas is the warm, happy ending to our family’s story each year”

The endings of these hikes often feel odd. You’ve achieved something, but often the only marker of the trail’s end is a signpost pointing in only one direction

Avebury is a fascinating place to visit, with some incredible ancient sites. As it was mid-Summer, the hill up to Kennet Long-Barrow was covered in golden corn. I somehow missed this the last time I came to Avebury, so it was good to explore.

I think it’s a shame we’re no longer allowed to climb Silbury Hill. Who are we saving it for?

As it was just after the solstice, Avebury had been visited by people on the way back from Stonehenge. The Red Lion pub, inside the stone circle, was surrounded by fences. Security guards kept watch. I learned these were not designed to keep hippies out, but to keep everyone safe from stumbling into the road.

Avebury is a great place to explore. Putting your head against these stones, you can feel the energy thrumming through them.

In the local Avebury shop there is a binder with pictures of the year’s crop circles.

After a couple of hours exploring, we took buses and trains to make our way back to Brighton, just in time to set off on my next hike with Katharine and Romi. The Ridgeway was a fun trail to explore. The route followed did have the feeling of one followed in ancient times.

Hiking in the Brexit Summer

I’ve walked hundreds of miles on British trails this year; and I keep on thinking about Brexit.

I’ve spoken about the connections between walking and politics in my recent post on Teresa May. While my walks had no explicit connection with politics, I often thought about the coming changes.

Last year, walking the South Downs Way, it was a few months after the referendum. I was sure that nobody would be stupid to trigger article 50 without a plan, and any sort of plan was obviously some way off. It was still not clear what the simplistic question in the referendum actually meant – beyond ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

Then, in March this year, Article 50 was enacted and Britain is set to leave the EU. Months have passed and we’re no nearer knowing what that means, despite having a hard deadline of March 2019. Whatever happens, it looks like the country has a tough time ahead.

This Summer has had a feeling of pre-emptive nostalgia. As if right now might be as good as it gets for Britain in my lifetime. The banks are preparing to fly from the financial towers of London to Frankfurt and Dublin and Paris. Numbers of foreign workers are falling, despite the importance of imported labour for various part of the economy, like the fruit farms we strolled last weekend. After six months, little progress has been made on the negotiations. Project Fear was the wrong way to argue against Brexit, but I suspect it was closer to the truth than the sunlit uplands we were promised. Sovereignty is all very well, but it doesn’t help people pay their mortgages.

I’m a patriot about Britain. Just like Daniel Hannan and Teresa May, I love walking in the English countryside. I’m not proud of being British – it is just a coincidence, nothing to do with me. But I do like it – and hiking in Britain would be much more difficult in the future if I was European but not British.

My hiking has taken me through areas that voted both leave and remain. Everyone is friendly, but there is a tension growing. People who still want to remain in the EU have been called traitors by the mainstream press. Meanwhile, I’m about to lose a lot of rights I was born with. I am about to be dragged into a country I don’t really know. (I saw a ‘remainer’ told that, if they liked Europe so much, they should go and live there; they already do).

There is no real opposition to Brexit at the moment. Apart from tarnished Tony Blair, nobody has put forward a serious rallying cry for stopping Brexit, despite the numbers who are angry and confused by it. Simon Indelicate writes about the rift in his essay Which People Have Spoken? – “It will never, ever, be OK. Something has broken between us.” If Brexit does not go very well, there will always be a simmering resentment.

Walking the Pennine Way, I stayed at a peaceful B&B. Over breakfast, the conversation turned to Brexit. I had been avoiding the subject, as I didn’t want the confrontation. Why spoil the holiday? But the host bought it up, she told us how eastern Europeans were laughing at us, explaining how people from one nation spent their welfare money on drink at the weekends, and on Monday demanded nappies from the state. My companion had voted leave, but was also strongly in favour of EU immigration. He had often employed such nationals, seeing them as hard workers, and his business relied on them.

I stayed polite as I objected, but I know that these conversations will become more difficult, less patient. I’m not sure how easy it will be to tolerate each other if things go wrong. If Brexit is a success, we can all laugh at how foolish the remoaners and the traitors were. If it doesn’t work out, then there is nothing to make up for the things being stolen from the people who voted to remain.

I walked another part of the Pennine Way during the run-up to the May election. There seemed little sign of that in the countryside – unlike the referendum, where farmers would put out signs in their fields. Maybe we saw few traces of the election because we were walking through safe seats (although, it turns out, not as safe as first thought). Or maybe it was because the election was irrelevant. The referendum overrules representational democracy, and parliament has become subservient to it; a narrow victory in a non-binding vote is now being taken for a permanent mandate. The return of sovereignty seems to involve Parliament being removed from the constitutional process.

It will never, ever, be OK.” Last weekend, on the North Downs Way, we followed part of Watling Street, the subject of John Higgs’ recent book. We found ourselves at one end of the road while, coincidentally, Mr. Higgs was at the other end in Anglesey. John wrote his book in the summer just after the referendum, when the questions of nationality were first stirred up. John looks at the different ways of being British, and his vision is a wide, inclusive one – nationality, he says, “only exists at a distance”.

In the book, John refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s theory of the noosphere, the world of human thought. This is the highest in a hierarchy of spheres, from the geosphere of rock and ocean, through the biosphere, the world of living things. They interact, but change at different speeds. In some places, the noosphere has altered the geosphere, like the Uffington horse or the stones at Avebury.

Hiking has given me a feel for the British geosphere that I never had before. Much of that will remain unchanged by what’s coming. The geosphere, the rock and damp that created the first ideas of Britishness, that will ensure. But the noosphere is in a mess, a tangle of broken ideas. It may never be OK again in my lifetime.

I find myself wondering if it is time to leave the UK. I want to stay, because this was my home; but it’s feeling less and less like home. The metric weights and European nature that were part of my Britain are being removed. I want to stay, but I feel unwelcome.

Between my two most recent hikes I went to Dublin on business. The city is booming and preparing for more growth after Brexit. From what I read, so are Frankfurt and Paris. There will be jobs there for British people after Brexit. I don’t know if I want to stay in this country, rather I might be better to treat it as a holiday destination. A place to go hiking.

These are the sorts of thoughts I consider while hiking. I’m sure Daniel Hannan has equally profound thoughts on the English hills. While mine are all over the place, I have some very particular things to discuss in detail next month, as part of The Indelicate’s October Ritual event (which also features John Higgs). Beyond my personal feelings, there are some deep links between hiking and Brexit.

The End of the North Downs Way

The final hike on the North Down’s Way was far more interesting than yesterday’s dull section. But, sadly, the trail’s end in Dover is a bit of fiasco.

I’ve been walking this route with Katharine and Romi since January, inspired by the section of it at the start of the Downs Link path. We continued in FebruaryApril and June before finishing this weekend. While weekend walks are easier to schedule than complete hikes, they are hard work. There is a lot of car shuffling and I miss being able to just walk from a B&B onto the trail.

At the start of the walk, it looked like it was going to another trudge through empty fields.

Soon we found ourself walking through some cornfields, which was much more exciting. The sky was cloudy, but the day was warm and dry.

I decided not to use the gate here. Romi claims that this means I didn’t complete the actual North Downs Way.

In this field a cow stood on the path. Katharine and I have had some bad experiences in cattle fields. These cows were quite calm, although passing through was tense.

Just like yesterday, one of the road names appeared to be a metafictional comment on the walk. Five miles to go!

Can you see where the signpost is in the scene below? It took us a while. I’m not sure how many people actual walk the North Downs Way. We met very few people, and some parts of the trail were hard to follow.

On the last few hundred yards, the North Downs Way takes in this scenic car park. Dover is a discordant note at the end of the trail – it’s not a pleasant place to visit.

The end of the trail is almost as bad as the Limestone Way, which concluded with just a one-armed signpost. He we reached the end point in Market Square to find no mention of the trail. We had to google the Rambling Man website to find out that the trail end had moved to the seafront.

We found it in the end, and ate salted caramel icecream on the seashore. Then we had coffee and drove home.

It took a couple of hours to drive home. Along the M25 I passed a section of the walk from February. I’ve enjoyed the project of walking this trail over the last nine months. The question is: what next?

A flat day on the North Downs Way

Every trail tells a story, a sort of narrative. This story depends on the weather, the company, the time of year. It depends on the people you encounter, some of whom share stories about their own journeys on the trail; or about the people ahead of you, who they’ve already met.

Walking the North Downs Way from Chilham to Shepherdwell is not a particularly interesting story.

All trails have sections that are marking time. Sometimes this is forced by roads, other times it’s unavoidable, the dull bits between great views. This section of the North Downs way was a flat and wearisome walk from Canterbury towards Dover.

We started walking the North Downs Way in January, doing a stage every month or two. This weekend is our fifth one on the path, where we will be completing the main part of the route.

The start was promising. The weather was good and the day warm. We passed through a churchyard with a 1300 year old yew tree, killed by falling trees during 1987’s Great Storm.

We passed through orchards full of fat apples where there may have been some scrumping (but not from me). According to Rambling Man, the fruit farm we crossed is the largest in the UK. I was moved to see a grave placed among the trees.

But this section of the walk suffered from missing signs. Even the guidebook didn’t help much, as we kept being sent in the wrong direction. One sign we did find was a road name one doesn’t want to when hiking.

Some of the fields might have been quite interesting to walk if they had crops. Instead we crossed empty flat landscapes, nothing beyond the fields but more flat countryside. Some of the maps were mostly white space.

The middle of our day’s walk took us through Canterbury, where the signs dried up completely. It did allow me a chance to look through some bookshops, but I couldn’t see anything worth carrying for ten miles.

It felt a little strange to have our hike take us through the Saturday afternoon shopping crowds.

We passed through an area or cornfields, pheasants and keep-out signs.

The rest of the day we hardly saw anyone. This is one of the strangest things about the hikes, how few people take advantage of the routes.

Near the end, a pile of litter.

It was well Brexit.

Bad weather or inappropriate clothing?

I have no idea who first said that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’. A quick google search suggests Ranulph Fiennes, Alfred Wainwright or Billy Connolly as candidates. I’m going to add myself to this list: there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Day three of my last stint on the Pennine Way was a drag. We were about halfway through when it started to rain. We’d just stopped for lunch and were sure it was going to pass; and putting on the waterproofs seemed like a hassle. The Rambling man website describes this well:

When you’re out in the countryside and the heavens open the last thing you want to do to is undo your boot laces, remove your footwear and struggle into the trousers, then put your boots back on again, often whilst desperately trying not to fall over into the large pile of mud that you suddenly realise is right behind you.

So we set off without waterproof trousers. It turns out that these are a really good idea in the rain. We squelched our way up Pen-y-ghent and trudged our way down again. It was not pleasant. Reaching the Penyghent Cafe was a relief. Few drinks have felt as good as that pint of hot chocolate.

We put our names in the hiker’s register that the cafe has kept for years, which now stretches to multiple volumes. We also heard the tale of a couple of cyclists who that very day had quit their Land’s End to John-o-Groats ride, spirits broken by the headwinds.

I am unsympathetic. If you’re planning a huge cycle ride in September you need to consider the weather. You don’t discover it’s difficult halfway and then give up. If they were doing this for charity, I hope the sponsored organisation tracks them down, and lets them know how many orphans their failure will force to go hungry.

I’d wore what Amazon described as a “Waterproof US Army Hooded Rain Poncho”. If this is indeed US military style, it explains why the US military has recently fought in hot, dry countries. It didn’t keep me very dry.

Day four, the sound of rain woke us in the night. Lesser souls might have given up at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Not us. I layered up: long johns under my trousers, waterproofs on top of them. I borrowed a jacket to keep my top dry. And it worked – despite worse weather than the day before, worse than I’d ever seen in my life, maybe, I stayed dry. Water didn’t run down our legs, which meant it didn’t pool in our boots.

It turns out that there is no such thing as bad weather in the right clothes. And before the next walk I will buy some better trousers, ones I can put on when it starts to rain.