Normally right now I’d be tripping over suitcases in the hallway and rooting out passports. There’d be the aroma of sun-cream and new clothes in the air and we’d be preparing to join the airport conga and the hordes of sweaty holiday-makers heading for the sun.
Corona has put paid to that this year: we can’t risk getting stuck out there; getting ill or having to quarantine afterwards. For the first time in a long time we’ll be staying on this island and heading out to the mountains instead.
Even though we’re not going nearly a far there’ll be a much greater distance between us and the bubble for a few days. At the airport, at the Spanish resort, there’s little space to breathe: the edge is there but it’s thin and the window of opportunity brief. But for the next seven days the edge is going to be broad and will stretch as far and wide as the eye can see. We’ll do our best to skirt the bubbles and breathe the fresh air and I will capture it as much as I can and keep on posting. It will not be days by the pool or nights at the bar but craggy moorland and long empty beaches; it will be walks in misty valleys and climbs to remote mountain peaks. If I can fill myself enough with it I will have plenty to keep me going as the autumn approaches and the world of work and responsibilities slowly encroaches back into the daily routine.
When I next write I will be looking out at the sea and for an Inlander like me, that’s a big deal.
Maybe it’s as simple as a commitment issue. There’s a thin strip of land – thicker in places than others; sometimes wider than we can see and sometimes the width of a footstep. It’s neither here nor there. Here is the safe place: the life that we live in the shelter of the bubble, where good things can happen and we’re glad and bad things can make us sad. But all things that happen come under the shelter of the bubble and are justified in that way. Cogs turn and systems develop and everything can be explained away.
A while ago it was the old gods, then newer gods took their place and made things simple. Science is the new religion and if we don’t buy into it then there’s something wrong. With us. Everything explainable, everything tidy. The plastic wipe-clean neatness of our lives is how it needs to be. Do you see it? Do you see what I mean? Can you take a deep breathe and be brave?
If you see then like me you’ll be wondering where it will all end. If it will all end, or if people like you and me are a dying breed. Remember this is not anarchy: it’s not a desire to bring anything down – indeed we recognised last week that people like you and me need these structures to exist so that we can explore the alternatives.
Here is the suffocation of the bubble; the plastic of the world that we’re meant to embrace and can’t really escape. There is the abyss. It is the emptiness from which old songs sing and magic is real. It is a dark place where poets throw themselves in search of the answer and never return. There’s another place, the in-between place where the noises of here are muted slightly and the whispers of there drift to us on the breeze. If we tune in we might hear what they tell us.
Remember those parties where the music was loud and everyone jumped to the same beat? Remember the fog and the lights? Remember the fuzzed feeling after the first few beers? What did you prefer? The cool night air and the muted muffle of the music and screams as you looked at the stars? This isl’ésprit de l’éscaliér. It’s the spirit of the stairwell or the strange longing to be on the outside of the party and not dragged along by the expectations.
Might be that you’ve lived your life trying to get back into the party and anguished over why, the minute you get in, you want to be back outside looking at the stars. This is The Edge.
Come on, there’s plenty of edge if you look, and if you peer over it, into the wilds, who knows what you might see; what you might hear…
Taita Falcon & Batoka Gorge 2
Once again up before dawn we watched the stars wink out as the sun rose and heated water for tea over the open fire. It was cold here at night. Not quite cold enough for frost but not far and around our campsite in the dusty pre-dawn ghostly figures were to be seen standing in little pockets of sun as it crept up through the trees, warming our bones like reptiles, or butterflies.
It would take three hours simply to get to the bottom of the gorge and, much as we didn’t want to leave the haven of the lodge and the elevated views across the gorge, we had to take advantage of the daylight and reach the first camping spot by the afternoon. It would be slow-going, we were told; the low water had exposed black granite boulders – each the size of a small car and this was our road. We would be out for three nights and that meant heavy packs laden with all that we would need to survive down there: there would be no bar-service or comfortable chairs for us for a while.
We were at Rapid 15 – it was how the locals oriented themselves along the river and it wasn’t long before we were on a level with the water and could feel the power of it batter past us as it continued to shape the landscape like it had for millennia. In a few short hours we were in a different world – a world where the sun did not hold quite so much sway and was apt to disappear a good couple of hours earlier than up on the surface. Our mobile phones and loaded wallets were no good for us down here – at the bottom of the gorge we were over the edge and at the mercy of the elements and our guides.
They didn’t talk much to us, the leader was called Walker and this was what he did. He might just as well have been called ‘carrier’. Like the others he wore backpacks on both back and front and we soon stopped complaining about our own loads. At night around the campfire I invited them over to eat with us. I was interested in their stories. I wanted them to share some of their wisdom with us westerners. I had briefed the kids that this would be a treat: proper Africa. In the darkness of the African night they were impossible to see, so dark was their skin, unless caught reflected in the firelight. Their English was limited and our conversation went like this:
Me: So welcome to our fire (thank you for making it, by the way).
We introduced ourselves and they did the same.
Me: We wondered if you had any stories that you’d like to share.
Walker: [pauses] No
Me: We have stories back home about the stars. Do you have something like this you’d like to share?
Walker [pauses, looks at the others. They shrug]: No
Me [getting twitchy]: Out here at night time, you must see lots of strange things…
Walker [looks at me, at the others]: No…
And so it went on and my vain attempts to induce some sort of rustic secrets from them fell flat. In the end it was the kids who stepped in and saved the situation with renditions of western pop songs that must have echoed through the gorge and found the ears of all manner of creatures that I knew were out there. High up on the ridge the lights of the Lodge flickered with a homeliness that seemed so alien to us here in the crackle of the fire and the roar of the river. I knew that up rich Americans and Europeans were sipping Chablis beneath a canvas awning and wondering at the strange tales that must be being recounted far below by the light of the flickering fire.
I sat with Walker the next morning and he spoke for hours about the folklore of the river; of the creatures that they had seen; about the water serpent that lurks in the river and from time to time leaps to the shore and pulls people under. That morning, while the camp still slept I had stripped and waded into the water; had the first proper wash in a week and allowed the water to replenish parts of me that had been overheated and cooped up for so long. As I finished and lay myself and my clothes out on the rocks to dry I heard a gentle sploosh from across the water. I looked just in time to see the eyes a croc disappear below the surface on the opposite side and make its way over.
“It’s not the croc you need to worry about” Walker told me “The snake, you can’t see it coming. We all wear this.”
He reached into his shirt and pulled out a pendant that hung around his neck. “It is the Nyami Nyami.” he said “The spirit of the river.”
I showed him mine, the one I had bought from the man in the carpark the day before when I thought I was being scammed. “It is why you are still alive.” Walker said. “Now we are brothers.”
I don’t know why they were reluctant to share their stories with us. I know that they had them: Walker had proved that to me just now, and I heard them sing and talk amongst themselves from their own little camp through the night. I wondered if I had fallen into the fatal trap of the Westerner and been too heavy with my enthusiasm. It had happened at the football match the week before and I wondered if I had trodden on something too sacred and special to be splashed about. Things were sometimes best done with more subtlety, it seemed, and their stories were their own.
I was learning that you didn’t dive off the edge and expect to come out dripping with gold. That there are all sorts of things down there that we can’t hope to understand. I was learning that the next time I went into the water I would dip my toe in first.
For the massive majority of us it happens every day and yet still the sunset is the most photographed thing in the world. We take the photo and when we get back to the normal we show our friends that we captured a bit of this place or that place at a moment of magic. We forget that it’s the exact same ball of fire that hangs over us back at home and lurks behind the clouds. How often do we take the time to watch it rise from our homes? How often do we stop to see it sink at the end of each ordinary day?
It is the most predictable, reliable and necessary phenomenon and yet it’s only when we’re away that we take any notice. It’s only when we see it over the sea across the beach or through mountain mist that it becomes magical. What’s incredible, too, is that it’s one of those things that can be seen from inside the bubble and might just serve as enough of a reminder that there’s a lot more out there than there is in here.
In Zambia, such was the regularity of the days and the weather this close to the equator, each morning was a festival of light as the sun rose in the West and equally breath-taking as it quickly slipped away in the evening. Predictable, steady, constant.
Perhaps it is the dust of this place that colours it like it does and makes such a display. I never tired of it. Every single night I called out the group for them to watch though I know they were humouring me. “We saw it yesterday” they said. But they didn’t. We never see the same sunset twice.
10. The Batoka Gorge
We weren’t here as tourists, though a few days of sightseeing did break up the expedition a little and help move us between the phases of the trip. Moving south meant that we had been able to take in the wilderness of the game reserves in the north, the noise and confusion of Lusaka in the middle and now the much more welcoming and softer city of Livingstone.
Livingstone relies heavily on the tourist trade; most visitors coming to see the Falls or the Rhino park and as such, the town has to give the people what they want. Unlike Lusaka, that meant paved roads with traffic controls and raised footpaths; cafés that serve lattés and scrambled eggs on toast; Pizza Hut; burger bars and gated malls.
Thankfully beyond this there’s the real Zambia – the one that I had fallen in love with and wanted to see more of. I wanted to be painted to the knee with dust and cajoled by children on the little backstreets; I wanted to be smiled at and waved to by the locals: I knew that soon enough I’d be back on my own paved roads and traffic jams and all of this would fade to memory.
Our next destination was Taita Falcon Lodge, an hour’s bumpy ride out of town and into a different kind of wilderness than we had been used to. The dust here was a deeper red and the ground stubbly with volcanic rock that bent our tent pegs out of shape and made for stiff nights of fidgety sleep. It was a place of scorpions and wild dogs: a place so far out of civilisation that the stars cast their own shadows and hung like a blanket above the treetops.
We were a few miles down-river from The Fall and high above the Zambezi that twisted through the gorge below and swirled through a succession of rapids. The Lodge is perched on the edge of this precipice and, dressed in colonial splendour took us back a hundred years to the days of Rhodesia and British rule. Carved figures adorn the bar and tables with stark white cloth bedecked with cutlery and glasses; a dozen staff are at hand to serve us but all we want to do is sit at the edge and breathe in this remarkable sight. On the far side is Zimbabwe and mile after mile of scrubland. From time to time a fish eagle – the national bird of Zambi – swoops below us and disappears in the spray. White canvas flaps in the warm breeze and again I am loath to leave this place. In my mind a story is forming; a love story that I will link to the Welsh mountains to capture the contrast. Amongst all the harshness of the climate and the rocks and the jagged plants, not to mention the things that crawl beneath our tents or make funnel webs in the tree roots, we sit in an oasis of opulent calm.
But it is not our destiny to stay here long: our near future lies down there in the gorge; along the thin strip of sand and rock that we can make out alongside the river in the distance.
It’s the days when you don’t have to that are the toughest; the days when there’s no rush, or even need, to get out of bed at the crack of dawn that take the most resolve. The radio comes on lulls you into the security of the regular rhythms of the morning; hypnotises with the soothing voices of presenters. The bed is warm and hill behind the house steep and open and it would be so much easier to…
Those are the days to not think too much. To simply do. To tiptoe downstairs quietly pull on the kit that you’ve left ready: It’s simple, remember: shorts, t-shirt, a decent pair of boots. Grab the hat and pole, close the door quietly and that’s it: before you know it, you’ve ducked out of the world where so much seems to matter and are breathing the fresher air of another one.
I didn’t need to get out of bed this morning; I didn’t have any urgent agenda and expected to see nothing more than a couple of dozen rabbits, maybe a deer. I’d hear the cries of birds that I couldn’t identify and feel the fain suggestion of autumn on the breeze. It was enough: it’s always enough. There is no such thing as ordinary if you look closely enough.
Next week I will be writing from the mountains of Wales. I will take you there if you care to follow. At this time of year it’s usually the sweaty morning streets of some Mediterranean island that I capture in my walks, but this year is different. You know what I mean. It will be spectacular, though, because I will be there to see it.
This time last year it was on a whole different continent that I was walking…
9. Victoria Falls
I love the way that they credit David Livingstone with discovering Victoria Falls. It’s like the locals, who had lived there for millennia hadn’t noticed they were there. It’s such a comical image that I have in my head that makes a mockery of such a depressing story of colonial power and the taming of the savage. The white man turns up and points out this natural wonder and all the locals are “Well shit. I never noticed that before. Guys, did you ever see that before?”
I get it. But it needs a sub-note because it’s just rude. They even named the town after him and the falls took the name of the head of the empire.
By all accounts there were men a lot worse than Dr Livingstone and the point of crediting him with the falls was that he brought them to the attention of the white man back in the emerging Western World. It was all about the bragging rights – just like the space-race and even the hunt for a Corona Vaccine has become today. Australia was originally New Holland, but then it wasn’t originally that at all – it had multiple names that the indigenous people, who had no cares for such land-grabbing or obsessions for planting flags and claiming territory. Victoria Falls, before it was owned by the empire, was Mosi-oa-Tunya: ‘The Smoke That Thunders’. There’s something a little more honest in that.
Even in the dry season it thunders and spray rises like smoke from the depths of the gorge that the ceaseless pounding of water has carved out over the years. Unlike the motorway near home but much like the elephants that ran through the campsite a few days before, it was a welcome trembling of the earth that we could feel through our feet long before we wound through the paths that led through the trees to the edge of the ravine.
For reasons that we were later to discover, the area surrounding the falls was teeming with human activity. Police, army, security, suited men and glamorous women, flash cars and groups of men hanging off the back of pick-up trucks. A helicopter circled and there was evidently more wealth and influence centred here in this tiny corner of the country than we had seen during the entirety of the trip so far. Except for road-side checks on our travels we hadn’t seen a single police car – and even these were mostly just local men in hi-viz vests and Police scrawled crookedly on the back. In the mayhem of rush-hour Lusaka there had been no police presence. We knew why: they were all here.
A surreal scene greeted us as we pulled up. The group had travelled in two taxi-buses, ours behind, so that as we stopped the other group was milling about by the roadside. It all happened so quickly that afterwards I could not be sure that it was as I remembered it, but we all saw it the saw it the same. We saw one of our group standing and adjusting the lens of her camera, she was approached by a muscled, hulking neanderthal of a man; the teeth yellow fangs, the snout drawn back and knuckles dragging almost along the dust. Only, it wasn’t this at all but a baboon, upright and in search of food. It happened like this: it walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, then made a grab for the camera. We saw all this slow and had no time to react, but for the girl it must have been a shock to think that your mugger was a mere human, then to look straight into the eyes of this most ugly and fearsome of primates. She screamed, the baboon screamed, we all held our breath. She pulled the camera back instinctively, the baboon pulled harder. Then from out of the crowds of people at the gates a soldier in full uniform brandishing an automatic machine gun ran towards the girl, the baboon, the confrontation.
“Oh my god.” I was thinking “He’s going to shoot the baboon right here in the street.”
We had been told that food of any description was banned at the falls; that the monkeys were aggressive and very dangerous. We had complied but hadn’t thought that they were dangerous enough to warrant armed guards. As it turned out, the guard was there for the same reason as all the rest of the cavalcade and just happened to see what was going on. It turned out that this baboon knew what a machine gun was and soon scarpered. Through it all a zebra munched the grass by the side of our bus and urinated as we disembarked to join the rest of the group.
The Zambian president was due to visit the falls with his counterpart from Kenya; that was what all the fuss and fanfare were about and no sooner had we joined the rest of the group and checked that the girls was ok that even more police turned up, even more pick-up trucks and this time with the men on the bed hooting and firing pistols. We presumed in support: Edgar Lungu is a popular figure here and in my experience locals tend to want to make a good impression.
Once the two men had walked down to the falls and signed the visitors’ book, then gone on the customary walkabout of the marketplace and craft stalls, the entourage reloaded the many, many vehicles and departed, it was our turn to pass through the gates. To pass by the famous statue of Dr Livingstone surveying his find and through the trees to the cliff-edge and to look across the abyss carved by the endless pounding of water and seemingly endless Victoria Falls.
It is rare that a sight actually takes the breath, but standing there in the presence of this I was speechless. My mouth was filled with the cool blast and my clothes immediately damp from the spray. My heart, I think, paused briefly to let it all sink in. This was the dry season and rain had been lacking for the past two winters. I wondered at the power that must tumble over those falls after a month of rain. I didn’t want to leave. I regret still that I didn’t plant myself there and refuse ever to move. I understood in an instant why Dr Livingstone had been so keen to claim this place as his own.
The monkeys and baboons do so well, I supposed, because the people simply stand and gape and make easy pickings. We had no food but almost lost an ipod and two bottles of water as we stood there, awestruck.
Funny how it works out like that. I woke this morning for the Early Walk Along The Edge and there at the bottom of the lane, congested like a blocked nose, alien craft had landed and stood poised on the tarmac, ready to scrape and scratch and relay. It is a very old road, the road that runs up through the foothills at the back of the house, it was about to become newer than my haircut. A smooth new blacktop will make it a calliope of a ride from the top once they’re out of the way, I just wonder how it will affect the winter traffic: there will be no potholes to slow them down as they approach the junction.
Back to the river at the other end of the county and an illustration of the paucity of bridges along our greatest stretch of water. A walk along the banks of the Severn in summer is unrivalled and a spot of rain from time to time is a blessing as it sends the fair-weather ramblers scuttling in their clean boots for the plastic bubbles of their cars. (It’s not like they actually intended to use those £200 waterproofs.) Even when it rains in the Worcestershire summer it’s never chilly and the shower soon dries off. This is the story that I tell to the girls before we set off – the two little ones and the older one; their mother. I tell them to put on their shorts because legs dry quicker than trousers. We visit the outdoor shop and my desire to hike with them costs me a fortune, but is worth it all when I see us all kitted, kaboodled and ready to roll along the riverbank.
When walking with the wife and kids, in my experience, it’s always a good idea to keep information to a minimum. Like a long journey in the car it’s always worth offering little encouragements of, let’s say, twenty minutes. Kids can compute that amount of time and it gives them a time-scale to take ownership of. For the wife it’s an episode of Neighbours, she can cope with that. Keep it simple:
How long’s left, daddy?
Twenty minutes, princess.
Of course this wears thin after a while so there’s some improv needed and I suggest supplementary titbits, such as:
But daddy, how long now?
Twenty minutes, princess. Ooh look – did you see that heron/fish/boat/squirrel/plane…?
It requires some strategy. You don’t want to be pulling out the Haribo’s or Dairy Milk too soon, and before you know it you’re passing the Victoria Bridge and someone’s waving from the other side. That’s the picnic spot and the footbridge over the water is just ahead. From that point it’s all walk home. Well, that’s what you tell them: the relief of a sit-down has its limits. It’s soon time to be back on the route.
Just as they were flagging, the river had disappeared behind fields for a while and we still had a mile or so to go; just as I thought we might not actually make it back before a mutiny, (the girls had grouped together and were plotting my destruction, I felt it). Long after the sweets had run out and no one wanted to hold my hand any more, a rustle and burst from the woods to the side as a family of fallow deer trotted onto the track, paused to regard us a while, then sprinted off into the trees. Suddenly all pain, all hunger, all desire to be on a sofa in front of the telly were gone. Right on cue she had turned up again.
We always talk of rivers as old. We personify them as immortal princesses or indomitable kings; we make songs about them which become legends of a misty past; we let them meander through stories and folktales. The rivers are always simply there. And very old.
I have watched the sun rise above the Zambezi as the river plummets over Victoria Falls and been soaked on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara; I’ve cruised on the Seine and paddled in the Thames; I’ve straddled the Severn up by its source and canoed in the Wye at Symmond’s Yat. These are truly majestic beasts of the natural world. For Inlanders like us it’s the same as being at the seaside.
I’m sitting next to the Severn now. It’s breath-taking in the summer twilight and swelled a little by yesterday’s rain in foreign mountains. Six months ago I was here to witness for myself the swell that had burst the banks again and broken new records and I heard the locals talk about the river as neither a princess or a king, but a grumpy old man. For some, as they piled ruined furniture on the wheelie bins out front and stowed sodden picture frames on the landing, it was worse than grumpy: it was plain evil. Another example of the indifferent mercilessness of nature. Today it’s so shallow that I can see the gravel bed through the running water and it seems impossibly far below our trailing feet; improbable that so much space could be filled by so much water could come rushing through the valley and cause such mayhem. To illustrate my point a heron has waded out almost to the middle of the river in search of a meal – he’s only up to his knees.
People live on the edge here. Increasingly so, though you wouldn’t know it to be standing here right now. The kids toss in twigs to race and if the sun’s up tomorrow I’ll let them dip their toes a little. We’re not far from home – same county, actually, but there’s an edge here that that maybe only Inlanders can feel about a river. It’s what the rest of them think about the sea: a frontier; the closing off of one world and the opening of another.
We’re on the far side of the river and if something happens to the little bridge in the town we’re twenty miles either way from the nearest village. Over our shoulder the forest breathes like a single entity and I know that the darkness of its depths stretches as far as the Welsh border. After that no one can really be sure.
I’m thinking about how old the river is. How old any river really is.
What is the river? Think about it. If it’s the water then the vast majority of this water was rained out only a few hours ago. It’s fresher that the milk I’ll put in my latte in a few minutes. It’s not old: this river is the newest thing this town has ever seen, and it sees it all day long. So what’s old, then? The gravel and rocks at the bottom? Maybe, but they’re always on the move, too – and most of the time we don’t see them. So the trees that line the banks of the river from the Hafren forest to the Bristol Channel? Maybe. But then we’re not talking about the river any more…
We wouldn’t insist on legions of Roman soldiers before a road can be called Roman and we don’t wait for horse-drawn carriages before a route is known as old. All of these roads get their resurface: layer over layer of time and history and the river goes one further with a complete rehaul every few minutes. The river, they say, holds no memories. So how are they old?
It’s the something that’s always been there that we call old. For good or evil it just has been there. A route, a barrier, a threat, a ride. But it’s not old, this old river. Like an old hurt. The hurt’s aren’t old if we hold onto them today: only the reasons for holding on to them are old.
So, you made it out – well done. This is the edge. It’s the only place to be.
The air takes a little getting used to but it’s ok to breathe, in fact breathing is heartily recommended. Move away from the road a little and take a deep breath. Don’t look back – you’ll be sucked in soon enough – look forward. What’s there – have you ever really looked before? Which way to go? Forget the normal rules: they don’t apply here. Your feet are allowed to leave the tarmac and distant views aren’t just for looking at now through the blur of a car window but for discovering…
I always try to find a new path, or at least a new bit of a field or a wood that I’ve never walked before, and I try to do that every day. It gets tricky as the weeks and months rattle on but that’s a good thing because it means you have to look further and push out into the unknown. It is incredible how many of the secret ways that criss-cross our daily lives remain largely undiscovered. It is the will that takes us t these places as much as the legs. Try to remember that the nettles are there to do a job but they can be pushed aside if the way you want to take lies beyond them. Don’t think of it as a sting, think of it as a tingle – I tell my girls that it’s stingle. It’s the feeling that your brain’s telling you should hurt but at the same time realises that the man who never felt pain never felt anything.
This morning, and this is typical, I did this: Up at 5.55 and out by 6. Remember: a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and some decent shoes. That’s it. The stick is optional but I always take one for pushing back nettles and testing boggy ground. Maybe for warding off unfriendly dogs, too, though I’ve never had to use it for this. The sodium-arc light outside my house glows orange but shut down an hour or so ago. I know it won’t be long before I catch it again, in the long mornings where maybe I won’t be able to take the same route over the fields.
It’s too early for the dog-walkers so I’m not lured into the loop and I cut through the little alley and scuttle across the road. It’s busy again now: the lockdown has faded and things are back as they were and we’ll probably never see it again like it was for those strange few months when we could sit in the middle of that road (if we wanted to) or saunter along the central white line and push down the cats-eyes. It’s a long way from that now: the national speed limit means that they can go pretty fast and the lorries push the air about so that it takes your breath when they pass.
We’ve had rain for a few days and the ground is sodden so I’ll stick to the track that runs through the field. The proper footpath is to the left but with the wheat up at knee-height I’ll have wet socks before I’m five minutes in. The farmer won’t be up yet and I’ll be through the gap in the hedgerow soon and onto the golf course without any harm, though with the rain I will have to check the ground – it gets marshy here and there’s talk that he’s going to flood the little valley to create fish ponds. I poke at the ground with the stick. The grass is as happy and green under the water as out of it. The water’s so clear that there seems to be little difference.
There is a natural dip in the centre of the field where the water runs after rain. A culvert lies underneath from the village at the top where the spring rises but the run-off from the field takes the overland route. It’s like a huge book, this field, and the central dip is the spine. The heavy pages lol in graceful arcs on either side and to paint the picture for you a little better, I came in at the bottom-left hand side. I’ll cross the spine and disappear bottom-right. But I won’t be far. I’ll skirt the edge of the open book field on the golf course track and keep my feet dryer. the rows of wheat are like lines on the page and they tell they story of every day.
There’s some artificial grace to a golf course that I both abhor and admire. It’s a playground of the wealthy and they look with contempt at anyone not wearing polka-dot socks tucked into expensive cotton trouser cuffs. Always a tank-top that doesn’t match and fine leather gloves – or if they really fancy themselves: a single glove. They strut up and down the fairways as if they own the place – which, on some level they do, and they look at people like me as if I’m about to nick the flag. I have been tempted to nick a ball or two after it has been driven down the ground, or kick it in to the rough but I find that I don’t care enough to do that.
It’s too early for golfers and the action up here now as I rise with the swell of the land is the groundsman and the gentle whirr of the tractor he glides about in, preening the greens and checking that the flags haven’t been nicked. He’s friendly enough, though I shouldn’t really be on here, and he’ll give me a wave. It is enough. I don’t want conversation. I don’t think that I could muster it at this hour and am content with my own company.
I have heard the distinct call of a peacock somewhere across the course, though I’ve never seen it. It could be deer shouting but I don’t think so. There are deer, though. Last week I poked out in to the field and walked across the ridge for the better view and there out of the middle of the wheat poked the glorious shoulders and head of a roe stag. It is usually the startled behind that I see bounding off into the safety of the trees but this one stood his ground and eyed me as I passed, his three-pronged antlers skyward and his eyes never wavering as his ears twisted and turned for best advantage. It is the rutting season and I suspect that I was standing between him and his girl. It was one of those rare occasions where I had the mind to take out the phone and grab a couple of shots. From the angle, right up along the right-hand edge of the open book I could see the way that I had come and got the picture I wanted with my own tiny home, where my girls were still sleeping, captured between those antlers.
I had not walked far, yet I had walked out of the bubble and though I could see it shimmering grey and fast below me, I knew that it didn’t see me, nor care about me. I had found the gap between the circles, and it really wasn’t hard. I was satisfied and pocketed the phone with a deep sigh of simple contentment. One of those moments that you wish someone else had been there to see also, maybe.
The rabbits that darted in surprise as I made my way along the rest of the path were small beer now, though I counted thirty before I gave up and gave my attention to dividing the nettles with my stick so that I could pass. I startled a tiny rabbit last week. It knew that there was a need to panic because all of the others were running this way and that but clearly had no sense what the danger was because it ran right at me, thudded into the side of my boot and then hopped away a little dazed to join the others. A fox was down on its haunches ready to launch an attack on another unsuspecting bunny when I arrived and did for his element of surprise.
By this time I had reached the village and it was time to step back onto the black-top and follow the lane back down to where I had started. It had been shut for the whole of the lockdown for gas-works which meant that, while the cars couldn’t get through, walkers like me could. What had been another little artery serving the town was quickly absorbed back into the wilderness for a while and pheasants roosted on the ground, deer skittered without alarm and I sauntered along the middle as though it was my own paved footpath.
I tapped my stick to the morning rhythm as I walked and I smiled because I knew that most people hadn’t even woken up yet and would never know what I had already known today.
You don’t have to go far to step outside of the circle but you do have to take that step. It’s not about the gear and the amount you spend on it. Kit for me is a pair of strong shorts with good pockets, a couple of layers of t-shirts and a decent pair of boots with proper socks. Don’t underestimate the importance of the socks; they’re a game-changer.
That’s it: that’s your escape kit. You’ve probably got it all already so there’s no need to spend your time or money on anything new. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the pain of investing a lot of money on kit is the same as making the effort to use it. It’s not. There’s no substitute for getting out there and like all things that are worth doing – it requires effort.
So let’s step out of those circuits a little. Let’s dodge the dog walkers in their expensive hiking gear and their precious pets in matching outfits. Let’s smile politely and pretend to care about their dog as we squeeze past at a social distance down the alley, but instead of looping back round and staying safely within the loop, let’s push to the edge. This is where we take a deep breath and step into the unknown…
We hear tell of the Salinas Valley; Windermere, Tintern Abbey and Ben Bulben. These places inspired the writers that wandered in them every day and it’s tempting to think that you can’t possibly compare where you live to these places. Remember that these places are just someone else’s side-street. A bit like the kit thing: don’t mistake the effort taken to get to some spectacular spot for the actual effort to get out into it. When you’re in the car, on the train, in the carpark or the café – you’re still in the bubble.
You know you’re still in the bubble if it feels safe; if it’s dry on a rainy day or warm in the winter; if the seat you’re sitting on is comfortable.
As much as possible, walk from the front door. Walk from your house and you will be amazed how easy it is to get out of the circle – you will undoubtedly find holes if you look: little forgotten alleyways readopted by nature; parks left alone; canals and bridges and, one of my favourites: cemeteries. If you can check the conditions from the list above then you’re in. Or out.
My town is like this. It’s in the English midlands so there’s no coast for many miles; there are no mountains in my county and the main river is twenty-five miles away. It sounds dull. It sounds like there’s nothing whatever to do here, and that’s perfect because people sail on by. They move from circle to circle on the arteries that criss-cross the country and they never stop here. It’s an old town but has fallen for the old circle trick of plastic shop fronts and shiny floors; of huge supermarkets and paved high-streets; the roads thunder with traffic, when it’s not too much to clog up the town entirely, and little pockets of new housing estates grow like mould around the edges.
The circles keep growing but circles don’t tesselate and it’s the gaps in between that you want…
At the back of my house is a fairly busy A-road. It’s one of those arteries that feeds the bubble. Most people merely skirt it with their dogs, but the braver ones suck in a deep breath and dodge the traffic to the other side. There’s a tunnel a little further up that was built when the road was put in so that the cows could get to the fields on the other side. That was when my house was part of the dairy farm. See what I mean?
But once you’re over, that’s it. You’re out of the bubble; you’re on the edge of the circle and there’s whole lot of exploring to do up that lane. It’s always been there and thousands upon thousands of people see it, without seeing it, if you get me. It’s just there.
But you know what, it’s not just that. You step out of the loop and you get across the road; you ignore the funny looks that you’re getting and you pull back the shoulders and it’s a whole other world. I can still see my house and the cars and trucks throw up an unnatural wind as they batter past. There’s still a perfect wifi signal if you need it. But you’re out. That’s the main thing.
Gently, gently. Tomorrow let’s get up that lane. It might open up to a field on the left and maybe a little wood we never knew was there. As we rise, a new view might open up and then, for the first time, we’ll wonder why it took so long…
Now that the pubs are open again and the streets are vibrating with the return of the traffic it’ll start to seem like nothing ever happened. On the surface, at least. Nature abhors a vacuum, a friend of mine once said. Physical or emotional or whatever, the gaps get filled pretty quickly. Draw your spoon through the mush at the bottom of your bowl of Weetabix until you can see the ceramic of the bowl underneath. Then watch as the space you made is filled until there’s no trace, no memory of it.
But it did happen.
In that time, all that time of week after week after week after week the circle shrunk back into itself a little. From the edge here I felt it. Each walk felt further from the rim of the circle as though the whole idea of it had contracted into itself for protection. The plastic pulled back and through the gaps in the exposed concrete grew new flowers at such a speed that the lanes were transformed in a day and walk along the edge was a walk back in time.
It was still. There was no subconscious tremble of the earth as traffic thundered on roads kept smooth by ceaseless rubber. Discarded rubbish flattened and consumed into its surface in a matter of days and unnatural winds confusing the birds and branches- these were gone and it was all still. Eerily still to the point where the tiny sounds of tiny feet skittering along dry leaves were no longer silent and the murderous cries of the buzzard were heard in back gardens all across town. The cars the did venture through the wilderness went quickly from one plastic circle to the next, all twitch and nervous and masked up – as though that would help.
For a short while the edge of the circle; the fringe, if you like: the marches – they were broad and we were brave. We stretched or legs and walked – in the middle of the day, mind – in the middle of the road. We walked the line and watched the flowers grow between the cats-eyes. We saw the patterns of heavy tyres in the tarmac and the scuffed our shoes on the smooth surface of a forbidden place that is always right under our noses.
In the edges, in between the plastic circles; that’s where the magic is.
If you look carefully at the image above you can see the circle. If you squint you’ll see the plastic covering. The spike in the centre, that’s where they draw out from. In some cities it’s huge chunks of steel and glass that they measure from. They take their string and they draw a circle from the centre and that’s the bubble. That’s the plastic cover that we’re all meant to hide under. Most of the time they’re getting steadily bigger. Heaving and pulsing and growing like some flabby pregnant monster, but lately they’ve shrunk a little back on themselves.
Arteries shoot out in all directions and connect bubble with bubble: you have to be careful with these, but the gaps in between. Well that’s where the magic is. That’s where these notes will be from for a while now. Coronanotes reached a healthy number but all things come to an end and that little bit of unity that we got from the shared crisis was worth spending the words on. It’s shifted now and the bubbles gobbling up the fringes again like it was before, so I’ll report from there while I still can. I’ll report from the edge and push back.