Often after I’ve put on my boots and started to walk into the open countryside on a cold, bright morning I wish that I could do that every day of my life. Become a wanderer, feeling my legs moving, listening to the skylarks, smelling the earth, looking at the distant hills and the big skies, ready for any encounter any experience, knowing that they will come. It can’t be, and even if it could I’d probably tire of it. But I felt that wanderlust thus morning as we climbed on to the Ridgeway from Sparsholt and yesterday as we left East Illsley.
The Ridgeway, an ancient path, runs 90 miles from Avebury, with its stone circle to rival Stonehenge, to Ivinghoe Beacon, mostly along high chalk hills where the Iron-age people who used the route avoided mud, attacking warriors, and wild animals. Both today and yesterday we walked round the high banks that surrounded Iron-age forts looking down into the deep ditches the people also dug. Both were on the top of hills, hard to attack and providing easy sight of the attackers. Built more than 2000 years ago they are large and still completely intact. One was more than half a mile in circumference. Once the top would have been covered in wooden stakes, and the inside of the circle, now short grass, would have been filled with huts, fires, children, animals, women cooking, smells of roasting meat, talk, song, and business. Despite Robin and I being the only two on the banks of the largest fort it wasn’t hard to imagine all the life that was once there.
One of the things that hits you hardest on the Ridgeway is its yemptiness. Mostly we walked along the Northern edge of the Berkshire Downs, and we looked North to Didcot, a string of villages, and, we imagined, the spires if Oxford, but if we looked South we saw empty, rolling downs with few or often no buildings. The fields are large and cultivated, but why are they so empty? Surely there once must have been more people, necessitating more houses. But, you wonder, how can we be so close to one if the world’s biggest cities and closer still to millions of people living within 20 miles and yet enjoy such emptiness. Thank goodness, and the foresight of the Victorians, that we can.
The skies were huge and scarred. We had sun for every moment from when we left Goring Station, crossed the Thames, and ascended into the hills, until we walked down from Uffington Castle some 48 hours later. But the blue skies were crisis-crossed with the white scratches left by jet planes, climbing from Heathrow, and heading towards America, and descending into Heathrow from far-flung destinations. I asked Robin, my green companion, how he felt about them: he deplored the flying and the scratches but conceded that they had beauty. He would make no such concession over a large barn built from rusted sheets of corrugated iron in which I saw repeating, slightly changing, and beautiful patterns. He wants stone and wood not rusted iron, but I challenged him that if the barn was reconstructed in Tate Modern he’d appreciate it. He was sceptical.
We met animals. I don’t think we saw a single cow, but we saw a field filled with sheep and encountered galloping horses on the rides that betop some of the downs. Robin bravely stopped a runaway white horse, and we both for the first time held ferrets, surprisingly cute creatures considering the bloodthirsty uses. Their owners told us they had to give up rabbiting because there were too many baby rabbits: the ferrets chase them into a burrow, kill and eat them, and then fall asleep. The owners either have to wait hours for them to come out or dig them out.
All the way we saw daffodils, primroses, and blossom and in the villages magnolias and camellias. In an ancient church we saw wooden effigies from the 13th or 14th centuries of knights and their ladies, with faithful dogs at their feet, and angels, or were they babies, around their heads. How, we wondered, could wood have survived so long? “What will survive of us is love.”
Robin and I slept in good beds, while David camped, pointing his tent so the rising sun could enter (so unfortunately could the East wind). We ate good food and drank local beer, wine, and whiskey. We talked of many things including death, decline, dementia, restorative agriculture, our pasts, our children and grandchildren, medicine having over-reached itself, Bangladesh, the greening of the NHS, books, Lucretius’s poem on The Nature of Things, medical journals, moments of embarrassment, how often we’d performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre (three for Robin, none for David and me), and the complexities of life.
I wish that I could strap on my boots and set off again right now.