3 June 2017
At the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford we saw several lead and pewter badges made as souvenirs for pilgrims who traveled to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury in the age of Chaucer and earlier. The Museum also has one of the fabulous Limoges reliquary boxes showing the murder of Becket and I am attaching a picture. (There is a discussion of these in Paradise Walk!)
We went to Stratford to visit the church where Shakespeare is buried, and then went to a remarkable performance of Julius Caesar by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The scene between Brutus and Cassius in Act Two was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I have read the play, but did not realize how passionate, angry, hurt, bullying, loving, jealous and disappointed these two guys were, nor did I consider how complex their relationship was, until I saw this scene on stage. It was moving and riveting and I found myself weeping through most of it. It has expanded my definition of drama! (The reviewer in The Guardian said the guy who played Cassius stole the show and I agree.)
Bath came next, which is the official start of our pilgrimage even though we have been on the road for several days. The Roman Baths are now the biggest tourist attraction in town, though they were entirely covered by the medieval town in the age of The Wife of Bath. We also had tea at the Pump Room, where so many Jane Austen novels are set. (I should have put “Jane Austen Sites” in my list of the overarching themes that make up the philosophical rationale for this pilgrimage, and also King Arthur sites, but more about that in my next post.)
We came through Wells to see the fabulous cathedral and on to our lodging at “The Boat and Anchor,” built on a canal towpath peopled by baby swans, white cows, and my companions.
As I write this, they are out trying to find the Leland Trail where I walked twenty years ago, but they have already phoned to tell me that they inadvertently got onto a different path; they are now circling around to meet me in the tea room of the fifteenth-century George Inn in Castle Cary. I understand this completely, as my first day of walking was filled with challenges when I undertook it (and as I described at the time). Cell phones were new when I made my first pilgrimage, but now they are an essential tool of the pilgrim, as is this computer and its online connection!
The world is changed but all remains well!
Becket reliquary and souvenir badges at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
From May 1997: Chapter One: “Bisyde Bath”
But preacheth not, as frerés do in Lent,
To make us for our oldé sinnés weep.
Ne that thy talé make us not to sleep.
Tell us some merry thing of ádventures—
The Canterbury Tales
The most surprising thing about Bath was how the mountains had grown up around it since my last visit. The Mendips. Suddenly the elevation markings on the map became meaningful, and I realized that for several days I would be climbing and descending, climbing and descending, as I headed toward Wells and Glastonbury. It was the curse of Wainwright on an ill-prepared and physically unfit walker.
The appropriateness of Bath as a starting place was on my mind as my pilgrimage began. Only here and at Winchester would my three subject strands actually cross. Here, of course, the Wife had lived; here Jane Austen had spent many years and set several novels; and one of these Mendips was possibly “Mount Baden” where King Arthur fought the Saxons. From Bath, each of these stories unrolled across the south of England.
Bath is an ancient city, it’s mineral springs having drawn settlers since prehistoric times. The Roman baths, extensively excavated in the nineteenth century, are now a primary tourist attraction. I consider the day I spent there not as my first day, but rather as a sort of minus-one day, because I was still discombobulated from jet lag and there was a sense of unreality about the whole venture. I seem to have felt the age of Jane Austen in the architecture and especially in the Pump Room, where we had lunch, but there seemed to be little left of the city as it would have been known to the Wife of Bath. Even in Bath Abbey, with its extensive renovations, it was difficult to get a sense of medieval England.
Ron and Joan planned to stay overnight with me and leave the following morning as I began my trek and we spent the afternoon visiting Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths. The former was filled with scaffolding and seemed so altered since Medieval times that it was somewhat disappointing. The baths, however, were clearly a sacred place and a site of pilgrimage for the Romans. Into the waters of the Aqua Sulis, the temple of Minerva, they threw thin, rolled sheets of lead, onto which they scratched those plagues and curses that they wished to banish from their lives.
The excavation is really impressive, but all this was unknown both in the Wife of Bath’s time, and in Jane Austen’s time. Uncovered in the nineteenth century, it had been necessary to destroy the Georgian neighborhood that sat on top of it in the process. The adjacent Pump Room, however, was everything I could hope for, elegant and snooty and beautiful, and the water tasted just as bad as I imagined. It was the center of social life in Jane Austen’s time and figures prominently in her first and last novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
I was uncomfortable the whole day though about the hills. I had hardly noticed them before when I was in a car or travelling by train, but the prospect of crossing them on foot the first morning out was somewhat daunting. I imagined myself stuck on a mountain peak, hair frozen, pack heavy, Mephistos buried in snow. For the first of many times, I justified. Remembering that the Wife of Bath actually came from “Bisyde Bath” and not from the town itself, I decided to pick as a starting point one of the villages on the far side of the surrounding hills, in the direction of Wells, which was my destination for day three. After driving around the countryside a bit, we settled on Inglesbatch and a comfortable-looking farmhouse B&B.
The owners of the B&B were the first farmers I met in England and set a very high standard of intelligence, historical knowledge, and scepticism about my walk, which most of my other hosts would meet. There was nothing the least bit rural or provincial-seeming about them as they talked about their seventeenth-century stone barn and the problems of fitting modern farm machinery in it. I took advantage of the opportunity to ask them about the footpaths between Inglesbatch and Chewton Mendip, which I had decided on as my destination for the first day’s walk. “Not a problem,” I was informed by Nora, who even knew of another farm B&B there run by a pal of hers, whom she would call on my behalf. I got out the Ordinance Survey map number 172 and went over it with Nora, who, as luck would have it is an experienced walker.
I should mention here that I had been studying the Ordinance Survey Landranger maps for weeks. At one-and-a-half inches to the mile, they are filled with details, most importantly the red dotted lines that indicated the “Public Footpaths.” Back home at my dining room table I had traced my finger along these paths as I thought about the route, picturing them in my mind as hard-packed dirt paths, maybe shaded by boughs arching overhead. I was not so naive as to expect them all to be paved, or all to be shaded, but I had at least expected them all to be paths. I was consequently very surprised as Nora and her husband discussed and discussed where the paths were that stretched on the map between Inglesbatch and Chewton Mendip. “Take the road,” they suggested, “it will be much faster.” I shook my head, explaining that I really wanted to do it on the footpaths. The roads seemed dangerous to me—they were generally just over one lane wide, had a high hedge on each side, enough curves so that you could only see about three car lengths ahead, and had no shoulder (or “verge” as the English call it) to allow you to step off the road when a car came racing along. No, it was definitely the footpaths for me.
The next morning Nora gave me a note from her husband, Michael; he had taken the time to figure out the path situation and give me the local details. “To the end of the road,” it said, “past the piggery, turn into the field and then cross it down to the stream to pick up the path.” If I walked along the stream I would find “a proper bridge” and be on my way. I was somewhat sceptical about the piggery part, but felt ready to start. My pack was comfortable, my shoes were broken in, and it remained only to kiss Ron and Joan good-bye.
“I hope you don’t get hit by a car,” Joannie said with some concern.
“I hope I don’t get gored by a bull,” I answered.
We pondered these two possibilities for a brief moment, smiled heartily, and I set off down the road.
I felt really good. The night before had been beautiful, with a bright moon, and I had heard an owl hoot just outside my window. The countryside had an exotic quality that was exhilarating and the morning was cool and misty, perfect for walking. Michael’s directions led me to the end of the road and off onto what seemed like someone’s driveway. There was no indication of a footpath of any kind and two mangy dogs came out of nowhere to bark at me. Still, I was upbeat and energetic. Even the piggery failed to darken my day, though it certainly did nothing to lighten it. The piggery road was thick with a deep, black, swiney muck. I ventured down it wearing $200 shoes, when I emerged at the other end my Mephistos weren’t worth two bucks.
Past the piggery I saw two fields on my left. The near field was populated by several horses, the more distant was filled with tall grass. There was a good slope downhill and at the bottom was the stream indicated on my map. Had it not been my very first morning out, I like to think that logic would have prevailed and I would have skipped along through the horses, finding a good footing on the short grass. Two minutes reflection would certainly have reminded me that I was going to be making a left turn at the stream at the bottom of the hill to find Michael’s promised bridge. The fact that there was no sign of any kind indicating a public footpath, however, made me very hesitant to go onto property that was so obviously privately owned. The wild and uncultivated look of the next field on made it seem like it must be freer of access to the public and consequently the correct choice.
The grass was knee-height, slick and steep, with an unseen and uneven footing. On the downhill climb I found my pack made me somewhat unsteady. There was a bit of a creek meandering down the hill with me, which was contained between two barbed-wire fences. It was only when I was almost at the bottom of the hill that I realized the implications of this. I would need to climb over both of them and the creek to make my left turn at the stream. I walked up and down along the fence, missing my footing once and falling. This was not an auspicious start. My feet were already hurting.
I found a place where I could grab onto a small tree as I climbed over the barbed wire, took off my pack, took three aspirin, and heaved the pack across. I’m glad that only the horses were there to see my graceless scramble across this slough of despond. I was now at the junction of two streams, the larger of which was obviously a watering hole for livestock, as its banks were muddy with hoof prints. There was no bridge of any kind visible, and, as the map seemed to indicate that the path was on the far side I decided to ford it where the water was only a few inches deep across some smooth stones. My Mephistos now got their official baptism.
It didn’t take me long to discover that I had arrived on an island. I walked upstream to the tip of it and saw the bridge in the distance. As I was going to have to cross one of the forks of the stream anyway, I decided to continue on in the direction I was going rather than backtrack, as the bridge would lead me to the path on the far side. I forded the other side and arrived at the base of another field. There was only a small obstacle between me and it: a fence made out of two wires. As I am no fool, it took only one touch to discover that they were electric wires. The Ordnance Survey Landranger map number 172 which I was cursing actively now proved itself most useful—I laid it over the fence so that I could fling myself across.
There was no path. There was only thick vegetation and muddy stream beds. I ended up forging my way back across the stream and proceeding on to the bridge where I had my first encounter with a stile. Stiles provide one or two planks on either side of a fence, set up something like steps, to allow walkers to cross over. Walking along briskly without a heavy pack on your back, I’m sure these stiles are minor obstacles, but I was not walking briskly and I did have a heavy pack on my back. I cursed all stiles. There was, finally, on the far side of the bridge, something resembling a path. It was not the broad and shady lane that I had pictured back at home as I pored over the maps before I left. It was, rather, the edge of a field, where someone had walked before me, leaving a flattened bit of the agricultural product (I think it was wheat or hay) about eight inches wide. The ground was uneven but I finally felt like I was making progress.
To my right, the field swung up a broad steep hill and the effect was very pretty. I breathed deep. Everything was in the full fresh bloom of late spring. Intense greens with every hue from almost yellow to almost black spread around me on all sides, from the lowest clover through the higher grasses up to the shrubbery, hedges, and towering trees. Alright, I thought, my shoes don’t hurt so much, the pack seems comfortable, I’m on my way.
It had been my plan to stop briefly at Priston, first at the pub and then at the church; both were closed and I regretted the lack of a chance to sit down. Nora, on the previous afternoon had shown me pictures of the golden rooster, the “cockerel,” which had recently been replaced on the church steeple after spending some time in Cornwall being regilded. It was a terrific thing, and as I continued along the path I turned often to see the sun glinting off it, until finally I had passed down enough of a slope that the cock sat on top of the hill with no church parts visible before disappearing.
I was now in an area where the path was better marked, not only with signs and arrows on each damned stile, but with the tread of many feet. I met several locals on their way between Timsbury and Priston. They were all women, one wearing a woolen skirt and sensible shoes. This was a good part of the path. The weather was cool and misty, the countryside beautiful. Jane Austen once said that England looked better through mist than sunshine and I was now reminded of two episodes from her novels. The first was Elizabeth Bennet’s trek across the fields to visit an ailing Jane at Netherfield, and the reception she received there; the second was a walk to the outskirts of Bath in Northanger Abbey.
Catherine Moreland, the wonderfully goofy heroine of Northanger Abbey set out from Bath with her friend Eleanor Tilney and Eleanor’s brother Henry. Their conversation was dominated by the subject matter of Gothic novels until they reached the top of a hill outside town and began to discuss the perspective beneath them. “Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing—nothing of taste.”
The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer proof of a fine day. ... She confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him. ... When they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.
Before I left home I wrote this passage into a little notebook I carried with me, wanting to have the Austen description of Bath from a distance. On the downhill slope from Priston I pulled it out and read it—it made me laugh at myself for having essentially rejected Bath Abbey the day before as not representing the medieval past in the manner which I wanted it to.
My path was now along the floor of a valley. On one side were fields covered with sheep who set up a chorus of “baaaas” as I passed among them, on the other side was a very pretty wood. The green field got me singing to myself the old English ballad “The Twa Corbies,” especially the verse with the passage “Down in yonder green field, there lies a knight, dead ‘neath his shield.” I pictured myself, the hapless Yank, lying beneath my pack. Wainwright said that he always sang as he walked and it was the only thing I liked about him. I had fortunately not yet encountered any of the “young bullocks” which he feared (and had consequently inspired me to fear as well), but the valley was filled with sheep. Many of the big ewes appeared to have twin lambs, one pair moved in unison to follow my progress.
Such a lovely valley inevitably gave way to a steep rise at the other end, and I arrived at the top, and at Timsbury, at about eleven o’clock. I had been on the trail for three hours, had covered about three miles and was getting really tired. This was not making very good time, but I figured a nice cup of tea would refresh me and I would get my second wind. There was, however, no tea to be had in Timsbury. I had come to England with a very strongly-held stereotype that every community had a tea shop and an open pub and it now dawned on me for the first time that this might not be so. An elderly couple saw me looking at the map and stopped to assist, soon joined by another Good Samaritan. “You should go through the Greyfield Woods at High Littleton” the G.S. said to me. I shook my head, rejecting local knowledge for the second time that day, and made the trio point out the path to Hallatrow on the map, which would save me a few miles. Timsbury had been a mining town and still has a working-class feel. I stopped into the church to rest a bit, drink most of my water supply, and chat with the ladies polishing the pews and arranging flowers.
Out of the church and down the lane, I picked up the next “Public Footpath” sign and started down a very steep slope through a field thick with buttercups. At the bottom of the hill I could see the requisite stile, with a small arrow on it labeled “Limestone Link.” This path appeared on the map adjacent to a black dotted line which was identified as a “dismtd rly.” Here was good luck I thought. Back in Woods Hole I had started my walking regimen on the “Shining Sea” bike path, which runs along the dismantled line of the old Woods Hole Railway. On that path the tracks and ties were taken up, pavement was laid down, and a great path created. I checked the key on the map and found that a black dotted line indicated a “path” and I pictured a clear level path ahead. It was muddy, but level and I slogged along for half a mile or so before the “Limestone Link” and the “dismtd rly” diverged. There was a farmer there working on his car and I asked him how to find the old rail bed. “You’re on it” he told me, pointing out the fence posts which were made of ties, and the gates which were made of track. “It’s not a good path,” he continued, “you should go along the old canal towpath.” That sounded good, it was more of the “Limestone Link” path, and I decided to follow it until it turned the wrong direction for me and at that point find that old tracks again.
Among the mistakes I made on my first day, one of the greatest was not reading the key of the map carefully enough. There is a difference between the small black dots of the “dismtd rly” (which do not appear in the key), and the longer black dashes of the “Path.” Following the small black dots I got into rougher and rougher terrain. At some points there were big slabs of old tarmac tossed all over the path, completely blocking the way. I walked alongside it in the fields until I could pick it up again, finally walking through deep mud to a newish barn-like building which seemed to sit right across the path of the old tracks. I could see right through the thing; there was a gate at either end, the one on my end was set permanently ajar. It was only when I was well in that I realized the floor was composed of manure about eighteen inches thick, covered with about four inches of straw. My shoes would slide down into the muck every so often and come out with a sucking sound and noxious smell. I couldn’t wait to reach the other side. There, to my horror I found that the gate was locked with a rusty bolt that would not give way.
I absolutely was not going back through the barn, but I was not anxious to climb over the gate which was as high as my shoulders. This was not a happy moment. I finally took off my pack, hoisted it over the gate and followed after. I eventually arrived at two stiles, one to my left and one to my right which marked the crossing of a public footpath. Good news for me except I wasn’t sure from the map which one it was of several in the vicinity. I made my best guess and headed to the right, hoping I was still headed more or less for Hallatrow. I was not, and it was a costly error, the seriousness of which I did not fully comprehend for almost another half hour. At that point I found myself in a large field with very tall grass and no indication that there was any public right-of-way across it. In the distance I could see the tops of trucks racing by over a hedge, so I knew there was a road but I couldn’t see any way to get to it. Between me and it were two fields, a muddy stream, a barbed-wire fence, and a tall thick hedge, none of which would be easy to cross. I decided to try the barbed-wire and stream option, but found that the grass got taller as you approached it because of a spreading, though largely disguised, marsh or swamp. One bad slip on the mud convinced me to head up the middle of the field until a landmark presented itself. In time a stile came into view with a footpath arrow on it. I could barely hoist myself over it, and struggled on to the road.
My compass was in my pack and there was no way around taking off the pack again to get it out. A review of the map with the compass led to the uneasy realization that I had circled back to the road out of Timsbury and that I wasn’t far from where I had turned off more than an hour before to chase the grail of the former railroad tracks. I had missed Hallatrow, so now the best option seemed to be to go into High Littleton, where the map indicated there was a pub. At one o’clock, after five hours on the road, I arrived at the Stars Pub.
I now debated the option of finding a bus into Chewton Mendip and looked again at the map. I drank two pitchers of water, a glass of cider, ate some ham and cheese, changed my wet shoes and socks and decided to bite the bullet and go on. I wasn’t far now from Greyfield Woods and thought that for once in the day I ought to take the advice of a local informant and make my way through there. As promised, the floor of the woods was carpeted in blue bells, a breathtaking sight.
Along the path I met a woman with four dogs who asked my plans and suggested that I take a different path through the woods than the one I intended as I would then pass by a waterfall, but her suggestion would bring me into Hallatrow and I had decided to exit the forest on a path that would bring me up onto an abandoned railroad embankment, and eventually drop me at a pub midway between Hallatrow and White Cross. She warned me that some of the paths were no longer public access but didn’t know the details.
My path of choice was one of the ones which was clearly of questionable access. The stile that would lead me out of the forest and into a field was barricaded with tree limbs and had an electric wire stretched across the access point about a yard beyond the stile. Had I not earlier perfected the technology of crossing these wires I probably would have turned around, but that would have meant retracing an hour’s labor, so I moved the branches, used my map to cross the wire and headed across the field. At the other end I had to cross another electric wire which I did without a problem. The embankment was ahead of me, but once again there was no access to it. Not only a fence and a stream, but a thick, steep bank of nettles kept it frustratingly out of reach. I was at a very low point.
My best option seemed to be to head for a pub which, according to the map, was about a mile along on the road to Hallowtrow. It became my new shining grail. I arrived there at 3:10 to find that they closed between three and five. “Just about a half mile on, you'll find a place that’s open,” I was informed. No plea, no pathetic look, no offer of money would induce the couple sweeping up to part with one glass of cider or cup of tea, and their sense of distance was as stingy as themselves. It was over a mile to the “Little Chef” at Farrington Gurney where I could finally take off my pack, sit down, and ponder my pilgrimage. What the hell, exactly, was I doing?
At six o’clock I was still sitting, sucking up lukewarm tea and asking myself the big questions. I was now only a few miles from my goal of the day, Chewton Mendip, but I just couldn’t face another step. My father-in-law had given me a little device that you can run across a map to measure distance and I ran it over each portion of my trip since Inglesbatch. In ten hours I had come only nine miles. My feet were really hurting and I began to wonder how committed I was to walking every step of the path across England. “What would Alison the Wife of Bath have done?” I asked myself. Oh yeah, she rode a horse.
I stared at the map a bit longer. Chewton Mendip was only a few miles on, but the way there had elevation lines indicating some pretty steep climbs. Just outside the window of the Little Chef was a phone booth, there was a local paper on the table, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tale I had the number of a taxi company in my hand. The walk which would have taken me two or more hours to walk, took ten minutes to drive, and by seven o’clock, instead of the purgatory of the Mendips, I was enjoying the heaven of a hot bath. Though my hostess offered to drive me a few miles to the local pub for dinner, I found that I didn’t really want anything but a comfortable bed, and I retired early with the next day’s map spread over me like a blanket.
If my pace did not improve, this would be a very long trip indeed. The terrain was rougher than I had anticipated, the paths less defined, and consequently required more time than I had budgeted. It had always been my expectation that I would get better at it over time, and that now became not only desirable but necessary.
Despite having resorted to a cab for the last phase, I was not unhappy about my first day’s accomplishment. Before I fell asleep I walked through the whole day again in my mind, from the farm at Inglesbatch, through the piggery, over the barbed-wire and electric fences, up and down the Mendips, and through Greyfield Woods with its carpet of bluebells. I had seen a hawk, a robin, sparrows, crows, starlings, nuthatches, magpies, and a big blue bird with loud flapping wings that rose from the hedges (I thought it must be a grouse, though I had never seen one, and only later learned it was a pigeon!). I also saw squirrels, rabbits, cows, dogs, sheep in profusion, and one golden cockerel. I had heard an owl, and birds that sounded like the jingle of a tambourine, and the honk of an old car horn. Just outside my window, the farming family that ran the B&B had turned an old swimming pool into a pond for large and colorful carp. I was completely exhausted.
As I thought about Wells the next day, where I knew I would find a cathedral and other medieval buildings, it occurred to me how much of the English countryside would still seem familiar to the Wife of Bath, and especially to Jane Austen. There is a quality to it the countryside that, while not quite “timeless,” seems continuous. Despite the fact that most of the population in England lives in cities, it is still the rural districts that define England both to its own population and to the romantic outsider, like myself. The small farms, stone walls, hedges, and livestock, the ancient barns set in their lush green rolling landscape, the small farmhouses that have been continuously occupied for centuries, all contribute to the feeling that the place and its past are inextricably woven together. (It wasn’t far from here at the Cheddar caves that they found a nine-thousand-year-old skeleton and then, through DNA testing, found his descendant, still living in the neighborhood!) It is easy to project oneself back in time in the English countryside, even with the hedges racing past the windows of a cab.
I promised myself that I would always listen to the advice of local people, though I would never again need it as much as I did that first day. Had I undertaken this as a religious pilgrimage I would probably have learned much sooner than I did of the advice to pilgrims written in the Biblical passage, Jeremiah 6:16.
Stand at the crossroads and look,
Ask for the ancient paths,
And where the good way is,
And walk in it,
And you will find rest for your souls.