Caveat ambulans: Talking to myself about walks
Preparing to write this I read quite a few blogs describing walks, and this walk in particular. I was struck by how fluid the nature of a walk is and how defined they are by the conditions in which they occur.
When describing walks one option is to take the approach that they are ‘genetically determined’, fixed entities, the Guidebook approach. You talk about the length and/or time, the terrain, the landscape features, the waymarking and so on. Except in Portugal, these matters are largely changeless. In Portugal they can be a variety of fantasia.
The ‘historical footsteps and notable landmarks’ approach is a version of the same thing. (A contribution from Cricklade at left.)This did happen there; that’s a sign of that. Yes, you are walking on Roman cobbles. It used to be the Voie des Marchands. That might spring to life for me or it might not. I remember walking through the top of a pass in Japan where 500 samurai had been slaughtered some time ago and remaining completely unmoved. It was hot and I was thirsty.
Alternatively you can take the approach that it is the conditions that are the walk, the argument from context or, pursuing the previous metaphor, ‘upbringing’ — the subjectivist perspective.
In this case what do you talk about? The weather of course, but also who you are with, who you meet, what you do and what choices you make — you, not someone else — the state of your body, unforeseen difficulties, the food you take or find, the accommodation. This is in the splendid tradition of Jerome K. Jerome, and all good travel writers. It’s the story and its rendering that is interesting.
But — the classic subjectivist problem — you can say it’s like that, but what I found was … possibly nothing like that at all. You saw the most expensive private house in England (we missed it), but where did you say Dusty Springfield’s grave was? (The grounds of the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Henley-on-Thames. Bad luck you didn’t see it.) And I know four lots of people who are going to read this to make up their minds whether or not to do the walk. Caveat ambulans.
Should this be a revelation, or am I running through the bleeding obvious by saying that it is probably true that there is an organic and indivisible relationship between the two; and anyway, inevitably, you just follow your nose when you’re writing? Yes. The bleeding obvious. Thank you.
A secondary thought, of slightly better than marginal relevance, is that, taking the idea that a walk can be the sum of its conditions and that the conditions include the sorts of things above, it is possibly true that the more remote the walk the less there is to write about.
What to say, for example, about one of my favourite walks, the Razorback between Hotham and Mt Feathertop and back again? It’s 22 km. It’s exposed. It’s not for beginners or the unfit. There will be mountain weather; but regardless, the views are constantly fabulous. You must climb Feathertop to enjoy it properly. You don’t have a chance to access Dusty Springfield’s (or in this case, anybody else’s) grave. There’s no water. Anything else? You can have a close up look at the impact of bushfires. You’ll walk through a lot of Alpine mint which tinkles when you brush it. You may see some gang gangs and yellow tails. There is an important Alpine gum at the Federation Hut junction that’s somehow avoided the fires. And that’s about it. You could put photos in I guess. (Look! Amazing.)
But also vice versa. There is plenty to write about, far too much in fact, from the Thames walk.
We’ll start here.
STARTLING. YOU NEVER KNEW. CELEB. NUDE.
10 Things about the Thames and the Thames Path.
- The Thames, the second longest river in the UK and the longest in England, begins not far from the Severn Estuary/ Bristol Channel close to due west of London. (The tea towel above has a common illustration suggesting it flows north-south. It doesn’t.) The Thames Path, a National Trail, finishes formally at the Thames Flood Barrier east of central London 295 km (184 miles) away.
- Following the Thames you walk through bits of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and the City of London (Middlesex). So to walk the Thames Path is a bit like walking across the south of England.
- We walked, this time, from the source to Hampton Court. The official distance for this, without errors or digressions, is 237 km (148 miles). The distance as the crow flies from the source to Hampton Court is 120 km (70 miles). This implies correctly that the river meanders extensively.
- The source is 108m above sea level. Sea level occurs at Teddington (possibly a corruption of ‘tide end town’) 244 km from the source. Thus the average gradient of its downstream flow is 1: 2259, almost uphill but not quite. It starts slow and, for most of its length, stays slow.
- The river has 51 tributaries from which it gets its eventual heft. But only half a dozen pack much punch. The impact of the Cherwell at Oxford is noticeable; the Kennet at Reading also makes a significant contribution.
It does gain considerable heft. Looking upstream from near Hammersmith Bridge while walking part of the city leg of the Path three years ago.
6. The greatest altitude attained on the walk was 62 m asl, on a chalk cutting above Whitchurch-on-Thames (with the magnificent private gardens and superb examples of flint work). At no point during the walk did I breathe heavily. This is the peak, with steps.
- Until you cross under the M25 just west of Staines 212 km from the source, ¾ or more of the walk is either rural or provides you with the illusion of rurality. A lot of the time is spent walking through or next to meadows, the vast majority in close proximity to the river.
Getting the idea? Not the Tour de Mont Blanc. Not the Dolomites by via ferrata. Congenial, long but easy, accompanied by a river that is undemonstrative, polished, polite, meandering and not given to large gestures.
8. The river has 45 locks (between Lechlade and Teddington). These are now all ‘pound’ locks (based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci) with gates that close either end of a box. Opening either end allows the water, and whatever is floating on it, to find its level. Closer to the source, the gates are operated manually using the mechanical advantage afforded by huge timber beams. (The possibility of having a swing on one of these is tremendously seductive. Beam mania is kept in check by hi-vis safety-scarved volunteer supervisors.) Further down, the gates are power operated. Sandford Lock (below), ‘The Lasher’, has the highest fall — 2.69m, just a tad over the world high jump record. You can see why Conan Doyle went elsewhere to find a suitable setting for Moriarty to hoick Holmes over a waterfall. ‘The Lasher’ indeed.
With a river of such very minimal gradient why would you want locks? Without locks sections of the upper Thames would be dry after a spell without rain and floods would be even more prevalent in the wet. Locks allow navigation by boats to Lechlade 250 km upstream. They are picturesque — tres tres tres important — and most have well developed and kept gardens. At some of them, but not nearly enough, you can get a cream tea (which is English for a cup of tea and scones, perversely what we would call a Devonshire Tea).
They also provide important opportunities for the older boat-type person to demonstrate competitive marine skills and handiness with ropes. While no one is in any doubt who the complete dork is, this process is handled almost invisibly with restraint and forbearance. Gifted. English.
9. ‘Riparian’ is the correct adjective for the zone defined by a river and its surrounds. This is one of only 15 biomic terms used to classify and describe all terrestrial plant and animal communities. You may be able to work this into the conversation sometime.
- If you encounter carbohydrate debt on your walk, rest easy. There are reasonably regular opportunities to enjoy battered halloumi (salty Cypriot-style cheese, with either one ‘l’ or two) served with chips, mash and gravy. [From a food blog: ‘The lightly battered halloumi cheese bizarrely (in a good way) had the texture of fish and chips.’ I can’t comment.]
The story should start here, one version of contemporary England.
Like the rest of the crowd in post-Eurovision Vienna, we were swept up in the rush to get to Swindon. The Queen of the west, backed onto the Wessex Downs, a short Sunday drive from the Cotswolds, home to the Magic Roundabout, Brunel’s rail works and modest early experiments in socialism. Equidistant from Bristol, Reading and Oxford, and so so not like any of them. In fact so not like anything else we saw for a fortnight or so, all within an hour’s drive.
We’d landed at Heathrow and the carefully constructed plan for three train trips culminating in an arrival at Swindon RS had worked like a charm. Swindon because our destination, Kemble, was yet another train trip, a whole 12 minutes away as it turned out. But as well as a chance to have a look at something else, it was a sort of rest insurance.
He loved his new bike with the tyres that still had their sprues on them. (And sprues are the little rubber ‘hairs’ left after the molding process. I’d always wondered if they had a name.)
The Jurys Inn (Get it? Ok. Put the apostrophe back. Jury’s, jury is … Look, talk to me later) loomed over the car park, the building site, the struggling houses and the tarmac of a couple of big roads — a dominant presence.
The assumption that people in England would speak English had already been tested and found wanting. Reception — you know, when you’re a bit tired, want to sit down, have a cup of tea … where are you anyway, some commercial travellers’ stopover? And, despite a real concern about not wanting to be a grumpy old man, a real concern, you have a lot of trouble making yourself understood. And like a shiney suit and a well-rutted line of patter, it was a commercial travellers’ stopover — some kind of refuge from the depredations of what the rest of the day held. Fine. Fine. Just …
We walked out through the rather desolate town. The five pm bell had tolled a minute before and everyone had fled.Even though ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Pitch Perfect II’ beckoned from the Cinemax, we were on our permanent search for the gorgeous little boutique café run by the energetic, gifted and committed 40 year-old woman serving fabulous little inventive treats and equally fabulous coffee. (These do exist. Pierrepont’s Café, Goring, at left, being an outstanding example.) Burgermaster, Nando’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Cisco’s, Costa (spread through the UK like the flu. So promising, but always such a let down), pizza joints jostling each other for visibility and punching on with the equal number of establishments offering souvlakia: that’s what we found.
We proceeded up the limestone ridge where Swindon began (historically; geographically it’s spread all over the place) towards the better but still modest class of houses in the grip of a frenzy of renovation. Past the craft beer and folky jam joint (that’s the music rather than the conserve), past the churches that have changed hands in the last decade or so: the First Assembly of God, the Assembly of the First Christ, the Strict Baptist Church, to the street of restaurants most of which were empty except for South England’s Best Indian Restaurant 2013 which overflowed. So much of our shared primal dreaming in these streets.
After the customary struggle to choose, we found The Goddard Arms to our taste. Myrna’s first choice of meal in England in 2015 was Lincolnshire sausages and mash while I, less remarkably, had cod and chips. Also rather oddly, she wasn’t completely put off by the two-hour hagiography of Warney being televised. ‘And this … is the greatest ball ever bowled. … Oh no. This one.’
Down the hill again to Jurys Inn past Swindon’s next two biggest buildings, the Jobcentre and the social security, swarming with signs warning of damnation if you tried to get in. We went to sleep to more TV, a special on Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Crystal Gayle and Emmylou Harris. 1970. It seemed entirely appropriate.
In the morning we had the commercial traveller’s breakfast of orange juice that wasn’t orange juice, organic toast that redefined ‘organic’, homemade crumpets that weren’t homemade, muesli that hadn’t been muesed, although the coffee may well have been coffed. It was fine. Fine. Then a tour of down the hill down at heel Swindon, a pretty beaten up burb with a huge mix of nationalities and ethnicities, but not many from Richland or Wealthitria.
We visited an outdoor gear shop. I wanted a beanie but a beanie was way out of range. No prospect of a beanie. Impossible. An almost offensive request. This may be what has happened to gear shops. You get a big shed, a truckload of puffer jackets and polar fleece vests from China, some silvery metal things and a backyard tent and call it done. Come in customers. Buy. It would surprise me if any of the staff had been outdoors beyond the trek from the car park to the front door.
Reviewed the main street. Myrna gave a very large donation (as requested) to the hairdresser who cut her fringe and we moved on thinking that Swindon, whose soccer team the Robins is the only club ever to have played in both the Premier League and the bottom tier, probably deserved more time to fully appreciate what it had to offer.
Swindon provides a frame of reference for the slightly preposterous luxury that was in evidence for the next fortnight. If we hadn’t stopped at Swindon we would have spent quite some time thinking that all Englishpersons drove cars worth more than a lot of the houses we had seen in Swindon, and that a frontage means several hundred metres of carefully manicured green sward. I kept thinking of Mark Lawson’s excellent book The Deaths, set not so far away in Buckinghamshire.
But you haven’t even seen river yet. Sorry to keep you waiting. Try here.