By Jim Hindle, Jun 20 2020 03:14PM
listen and you’ll hear the silent pulse
of languid anglers in their linear host
Glastonbury week and all the small town dogs were pulling strings. But I wasn’t going there. Not to Glastonbury. It was a fierce June day, the tarmac was melting on the streets - which was bizarre because the man at the bar in the pub said he laid tar for a living, only on roofs for his part, not on the now liquefying roads. It was his day off at any rate and he’d been at a funeral. The bikers had been out, Hell’s Angels, to see off one of their own and later, having heard him talk about them, it was almost like they’d been crowding in the pub there with us, though the impression of this may have had something to do with the heat, or the beer.
Even then, half an hour later, lying in the little shade on the station’s single platform, watching the royal train hurtle by and feeling somehow let down that it hadn’t stopped, there seemed some sense of promise in the air. I left the station later in the absence of boardable trains and made my way up along the canal, the metal frame of the canvas rucksack heavy on my back.
I’d slept by a river the night before, in between it and the canal, a tributary snaking off directly opposite where I’d pitched my tent in the rough of the woods. This other body of water dropped away out of sight between two sandstone pillars but the noise of the invisible weir made its presence more than obvious and it lulled me into a kind of trance as I sat there, eating frugally from my ex-army hexi-block stove, wondering just when I’d have to get inside my old-school ridgepole tent to escape the midges. There in the twilight, surrounded by trees and the sound of the water and the simple fatigue from having been walking all day, it felt like many things suddenly made some kind of extra sense, or amounted to some sense of heightened awareness that was more about the peace of place than anything cerebral. That sense has not entirely left me even now.
The walk had been a kind of induction to canals, from the crusties squatting in the disused railway grounds by the towpath in Oxford, being disparaging about the size of my rucksack (a criticism that strangers are prone to making two decades later) to the silent pulse of lines of anglers that populated much of the rest of the way. The flat-backed brown of factories north of the city slowly gave way to green fields and thickly overhanging sycamores and I’d return to Oxford later on, walk along other waterways, begin to grow familiar with willows. Tolkien knew these rivers well, and the Cherwell which I sat by that evening and which runs so close to the Oxford canal, chimes in with his description of ‘a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of fallen willow leaves.’
In meadows further on I met a couple of fellow travellers, tied dyed and purple and red in early-nineties archetypal glory and it was like an initiation, the height of things, the rolling call of summer on the move so that even the dual carriageways, where the water and footpath passed beneath them, seemed to help define the things they weren’t; the things that summer held that the carriageways’ constant scour of tires on concrete didn’t hold and simply never could.
It had been one of many walks that summer, the first a walk to a girlfriend in a village out on the edge of the fens. It took me three days walking, two nights under a tarp or a tree, skirting reservoirs and long, low paths and villages with older women half deranged with solitude or just with the green of the hills. And at the very end, in the kitchen of the old farmhouse my girlfriend’s family called home, there was a sweetness half made up of every yard and mile I’d covered, knowing it had bought this moment closer. There was a sense of timelessness, of being far removed from phones or networks, even from roads and travel at high speed. The old house stood in witness to all this, like the building knew us all already and somehow smiled on us all being there.
Up at the end of the towpath, or at least the end of it for me, past scores of boaties offering me tea, the fields of the camp laid themselves out with the sense of something now fulfilled, the village full of alleyways and déjà vu, the beer as sweet as anything I could remember. It was a first induction to a summer on the paths and tracks and what it meant to be out walking all day long. The flattened fields of Fens and what led to them, the starlit market towns, the paths that led up to the hills and borders and the country on their other side – these things all lay in wait or stretched behind in diminishing perspectives as all the new paths opened out. For now there was just that weekend and everything that summer held; all tiredness transformed with the knowledge of an immanent arrival.