Country Walking 101

A thick bank of fog hovers over the Chiltern hills. I can see roving tendrils curling toward slope and toward sky, but I can’t tell if they’re expanding their territory, or seeking the oblivion of evaporation. On the hedgerows of the Icknield Way, the sun is shining.

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They’re tall, these hedges, and lined with blossoming hawthorn, which looks very much like our American tree, but smells distinctly less like hot garbage. It’s 6:00 am, and immediately we encounter another early riser. A red fox – or just a flash of her, really – cuts us a startled glance, then her molecules dissolve into the wall of foliage. Was she really there? My memory might be making things up. Raised on English literature, I know what sort of animals an Oxfordshire hedgerow ought to contain. I’m aware I may be too keen to see England the way my favorite books have painted, but so far I believe I have observed what there is, and that it matches, enough. Of course, I haven’t been here long.

Dawn began at 4:10. I was listening from my borrowed couch – awake since 2:00 this first morning after a transatlantic flight. I heard the first roosters go off at 3:00, then fall silent, chastened by ongoing darkness. They called again, confidently now, at 4:00, and then the first songbird trilled from his tree next the door. I couldn’t even guess his identity. English birds are known to me by name, but not yet by sight or sound. Ten minutes later, the sky began its shift from black to blue, and the field out front began to fancy itself green.

Now, the day feels well-advanced. Gaps in the hedgerows reveal sunswept fields of yellow flowers, and the brick and spires of Wallingford, two miles distant.

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I’ve brought along one of our host’s maps, and identified a shortish loop trip to introduce us to the real countryside. It’s doing that, in short order. Leaving the morning glory of the Icknield, we made a right turn in search of a dotted green line that tells me it’s part of the Chiltern Way Extension. We nearly missed it; in practice the junction revealed nothing like my imagining of a National Trail. A mere shadowy opening, in crowded trees pressed close by the road, it did bear an official sign, though that took some finding, lifting aside untrimmed branches in full summer leaf. The path beyond it…

I forget how everything here is already owned, closely parsed through centuries. The same density of past and present that allows the Ordnance Survey to minutely map every stone home and churchyard and tended copse must have presented challenges to the making of a national network of trails guaranteeing the public’s right to walk them. In this case, the right of way is well-defined – much more clearly than some others we’ll encounter in the coming days.

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It’s kind of gross, though. We’re walking a sort of earthbound tightrope between a junk yard piled high with the bramble-grown bodies of dead tractors, and a barbed-wire fence freckled with rust. For the first several yards (this is immediately off the road, recall), the property opposite the dump has piled its horses’ leavings two feet high against the fence – which, as you might imagine, hasn’t too much power to halt the tumbling of turds into the trail. This is all fair enough, I suppose. You take your public right of way where you can get it.

 

At the end of this slightly creepy section (overgrown with nettles, and hung with hazel and horse-chestnut, spiderwebs strung between) a well-maintained stile leads up and over the property line, dropping us into a field of deeply green stalks that cling mid-calf. In the time it takes to survey this new territory, the fog bank sweeps in – there’s my answer – obscuring Oakley Wood on the field’s opposite edge.

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It had not occurred to me that yesterday’s rain has soaked those rich green blades. Nor that my boots, veterans of six years and many dripping miles, would chose this moment to declare their retirement from the business of waterproofing. It’s our first day in Britain, and I’ve ruined shoes, socks, and pants (trousers, if you like), before 8am.

We cannot see the way ahead, and there is the possibility here of turning around. I prefer loops – they show you the same place from two directions, and closing one cements an understanding of immediate geography that out-and-backs never quite achieve. Jeremiah gestures the decision to me. In an unknown landscape, I probably don’t deserve his faith. I pray to the Ordnance Survey, which does.

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The fog lifts as startlingly as it settled, after we have forded the great gray-and-green field without a visible goal. It was quiet out there, just our wet clothes swishing and slapping, like waves against the bow of a mist-bound boat. And just like that, the shore appears, a stile into Oakley Wood, and sun trickles, then streams upon us as we cross another boundary.

The path, very suddenly, looks familiar. Oakley is a bluebell wood, for one thing – although the flowers are on the wane now, and the whole appearance of the place is slightly tatty because of it. A dilapidated bluebell wood, faeries flown, but still my imagination knows this place.

This part of the Way also backs onto private property on every side; evidence of horses and timber harvest lies all about. No longer menaced by cobwebs and stung by encroaching nettles, I find I rather love this contradiction of the public footpath system: how you can feel lost and wandering somewhere that’s clearly well-used.

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The Way leaves the wood to cross the A4130, disappearing through a dripping gap in the roadside hedge. Though the sun has bested the fog, it’s guarded now by large cumulus, shouldering through the blue with an air of bellicose importance. I suspect them of hatching a mid-morning shower. Despite its lack of shoulder, we elect the road instead, and close the loop cheerily waving to the few cars heading toward London so early on a Sunday.

I’m struck, even roadside, by how alive the country seems. Not just how human-adapted, but how…well, wild. Rabbits, foxes, noisy rooks in the horse-chestnut trees, a hundred songbirds I don’t know, and these gorgeous fork-tailed kites wheeling overhead…The thickness of life here baffles my Oregonian sense of the outdoors. I’m used to thinking of wilderness at home, and I see it as both vast and thinly populated. Even in what I call countryside, plants and animals seem to give each other space, humans included. It’s very quiet, often. Here, every inch is known. Perhaps it is the centuries of intensive English settlement that have done that: layered their blood and their sweat over every seam of land, pressing other creatures, too, to claim their corner.

I know very little. And what I can observe is the surface layer. This is almost literal – the Icknield Way is an ancient trade road, documented as early as the 10th century CE, and variously thought to be one, two, even four or more thousand years old. Britons are perhaps used to encountering this sort of temporal continuity when they walk out their front doors. It dogs my American footsteps, though. I stop every time I remember it, turning around to imagine, for example, the rumble of cart wheels overtaking us, as a Saxon family brings their goods to market.

It’s a difficult conjure. In truth, there is only the morning – sunshine on yellow-flowered fields. Sometimes it’s hard to separate yourself from a lifetime of fantasy novels and Romantic ideas. This vague longing to sense the past has only ever been, for me, a wish. It’s 2016. I can’t shake it.

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I am not disappointed. Skirting puddles and studying the map, pointing out birds and listening for their voices (all things I might have done in any year upon this road), I’m pleased in a way I associate with the pure happiness of childhood. We are successfully navigating someplace new, coloring in our mental maps. We are introducing ourselves to a landscape I find wonderful, and I cannot stop smiling. I am content exactly where, and when, I walk.

***

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