Read Walking to Camelot Online

Authors: John A. Cherrington

Walking to Camelot

Contents

To my wife, Dee.

Walking is a subversive detour, the scenic route through a half-abandoned landscape of ideas and experiences.

—REBECCA SOLNIT—

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

In the days of her childhood the footpath over the meadow had been a hard, well-defined track, much used by men going to their fieldwork, by children going blackberrying . . . and, on Sunday evenings, by pairs of sweethearts who preferred the seclusion of the fields and copses beyond to the more public pathways. The footpath had led to a farmhouse and a couple of cottages, and, to the dwellers in these, it had been not only the way to church and school and market, but also the first stage in every journey. It had led to London, to Queensland and Canada, to the Army depot and the troopship. Wedding and christening parties had footed it merrily, and at least one funeral had passed that way.

—FLORA THOMPSON—

Still Glides the Stream

Karl, John, and Colin resting at their farm B&B.

The Road goes ever on and on

Out from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

Let others follow it who can!

Let them a journey new begin,

But I at last with weary feet

Will turn towards the lighted inn,

My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

—J.R.R. TOLKIEN—

The Lord of the Rings

Introduction

FISHING BOATS CRAM
the muddy-banked sliver of salt water known as The Haven. An old-fashioned windmill looms in the misty distance. Battered carnival caravans greet us on the town's outskirts, where a few modern-day gypsies tinker in the dusk with gaily painted circus equipment. Pungent aromas of fish, tar, hemp, and cotton candy waft through the air. The pubs are smoke-filled and raucous.

Karl and I are surprised to see groups of leather-jacketed young men and women just hanging about, smoking and drinking, as we trudge by Market Square with our heavy back-packs. We pass a plethora of shops and eateries — including The Russian Restaurant, Baltic Foods, and a few Chinese takeaways. We stop in one doorway and watch as industrious waiters and well-dressed patrons speak in various Eastern European languages. Town centre lies in the shadow of St. Botolph's Church, the city's best-known landmark, known to locals as Boston Stump.

We arrived in Boston, Lincolnshire, by train after a mad dash from Heathrow and with the jet lag that always brings on my flu symptoms but never affects Karl and his cast-iron stomach. We had taken short walks together in the English countryside the year before and been smitten with the walking bug. Now we had come to Boston to walk the Macmillan Way, a 290-mile route running from this ancient port on the North Sea halfway to Scotland all the way through the heart of England to the English Channel.

Karl is lean, short, muscular, half deaf, and tough as nails. He is also seventy-four years old and a proud Canadian of mixed Irish and Dutch ancestry. When he's in one of his lighter moods — usually after a couple of pints — he'll quote poetry and be self-deprecating, with his “wooden shoes, wooden head, and wouldn't listen.” At other times, he's a bullheaded, pugnacious former logging camp manager and bantamweight boxer who is afraid of nothing. When visit-ing Palm Springs recently, he and his wife were attacked at night by a knife-wielding assailant who demanded the keys to their car. Karl walked backwards to a vacant condo, smashed the window with his bare hands, pulled out a shard of broken glass, and chased the young assailant away. You get the picture. The cops were so impressed they even paid for the broken window.

Karl also can keep walking pace with most Olympic athletes. He is a man of intensity, endurance, and integrity. So I made him promise that on this trip he would let me pause now and then to look at historic buildings and take photographs instead of always charging ahead to the next village and getting himself lost or into mischief.

Nowhere else in the world can one walk in literally any direction on footpaths over private land throughout the entire country. Britain has over 140,000 miles of footpaths, green lanes, bridleways, and other public rights-of-way, many of which date from medieval times or earlier. Unlike in North America, roads and paths traditionally travelled by the populace remained in the public domain long after new asphalt routes jammed with motorized transport came to dominate the landscape.

Karl was seeking adventure and wanted to prove to himself that he was still tough enough to complete a long-distance walk. At fifty-four, I was twenty years younger but not in shape, having led a sedentary life as a solicitor in the village of Fort Langley, near Vancouver, British Columbia. I had visited England in past years on driving trips, even taken short walks, but this would be a new challenge. The guidebook promised varying landscapes — beginning in Lincolnshire with fenlands, then on through the rolling hills of Northamptonshire and the enchanting, honey-coloured Cotswolds, then Somerset, with its legendary Castle Camelot in Cadbury, and finally, on into Dorset's rolling hills to emerge at Chesil Beach on the English Channel.

The Macmillan Way was established as a memorial to Douglas Macmillan, who founded the Society for the Prevention and Relief of Cancer in 1911. The charity, now known as Macmillan Cancer Support, helps people cope with cancer and ensures that within the vast labyrinth of Britain's health system, patients receive the best possible care. More than two thousand nurses and three hundred doctors work with the Macmillan charity around the country, making it one of the foremost charities in the nation. Many people walk the Way to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support and to raise awareness for both cancer and fitness.

Most long-distance paths in England run east–west or follow the coastline. Macmillan trends in a steady southwest direction. The route passes through few park areas. It is truly a test of private land walking rights. I was intrigued by the challenge of “giving it a go,” as the English say — combining my love of history with my passion for rural landscapes. You cannot walk two miles in England without experiencing some cultural or historical artifact, landmark, or memorial. Rolling hills are interspersed with coombs, fens, and meadows. To walk the Way in springtime would be divine, the verdant English countryside alive with hawthorn and honeysuckle blooming down green lanes, with the singing and swooping of swallows, thrushes, larks, and wood pigeons coursing through the fields and woods. And it would be challenging to do it with just a backpack, booking ahead at bed and breakfasts en route. Alas, blisters, bulls, and English rain are also part of the joie de vivre of long-distance walking.

Imagine my surprise when I learned while planning the trip that Macmillan Way also passed through the ancient village of Cherington, where my forebears lived as early as the Domesday Book of 1086. I began to envision this walk as a link to the past, a pilgrimage to places that have played an important part in shaping the life of my ancestors and hence my own. My mother had recently passed away, so it was time for a spell of reflection. Then too, there was Cadbury Camelot, reputed site of King Arthur's legendary hill fort, conveniently en route.

It has always struck me as bizarre that academics and journalists cavalierly separate the world into neat divisions based on economic status, such as “third world” versus “industrialized world.” In many ways a villager in Canada has more in common with a villager in the
UK
, Spain, or even Japan than she does with an urban dweller in Toronto, London, or Madrid. Those who reside in small towns or villages have not severed their connection with the land.

Villages have played a vital role in human history. They represent the first stage in our civilization, when people began to settle down on the land and engage in agriculture. Up to the Industrial Revolution, production in most countries flourished chiefly in a home milieu. That there may be a role for the village today seems manifest, as millions of people around the globe are returning to the cottage-industry concept of working from home — not with a loom or a blacksmith's anvil, but with computers.

The importance of the village was touched on by the travel writer H.V. Morton, who in his
In Search of England
had this to say in 1927: “That village, so often near a Roman road, is sometimes clearly a Saxon hamlet with its great house, its church, and its cottages. There is no question of its death; it is, in fact, a lesson in survival, and a streak of ancient wisdom warns us . . . to keep an eye on the old thatch because we may have to go back there some day, if not for the sake of our bodies, perhaps for the sake of our souls.”

Joanna Trollope opines: “For all the drawbacks of rural life and its tough and uncompromising history, the English continue to feel a determined union with the countryside. It is a sense of both belonging and finding salvation there, in a community — preferably consisting of church, pub, farms, cottages, a small school and a Big House. We have, we English, a national village cult; we cherish the myth that out there, among fields and woods, there still survives a timeless natural innocence and lack of corruption.”

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