The British Countryside Is Not Dead
Ben is a British writer now based in Brooklyn, New York. He has travelled extensively in Asia and South America.
Us British can be a surly lot. We live where the humour is dry, cynicism is canon and sarcasm is the rule. Politeness is a veneer and modesty sacrosanct. By no means is this a rebuke of what it means to be British. Far be it for a British-turned-New Yorker to flee the nest and turn tables on the place he has always called home. It is a token of my admiration for what it means to be British. British culture has always been under the decree that friendship is earned, not assumed and that honesty is the surest form of affection.
As a result of the latter, the proposal to head home and do a mid-summer walk with my brother, Sam, from Salisbury to Christchurch was met with some fairly unprintable derision from friends and family alike. I had ten days in the country and the plan was simple. See friends. See family. Walk the Avon Valley Path. At 35 miles, running south from Salisbury Cathedral to Christchurch Priory on the coast, the path is a full two-day excursion. The walk peeks over backyard fences and spies the Avon River across hedgerows. It involves suburban estates and a Waitrose car park. A jaw-dropping Facebook cover photo it is not, but then again where would the honesty be in that? Where would we find our unshakeable deference for the modest and the understated? Where would the Britishness be?
The Avon Valley Path certainly has its undeniable beauty. The Christchurch Priory at the end of the walk dates back to the 11th Century and still, today, towers over the coast. Meanwhile, two years short of its 800th birthday, the Salisbury Cathedral at the beginning of the walk is a relative spring chicken, but an absolute manmade marvel. Housing the best preserved of the four remaining Magna Cartas, the Cathedral is a quiet magnate of Western political and democratic history.
The area that connects the two, however, is a crosscut of farm fields, suburban walkways and bramble-brushed tracks. Cobbled together in 1992, The Avon Valley Path is made up of the very best of British right of ways – nettle-ridden kissing gates,
mudded tracks slicing through cornfields and swamped interludes of no-man’s-land. Time has weathered it, but its hard to tell from what: during the entire two-day walk the only other foot traffic we saw were dog-walkers and farmers, which begs the question of when a path like this might have been popular?
Of course, that is of no consequence. When have us British ever required practical or popular demand to dictate our right to do something? Walking is perhaps the most striking pastime that reflects that culture. The British are intrepid walkers -- not mountaineers, runners or endurance athletes – but walkers. We revel in the innocuous, whether it is the jaunt to the shop, the dog-walk around the common or the back route to the high street. We have our extremes – the Highlands, Snowdonia, the Lake District - but from the home counties to the Scottish Cuillins there is an insatiable appetite to consume in the inoffensive culture of walking.
The Avon Valley Path is quintessentially English. It connects relics of history that recollect a time long before Britain was Britain and the culture of our nation came to be what it is today. However, the sensibility that it entreats reflects an affection that speaks to all of us in modern-day Britain. Walks like the Avon Valley Path are recognizable to all of us in their bite-size, palatable sections but, in their entirety, they become something entirely different – a sequence of windows that connect one routine of existence to the next. It is the surest way to see a region, to take in the people and the character and really feel it underfoot.
So, in short, how else was I going to see home?
My brother and I picked a particularly hot two days. The heat wave had begun in May and, in very un-British fashion, saw it fit to stick around. Temperatures were north of 30 degrees Celsius and the sky was blue.
British rivers can often be fairly tepid affairs. Half a lifetime ago I did my Year 8 Geography project measuring river flow in the mighty River Gade in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. It’s a trolley-jammed thoroughfare for plastic and ducks and not much more so perhaps my expectations were a little skewed, but on those two scorching days in July the River Avon was just about the finest companion I could hope for (along with my brother, of course).
The river flows south from Salisbury, picking up tributaries and forested headwaters that irrigate much of the farmland. With the heat high and the water cool it was only a matter of time before the two came together. There was a watering hole half-a-mile short of Odstock, a couple of hours into the walk. It was remarkable in a very ordinary way. The water was knee-deep, the nettles and ferns overgrown, dividing the path from the water. Thirty yards of trees hid it from plain sight, dividing barley fields on one side from some rather expectant looking cows on the other. Swimming had not been a first priority so a quick-change was a sight more than what the cows had bargained for. The swim was a glorious respite and it came to mark a trend on the walk - that often the most rewarding moments were in the understated and unexpected.
We swam twice more. Once south of Ringwood, the largest town on the journey and home to the Waitrose car park. Ringwood itself comes and goes with the same distinction as most mid-sized South England towns, but where the river pulls out of town behind a small estate of houses there is an opening in the reeds that makes room for another dip. Prior to that, however, near Woodgreen in Hampshire, we came across one of the finest moments of the journey.
We approached Woodgreen the backway. Houses reached into the nooks and valleys of countryside around the town. Walking paths turned into pebbled driveways that took us into the village. Woodgreen is in the New Forest, a swath of Southern Britain where horses and deer are free to roam as they please. There is a cricket green in the center of the village so a metal fence had been erected around the pitch to cordon off any unwanted grounds keeping.
My brother and I pored over the map. We must have looked like we were in a stick of bother because a woman approached in her car and rolled down the window. She was in her forties with a baby seat in the back. I imagine the sight of two hapless young men ignited a motherly instinct – something of which, I concede, Sam and I were probably in need.
“You boys doing okay?” she asked.
“I think so. We’re trying to find our way along the Avon Valley Path.”
“ Take the road there, past the green and it’ll turn up to your right,” she said, “can I give you a ride?”
“No no, it’s quite all right,” I said. That, of course, would defeat the object.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Okay, well, when you are walking along Castle Hill road, past the second layby, there’s a path sloping down to the river. If you boys are looking for a swim that’s where a lot of the local kids go.”
The local kids certainly got it right. A makeshift swing-rope was slung over a 30ft high branch and a plank had been built with wooden hardboards and logs. The river was deep here, deep enough to swing out far and drop into the water, provided you got the grip and the timing right. Neither, of course, proved to be my strong point. Sam eased into the river with precision attempt after attempt. I clapped in, shins first, then belly. But for each of us the water was cool and the day was just right. We shared in a can of Pimm’s (courtesy of my mother, because there’s nothing more irreverent than Pimm’s in a tinny…) and stayed longer than we should have. There were still a few more miles to Fordingbridge where we had planned to spend the night.
If swims were the motif of the walk, then pubs were the melody. There’s one inviolable code to walking culture in Britain - a proper walk is not complete without a good pub. Dog-walkers and shop-goers, you’re forgiven, but if a walk is the front-and-centre occasion of the day, a pub-less walk is an act of penance. Nothing more. For my brother and I, pubs were our hydration zones and our beer-stoppers; they were the markers between places and to miss one would be to break the very rhythm of a walker’s stride.
There was the Wooden Spoon in Downton, the Alice Lisle in Rockford, and The Woolpack in Sopley. The Ringwood Brewery meant that local ale was a mainstay and lime and sodas were critical. (I firmly believe that lime and sodas are an essential item to a walk in the countryside. Nothing can hydrate the British walker better. Disagree as you may, but I will fight you on the hilltops. Lime and soda is the ambler’s panacea. End of.)
Our home for the evening was the Augustus John in Fordingbridge. Named after the post-impressionist Welsh painter, the pub was as honest and idiosyncratic as its name suggests. The pub landlord was a proponent of the surly British disposition described above, dry in his humor and wry in his smile. There was a biography in the room recalling his yearly foray on the stage in cross-dressing, pantomime fashion. The room was fitted with a binder of his short stories. There were nature photographs in the hallway and a poster of Marilyn Monroe above the beds. It made all sense and no sense at the same time.
After a pub dinner special we discarded our hiking boots, curled out feet and hummed to sleep. The breakfast the next morning was a memorable affair. Gone were the pub-regulars and the Thursday-night punters. It was our venerable host, an empty pub and a king’s portion of the good stuff: eggs, bacon, sausages, the lot. We re-tanked, re-fueled and bid our host farewell.
There is a culture in British walking to offer a smile, a nod and a firm “hello” to every passerby. It is a diktat as firm to convention as lime and sodas are to the pub landlord. On the occasion where my greeting has gone unrequited I’ve been known to bore any unsuspecting walking companions with a barrage of tuts and an appeal to decorum. Walking is an activity that takes place outside of the general run of things: it is an escape from competition, a circumvention of structure. It is where we go to evade the needless dictations of society’s worst habits. There is no need for money or status or power. It is egalitarian. It is a brief respite where we approach one another on a level footing and all that matters is the moment.
For my brother and I, there was our pub innkeeper and our doting mother. There was the fisherman who had been coming to the same bend in the river for 20 years and the three-generation family swimming under the sunset. If there was melody and motif then the characters were improvisations to the beat; they each had their own story and each brought a colour to our walk that could not be held and could not be repeated.
We finished the walk at Christchurch Priory when the sky was pink and the knees were soft and that lingering feeling stuck – that for all the path markers and the predetermined certainties, a walk through the countryside is never repeatable. There are too many variables in the constant, too many diversions of discourse. It comes with its regrets and its senses of achievement, with its curiosity, its boredom and its humor.
A mile or so from the end, when the river meanders through an expanse of bogland, we came across a sunken section of the path. There had been instances like this over the course of the two days where water had got the better of the path and logs spanned across sections of dry land, but here the options were limited. 30-plus miles of walking can do a thing or two for the ego. It can make you feel like you can take on another 300 miles and then just as quickly make you recoil at the next 30 yards. At this particular section, I must admit that I succumbed to the former. Striking in front of my brother I looked to circumnavigate the area in front of us. I jumped off from one leg to the next and then again. But the land began to give way. I pushed off to counter-balance and then proceeded to do the same for the other foot. It was a battle against certainty. With one finally kick my other foot sunk half-a-metre into the ground.
I couldn’t get out. My brother jerked in laughter. Even the cows seemed to be enjoying themselves (and I would soon find out why. It was not just mud that my leg had sunk into). I pulled. I shook and kicked. Water seeped into my boot. My brother had sooner reached for a camera than a stick or a hand to aid his brother. Dignity gave way to circumstance and I began to dig with my hands, clumping away at the mud around my leg. I finally managed to pull free.
Far beyond being an anecdote of my own demise, that final stretch into Christchurch was an honest reminder of everything that made the walk worthwhile. There was happenstance, there was unpredictability and there was as much laughter as could be had in the rural fields of quiet Britain.
There is nothing quite like the British countryside. It is innocuous in its presentation, polite in its arrangement. To those who experience it as such, the British countryside is merely an acquaintance, but there is nature and nurture at play here. The Brits are surly for a reason, their modesty sacrosanct and their honesty sacred because of the characters and the environs that surround us. If there is a reminder that we can all turn to for where we come from and what we stand for, then turning to the bramble-brushed tracks and the farm-field pathways is a good place to start. There is a friendship to be earned here, where the humor is dry (or wet, in my case) and there are viewpoints into the clusters of culture that make us who we are. Perhaps if we start here, there is a friendship that can teach us a thing or two.