Church Walk

It was a sunny enough April day but the chafing easterly wind cut your cheeks to shreds. People in the streets of Stroud had donned hats of every shape, size and elevation, in the forlorn hope of keeping heads and ears warm, but their faces bore the tell-tale brunt and burden. Everyone was wondering when spring would finally and decisively take its place amongst us – or would this bitter winter defiantly and continuously persist?
But as the day progressed and the sun rose higher in the sky, so the patches of blue grew ever wider, and the clouds changed shape to ‘traveller’s joy’. Snowdrops were still abundant, but primrose, violets and even a solitary cowslip reminded us of how Spring will, every year, eventually hammer the final nails into Winter’s coffin.
And so it proved, as we walked out from Arts and Crafts Sapperton to St. Mary’s at Edgeworth. This is a church well worth a visit. The path takes you past Pinbury Park, once the home of John Masefield, then through hollow-ways, green lanes and four-ways-went. There is a distinct DMV vibe about the rolling greensward here; so many paths intersecting in the middle of nowhere; big sky country with the occasional big ploughed open field; the ghosts of medieval peasants turning up the stones: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”
The contentment continued at St. Mary’s: a carved Saxon stone in the porch; a stained glass window from betwixt the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt; a local cured of leprosy at Canterbury through the Thomas a Beckett cult; pews marked ‘Manor’ at the front of the nave with ‘Cottagers’ at the back; a plethora of 17th century gravestones and a wooden seat in the sun. What more could you ask for?
Only to visit this place again. The village is ‘said to be the most remote in the Cotswolds’; it is about 8 miles from Stroud and 8 from Cirencester. This makes the church feel even more adrift in time and space – but death linked even this isolated village with the Bay of Bengal and also with the Great War. The Empire and the European Balance of Power are present even here, with melancholic inscriptions, in this wind-blown graveyard, high up on the wolds.
Also present were memories of our recent trip to Cusop, near Hay on Wye. There we had linked arms around thousand year old yews: it took 6 adults to encircle one of those venerable trunks. That
worked out according to my rough mathematical arboreal abacus at about 160 years per adult. We had also looked at the 12th century frescoes at Kempley, near Dymock, the day before. 5 adults did the trick there. It seems as though we may have a ready reckoner similar to the hedgerow calibrator – I’m sure you know about the old adage of 100 years for each species of tree or shrub in a 30 metre stretch of country hedgerow.
We returned to Sapperton via the Daneway: as good a pub as you can find on as good a walk as you can make. Tea and beer were taken before walking along the canal, the vanishing Frome and through the field where the horses and donkeys were led as the bargees legged it through the tunnel. Perhaps King George 3rd became as perplexed as we did about the whereabouts of the Frome, when he visited here in his annus horribilis of 1788, and so began to first lose his mind.
But it was near here that my aunt and father used to play when they moved to Frampton Mansell after the First World War. This was one of their favourite spots. My Auntie Kath wrote the following poem some 50 to 60 years later.

 

For My Brother

When we were young and full of fun
And all our days were carefree,
Do you remember that September
We climbed the old pear tree?

The finest crop grows at the top,
That bramble jam we ate,
Our mother made and carefully laid
On shelves with name and date.

We took a stick and went to pick
The biggest blackest berries,
Pulling down to near the ground
Clusters hung like cherries.

Remember the gate where we used to wait
For the early morning light,
To show in the field the wonderful yield
Of mushrooms, gleaming white.

The nuts we found so full and round,
And filberts too, so rare,
That lovely autumn on Sapperton Common,
What joy we used to share.

Wild harvest brings a host of things,
Mushrooms, nuts and fruit,
But best of all, with every fall,
Comes memory, absolute.

Next Walk, Sunday, March 10th: Stroud, the Heavens and Flann O’Brien

Who Needs Google Earth?
I know that debate rages, dear readers, within you and without you, as to the respective merits of Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” and his wonderful “At Swim Two Birds”. Personally, I probably enjoy re-reading the latter even more than the former; be that as it may, it is the Policeman that we need to guide us on our next walk: Mothering Sunday, March 10th. Meet outside the Prince Albert at 11.15 or outside the Crown and Sceptre at 12.30 for a walk around the Heavens and the Edgelands of Stroud – three hours at the most, then into Number 23 in Nelson Street for a chinwag in the bistro.
But here is your preparatory reading:
Chapter 3 in Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” has a diverting section on walking, emanating from the pen of the imaginary mad-savant, de Selby. O’Brien’s eccentric, but, alas, fictional genius, saw roads as “the most ancient of human monuments, surpassing by many tens of centuries” the most ancient of stone edifices created by humanity. De Selby talked of “the tread of time” and how “a good road will have character and a certain air of destiny, an indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere, be it east or west, and not coming back from there.” The unconstrained thoughts of de Selby led him to the conclusion that “If you go with such a road…it will give you pleasant travelling, fine sights at every corner and a gentle ease of peregrination that will persuade you that you are walking forever on falling ground.” I am sure you can see the converse: “…if you go east on a road that is on its way west, you will marvel at the unfailing bleakness of every prospect and the great number of sore-footed inclines…”
De Selby also wrote of urban walking, of “a complicated city with nets of crooked streets and five hundred other roads leaving it for unknown destinations.” Needless to say, “a friendly road” “will always be discernible for its own self and will lead you safely out of the tangled town.” Thus, I think we can say that we do not need Google Earth or even an OS map to guide us both into Stroud and out towards the Heavens or Rodborough Fields or the Slad Valley. Instead, we might carry a copy of Colin Ward’s “Talking Green”, stopping to look at paragraph two on age 44: “Cherished corners of the landscape can be changed beyond recognition in a few hours. Trees, streams, footpaths, buildings, symbols of permanence which transcend ownership, may suddenly disappear.”
Just as the price of liberty might be eternal vigilance, so might be the price of the right road.

A Solitary Ramble Round Stroud

I remember studying Charles Lamb’s “Essays of Elia” and William Hazlitt’s essays for A Level; I loved them all, but especially Hazlitt’s piece on walking. It struck a chord back then and just the other day, as well: “One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to do it myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company for me. I am then never less alone than when alone…” So, “dear readers”, as Mr. Lamb used to write, here follows an essay on the joys of a solitary ramble around Stroud. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy walking and thinking at two and a half miles an hour with friends and family, but sometimes it’s a joy to do it like Greta Garbo, but with the script of Hazlitt.
So let’s hear from the man himself again, for one last time: “Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet…Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence”.
With this in mind and a welcome day off, I walked down Rodborough Hill and into town. It was a Tuesday, but memories of the 1831Captain Swing Riots passed through my mind: “No work today, boys, it’s Rising Monday!” The pre-industrial tradition of Saint Monday floated around my head too, when handloom weavers and so on would take the day off if they fancied it; a pastime destroyed by the tyranny of the factory clock and hooter. But hey ho, in these days of the post-industrial service economy, I had Tuesday off and was free. A walk beckoned, but first I had to deal with William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”, or rather what we today call, a list of things to do.
Now there’s another way to look at lists rather than through the Blakean trope, and that’s the Sergeant Pepper Day in a Life style: a sort of stream of consciousness Zen type thing, but with a periodic break with pen and paper to maintain a list of musings, events and reflections – the sort of thing that can be done only on one’s own. And having serendipitously read Katie Kitamura’s thesis the weekend before in the Guardian, as to why lists are a raging against the dying of the light: “…as long as we’re making lists…we’re keeping faith with some idea of perpetuity”, what chance did I stand?
Whatever. Off we jolly well go. I walked down the Slad Road, past the tumbling stream, an old mill or two, Uplands Post Office at Springfield House, and then turned right into Libby’s Drive. I bumped into Tony, who suggested I call in to see his wares at “Trainspotters”, but couldn’t find the right warehouse, so hearing the sound of saw and hammer, wandered into an old mill for directions. “No speak English,” said the carpenter, but I managed to locate Tony’s bazaar (“I am setting up a series of Love Walks, some of your group might want to join us…walks for single people”) before turning up a lovely old footpath, past the evocatively named “Dyer’s Mead”.
This footpath felt venerable and worthy of veneration: telegram boys in the Great War; cloth mill workers; handloom weavers; medieval peasants; stone age itinerants – who knows in whose footsteps I trod that day, on that worn down, polished-stone pathway. But the crumbling dry stone walls, all dripping with moss, did not prepare me for the shock of the signpost, with news of the threatened development of Baxter’s Field, just down below Summer Street.
Oh Cider. Oh Rosie. O tempora. O mores.
I walked a few metres along Summer Street, before finding the footpaths that took me up to Bisley Old Road, turnpiked Bisley Road and thence Stroud Cemetery. These secluded footpath-thoroughfares are a treasure: Troy Town wooded nooks and crannies, rus in urbe brick and stone, chickens and woodland. They lead past streets with names like Belmont Road and Mount Pleasant, past whistling builders playing out the Ford Madox Ford painting of “Work”. This walk to top of the town Stroud in February sunshine, with its Five Valley cyclorama and River Severn panorama, has that unique and distinctive charm of the mill town in the Cotswolds vibe that makes Stroud Stroud.
I walked through the Cemetery, past the unnamed pauper burial area, past Great War gravestones, past crocuses and snowdrops, down through the gate and left towards Horns Farm. Here the walk takes you right, into the woods, past an old quarry and where, on this cloudless late February morning, wild garlic was just beginning to show. I sat down on a wall eating a cheese and onion sandwich, the ground dry as a bone above the spring line, but below, one could hear the characteristically talkative Five Valley trickle.
The walk then takes you up the hill and into shadow, and on this late winter day, across the frost’s Plimsoll Line, and into the land of frozen water. The arc of this walk then takes you back towards Stroud; glance to your right and hold the old workhouse in your thoughts, as you take in the beauty of the landscape. When the Poor Law Amendment Act was brought in in 1834, the driving force was to make conditions inside the workhouses worse than the worst paid job outside, and to prevent poor relief occurring outside the workhouses. Think of that as you enjoy the wide sweep of the expansive view; workhouses were often designed to prevent inmates having any view of the outside world at all, in the attempt to criminalise and punish poverty.
The mind can turn in on itself when it has no window on the world, but when out walking, the mind can wander creatively, therapeutically and laterally – when you don’t have to continually look at directions, instructions or a map: the “skull cinema”, as John Hillaby once put it. This Zen-like mindfulness and absence of adult cares are some of the joys of solitary walking; I’d reached Claypits Lane without realising it: another wonderful name derived from the fundamentals of the landscape.
I turned around to see a pale moon rising above the equally appropriately named “The Heavens”, before dropping down the hill to reach the main road and the “Shop’N Drive”. It all started to go wrong here: garages and cars and a text from my daughter saying she needed to borrow money; but a glance up towards Butterow and a sight of the Primitive Methodist Chapel and nearby toll house sent the mind off again, away from the petty mundane material concerns of the here and now. Farewell mind –forg’d manacles and hello Hazlitt.
I reflected on the significance and meaning of it all as I walked the canal towpath. What could be the synopsis of the wonders of this day’s solitary walking? What Twitter style summary could I write about all the variegated events, thoughts, events, observations and reflections involved in this individual ramble?
You Never Walk Alone.