A HEALTHY YOMP FROM CUCKLAND VIPERS FARM TO MOGFORD SHALLOWS AND BEYOND (11.7 miles)
It is a day for walking on the margins, a time to avoid the centre of everything scrupulously. Your route takes you down a sunken path where the assorted rubble underfoot feels as untrustworthy as a plumber’s diary. You turn left down a farm track and arrive at a barn and look up at a window in the barn which has thick vertical wooden bars which put you in mind of an old prison. A farmer arrives, tells you not to look at it, and asks you what you are doing. You reply that you are here to research your novel, which is about evil farmers. He invites you in for some soup. Soon you realise you are living at the farm. It is hoped that one day you will marry Beth, the farmer’s daughter, although you are yet to meet her. All the farm’s four fields have names: there is Thistle Field, Volatile Old Hag Field, Peter Field, Gentle Field and Brian Field. The farmer tells you he was planning to have more fields but was worried he would forget what they were called. At the rear of Peter Field, which is named after an uncle who once had a panic attack there, you hop a fence, because it seems more interesting than merely jumping it, and head down and then up a gully. Through the gaps in the hedgerows you see rusting farm machinery watching you like sad old robots staring through the windows of a disco.
The path eventually leads you to Mogford Shallows, a village where no-longer-new high-specification houses overlook a steep valley spotted with apologetic bungalows. The houses range from two to four beds, with gardens of varying arrogance, each boasting herringbone oak flooring, integral hydraulic seating and appliances plus a conversation pit for weekend entertaining, and were built with highly successful individuals in mind. Since they were first marketed, in 1974, the houses have remained empty, owing to the fact that people in the region distrust success. Outside one of the bungalows in the valley you see a sign next to a pile of shredded wood, advertising ‘Free Chippings’. You quickly cram seven chippings into your pocket but a man emerges from behind a hedge and informs you that there is a strict limit of six chippings per person. For the next hour, you haggle with the man. By the time you have finished your business with him, you are in possession of eleven chippings, his 2005 Ford Focus estate, a blu-ray player and have a date arranged with his daughter for next week. He tells you his name is Brian Field. “You mean the Brian Field who Brian Field is named after?” “No,” he tells you, adding that he’s just a guy who happens to be called Brian Field, that a lot of people make this mistake, and it has now become annoying. He picks the bulb of a young shallot from his allotment and throws it at your back as you leave.
Chainsaws ring out as you climb the opposite side of the valley. You wonder why this should be then realise it is because they are a special kind of chainsaw, with bells attached to them. You are heading towards the moor now. You can tell from all the moss, the sudden drop in temperature and the skulls on plinths. You stop to consult your map. Seeing you doing so, a stranger asks if you are lost. “No, I have a map,” you reply. “Can you not see it here, in my fucking hands?” In a meadow further on you see Beth, the farmer’s daughter. Something makes you instinctively know it’s her, even though you are yet to meet. Perhaps it is your strong, almost mystical sense for people and the places they belong, or maybe it is the embroidered badge on her coat that says “BETH”. You say hello, although you are hesitant to interrupt as she is busy kissing a Victorian fireplace she has found abandoned in the meadow. “I suppose it is bad luck for us to see each other before our wedding day,” she says. “But that’s ok. I’m very enthusiastic about bad luck. I wrote a dissertation on it.” She asks you how how are settling in at the farm and tells you that the room you are staying in actually used to be hers. “I am sorry about all the bellows and pokers in there,” she says. She tells you that you were right in suspecting that the barn at the farm was a prison, since that is what it has been used as since the 1950s, when it first opened. The original and sole inmate, a jazz musician who was arrested and tried for being too experimental, still resides there. During his incarceration he has honed his craft considerably, expanding into folk, classical and rock, and writing a double concept album about Napoleon. All this music remains unheard, except by the jazz musician himself, and in distant fragments by Beth and her parents and various underpaid farm labourers. “But that’s ok,” says Beth. “It’s the creative process itself which is most important to him.” You and Beth walk hand in hand through a field of murdered plants. Your progress is slow, due to Beth still dragging the fireplace behind her. Above you, a waxing gibbous moon looms huge in the sky, which strikes you as odd, since it is lunchtime. “It could never work between us, though, long term, I don’t think,” Beth tells you. “You are too easy to talk to and I find people with long arms unnerving.” You walk on, past the ruins of lime kilns where dozing wild cattle are whispering to one another in their surprisingly multicultural dreams. Rain comes in from the west, then from the east, north and south. Your walk ends.
REFLECTIVE WOODLAND STROLL (6.5 miles)
Today you walk at the northern extremity of the woods, where the trees never forget to put on their thermal underwear. As you climb into the forgotten forest, the path is redder than usual, as if peat has mixed with the entrails of a thousand men. You pass an old cow trough and brittle furred sticks that crumble underfoot. Deep in the trees there is a converted building they call Maureen’s Barn. The barn has no electricity and running water and nobody called Maureen anywhere within 27 miles of it. It is said that a family bought it some time late last century then comprehensively failed to live there. Once, when you were bored, you walked up to the barn and broke in then played Scrabble in the living room, against yourself. You won by 18 points, with your record score of all time, but there was nobody there to see it, apart from the other you, who you defeated and who soon became bitter and withdrawn. Today you press on past the building, ignoring it, feeling you are done with it, that it is emblematic of someone you no longer are. Deeper into the woods, the mist returns heavier, like the steam in your step-father’s bathroom. You return to the bathroom in your mind and look for your reflection in the mirror but you can no longer see yourself. You remember the room well, the way your step-father decorated it, his obsession with unicorns coming irrepressibly to the fore. Each tile featured the same four unicorns huddled in a circle, as if plotting. There was a bigger unicorn on the toilet seat. The taps were horns. He promised you the horns weren’t real, even though you once saw a maggot crawling out of a fissure in one of them. Your mother listened patiently in the living room as he repeated his suspicions and theories, such as his strong belief that horses were living half of their true life. He was a hard man, relentlessly critical. “Act your age, not your shoe size,” he told you, which seemed particularly unfair, as you were five years-old at the time, and wore a nine and a half.
On the lower ground, as the mist clears, you begin to see the corners of sheds and bothies and shacks poke out of it: forgotten, neglected buildings, redolent of smoke and minor apocalypse. From a leaning metal building shaped like a pepper pot, a man emerges, dressed in clothes that give mystery to his body shape. He introduces himself. Something you can’t place immediately seems wrong about him. His XX Large ‘Simple Minds 1992 Glittering Prize Tour’ T-Shirt but something else, too. He says he is a struggling antique dealer who has travelled here through an industrial time portal from 30 years in the past to receive insights about the surprising objects people now find valuable. “Is this one of them?” he says, handing you an undistinguished white tea cup. “Please tell me the truth.” You reach a house with large ornamental metal gates and pretend it is where you live and tell him you have to go now, giving him directions to the nearest auction room. But the house is not yours, so instead you pass through the gates and decide to hide in the garden until the sound of the antique dealer’s footsteps has disappeared. Surprisingly, the damp ground comforts you and, tired, you decide it is a natural place to conclude your walk and sleep for a while.
SPRINGTIME CREEKSIDE HIKE TO LONGDOGS LANE VIA A PRIVATE DENTIST (4 miles)
It is low tide as you stroll along the creek, wild geese burst into tears overhead and ancient bone dice litter the foreshore. You feel good, although your arms ache and you regret your decision to bring the large painting you have purchased earlier in the day from a junk shop. The painting, which shows an upset Welsh Woman in a window and is titled ‘Upset Welsh Woman In A Window’, has a heavy Victorian frame, but from the moment you acquired it you had felt an immense desire to show it off to strangers and upon leaving the car to embark on your walk vanity got the better of you, as it so often does. After a mile, during which you have passed only three strangers, two of whom didn’t like the painting and one of whom didn’t express an opion due to being a dog, the foliage around the creek thickens and you decide to hide the painting in some bracken and return for it the next time a Saturday is nice. As you frantically sweep loose sticks and leaves over it with your hands, a man in a long coat arrives – American, it would appear – and asks you what in God’s name you think you are doing. You tell him the truth. He seems to accept the explanation and you walk side by side for a while, which is difficult, due to the brambles and curious badgers that flank you. He explains that he is a private detective, down from the big city. He seems pleasant on the whole, but as time goes on his occasional habit of interrupting your observations about wildflowers and birds with statements like “Hey, buddy, quit the gutter talk” and “Listen, slob, there’s some big people in this town who ain’t very happy ‘bout the games you been playin’” starts to grate on your nerves. You make your excuses at a fork in the path but when he takes the fork too and begins to eat a can of spaghetti and meatballs with it you make additional excuses and revert to your original route. It takes you to a metalled road which leads to an isolated dentist’s surgery. It is a nice day so the windows have been thrown open and birdsong harmonises with the dentist’s instructions to his assistant during an examination:
“Upper left 11. Partially exploded. Ceramic overlays need cherishing.”
“Upper right 4. Composite amalgam. Jazz funk meets country swing, actually quite electro in places.”
“Lower right 9. Coated in lichen and mango pickle from September last year.”
“Upper right 94. Initial preparatory bridge. Built solely for ponies. Courier vans usually can’t get over it.”
“Lower right 4. Looks like an upside down pair of knees.”
“Upper right 2. Never seen anything so beautiful in my life.”
“Diagonal 14. I like your spotted dress. Possible extraction. Ruptured enamel fuckpig.”
“Upper left 76. Absolute piece of shit. Throw it away next time you are getting rid of some old coats and shoes.”
As you sit outside the surgery, you think what a great and perfect time spring is to get your mouth in shape. People can let their teeth decay all they want in winter but they do not want bad teeth in spring. They’d be letting down the scenery, for a start: all those smart outfits, all those reds and pinks and greens and whites and blues. The hedgerows are a riot of growth right now and the foragers are out in force, biting into all manner of vegetation with their revitalised, refurbished teeth. The wild garlic is past its best but there is no shortage of edible plant life to replace it – endless fresh bracken and gorse and wood to bite into it. “Isn’t it just marvellous to be alive, at this time of year?” you think, but, as you do, a supercar driven by the head dentist from the surgery speeds past and clips one of your arms, fracturing it in several places. But you have been trying to be more of a “glass is half full” person recently and you reason to yourself that, of the two, it was probably the one you used less frequently. Besides, it is still a very beautiful day. You turn, strangely revitalised by your misfortune, into Longdogs Lane. A man watering his oak leaf hydrangeas in the raised garden of a terrible cottage hydrates your hair, passing it off unconvincingly as a mistake. You apologise for being in his way and ask him if he knows why Longdogs Lane is called Longdogs Lane. He says it’s because there were once some dogs on the lane who were quite long. You are nearing the end of the walk now and notice a car in the distance with the engine running and the keys in the ignition, then realise it is your car, which is strange because you left it several miles away. As you get in, warming your bottom on the heated driver’s seat, you think to yourself about hope and the yo-yoing balance of good and evil and the way that it is often at the times when everything seems most desperate that the kindness of strangers will come out of nowhere and restore your faith in everything.
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